Native in Niagara

I have been asked by the editor of a local magazine to prepare an essay “that deals with the issues of being Native in Niagara, or of growing up Native in this region.” It took me a good deal of time to arrive at a response to these topics, and even in retrospect I’m unsure whether or not the response is a good one. By good I mean only worth the time and trouble of the reader. I do not mean ‘a good representation of Being Native,’ whatever that is. What follows is a candid attempt to respond to a direct request.

Experience has taught me that to be Native is to be asked a good deal about being Native. I’ve noticed the same is true of other human curiosities; civilians want to know what it’s like to fight in a war, and the non-autistic are fascinated by autism. I’ve wondered how my life would have differed so far had I lived it as a woman, though I don’t recall ever seeking out women for comment. I suspect the question would baffle them. Where does one begin her answer to the question, What is it like to be a woman? Doubtless with the observation People ask the darndest questions.

And yet surely it matters whether one is a woman, a soldier, or a Native. There are answers even to the darndest questions. If you’ve heard of sexism, violence, and racism you won’t be surprised by the replies. Or perhaps you will, because women are not exclusively defined by the category Woman, soldiers are not merely soldiers, and Native people are not reducible to the term Native. Although this observation may sound like so much nit-picking, it isn’t. Native people are always asked to account for themselves as Natives, despite the fact that their lives are not lived necessarily and only under that rubric. You may ask, What is it like to be poor, or rich? What is it like to be a single mother, or an adopted son? What is it like to grow up middle-class in Niagara? Native people do these things and others every day. It matters that they are Native, but it matters too that they occupy other identities. Native people are subject to the same intersecting conditions of class, geography, history, gender, etc. as everyone else. Native women, for example, have more in common with non-Native women than with Native men when it comes to their experiences in the workplace. This is but one example of the nuanced character of human identity, and there are many more. Native people contend with the same social and cultural conditions with which non-Natives contend. Such is Native life, in Niagara and elsewhere.

There is a paradox at the heart of the fascination with Native life, of which I suspect every Native person is well aware. Native people grow up in a media culture obsessed with Otherness yet stubbornly ethnocentric. When Native actors appear on TV, for instance, they usually do so as The Indian. ‘Ordinary’ Native lives are ordinarily invisible around Niagara, but The Indians are all over the place. Natives are studied to death by Royal Commissions and assiduously kept (as much as possible) beyond public consciousness. Every minute detail about reserve life is unearthed and catalogued, and few non-Aboriginal people ever step foot on a reserve. Why should they? Everything is known about Indians, isn’t it. By age 5, a child can draw a picture or tell a story about them. The reports and studies and autobiographies of Native people abound, and yet so do the crude assumptions of the 5-year-old. Complex information about Native people which doesn’t accord to the simple stereotypes tends not to stick. As a result, Native people themselves cast an ironic glance upon the media hunger for ‘Native issues.’

It may be that what I’ve described so far is the stuff of which Native issues are made. But as I see the matter, the local Native concerns are as follows: education, employment, and social programs. Those who live on the reserve (putting aside the fact that the Six Nations reserve isn’t quite in Niagara) may concern themselves also with local economic development. They would like to have, and most do have, a reasonable measure of control over their circumstances. As for the many Native people who do not and perhaps have never lived on a reserve, their concerns are again familiar ones: jobs, money, health, quality of life. Concerns over the preservation of indigenous traditions pose an especial, but by no means insurmountable, challenge. Furthermore, it’s a fact of Native lives that some Native people are less interested in traditional ways than are others. Some are uninterested altogether. Beyond these statements, generalization about Native life in Niagara is a difficult affair. Nor does a consideration of the issues help much, for reasons I shall now consider.

Think about the phrase ‘Native issues’ for a moment. What does it convey to you? For many Canadians, it means above all else militarism and road blocks. A road block of course is an obstacle; it serves no active purpose and merely hinders progress. As such it is the perfect symbol of futile and obstinate resistance, which is how the Indian has historically been regarded by officialdom. The Oka occupation fascinated the media because it conformed so well to their conventions. It is doubtful whether much attention would have been given to the Mohawks’ concerns otherwise.

Furthermore, the political context for any future discussion of Native issues will likely be hostile. Constrained by a manufactured scarcity of public resources, public discourse has become a nasty affair. Its principal theme appears to be Who Should Get What, or rather, more to the point, Who Shouldn’t. I imagine that soon we’ll hear a good deal about Native people as a special interest group. Perhaps you regard them this way already. And yet if I am correct in what I’ve said thus far, it is not the ‘interests’ of Native people which are special but rather their legal-historical relation to the Canadian state. The current orthodoxy, articulated by Mr Harris and others in the Calgary Declaration, has got matters backward. The result is that citizens have been pitted one against another over their ‘special interests.’ In the case of Native peoples how could it be otherwise? They are still portrayed as a species apart, as a people defined by a peculiar set of ‘issues.’

I believe that a complex, difficultly-digested statement about Native life in Niagara is the only kind worth writing or worth reading. I am not saying that the issues ought to be disregarded, but only that they should come with thoughtful qualifications. And so I have tried to complicate things as much as possible in 1,200 words rather than simplify. I do not know which is the more difficult challenge, but I believe complexity is healthier so far as Canada, Niagara, and the representation of Native lives are concerned. [August 1998.]

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