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Odaaminowaabiikoons

For this year’s winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network is broadcasting live events in Cree, Mohawk, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway, Dene, Inuktitut, Michif and Oji-Cree. It’s a remarkable and ambitious initiative that’s had lots of people across the country tuning in. I watched tonight’s gold medal curling match between Canada and Norway in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibway) and it was sort of like coming home. My native language skills aren’t the greatest (I understand it way better than I speak it) but it was pretty fun to follow along to a sport that I’ve always been pretty complacent about. But more importantly, hearing Anishinaabemowin spoken on such a grand scale fostered a great sense of pride in me that’s no doubt resonating even more with our elders in communities right across Canada.

There’s an ominous statistic that keeps getting kicked around whenever the topic of Aboriginal languages comes up: of the 55 native languages spoken in Canada, only three – Ojibway, Cree, and Inuktitut – are expected to survive into the 22nd Century. Linguists, anthropologists, and Aboriginal leaders and elders argue about how legit this speculation is. Regardless, a lot of languages are hanging by a thread and it’s really up to us to make sure they survive. Hearing them broadcast during the biggest sporting event in the world will go a long way in keeping that pride and ambition alive.

That pride was scrubbed from a lot of our elders a long time ago. Generations before us were beaten for speaking their language. Canada established residential schools to make sure these languages were killed. Even people who didn’t have to endure that nightmare were shamed to forget the words they grew up speaking – their closest tie to their heritage. In my family, my grandmother and her siblings grew up speaking primarily Anishinaabemowin. My dad and his siblings grew up speaking both that and English. My brothers and I grew up speaking primarily English, with a few traditional words and phrases peppered throughout our conversations. In just a few generations, Anishinaabemowin could have completely disappeared from our family and our community.

But over the last 20 years there’s been a linguistic revival in communities across the country. And this new Olympic initiative should be a rallying cry to make sure the languages don’t die. I can’t imagine what it’s like for our elders to be witnessing these games in their traditional tongues. It’s almost like a total vindication of who they are and why they’ve never forgotten those timeless words at the core of their spirits. They’ll never have to be ashamed of what they say – or who they are – anymore. Now it’s up to us to make sure these words never die.

For a translation of the title of this blog post, visit Anishinaabemowin and follow @Anishinabemowin on Twitter.

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Indian is the new Black

Working at Canada’s public broadcaster has allowed me lots of pretty cool opportunities, and one of them is to collaborate on a summer radio show called ReVision Quest. When it launched in 2008, its original concept was to bust myths about contemporary life in Aboriginal Canada, and today it focuses more on the day-to-day issues we face. There’s a great crew of really talented Aboriginal journalists behind it, and it’s hosted by the always hilarious Darrell Dennis. We’re always looking at different things to cover, and last week my fellow producer Ruth pointed us to YouTube for material. It’s a gold mine.

Mainstream popular culture has always had an odd infatuation with “Indians”, even though that’s never really carried over to real life. It’s more of an obsession with the imagery rather than some of the wholesome ideals all of our cultures are based on. Take the following Cher video, for example:

Granted, Cher claims to in fact be a half-breed (half “Cherokee”, as many of them say). But this must have been early on in her own personal cultural renaissance. The video opens with a totem pole, and then cuts to Cher in a Lakota-like headdress and getup – two things that have nothing to do with each other. Pure exploitation of the image. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. I’ve belted it out more than once at karaoke bars (I’m a half-breed myself). But Cher wasn’t doing any of her native brothers and sisters any favours with this video. For me, the real star is the totally stoic horse, who’s obviously totally gooned on PCP.

Then there’s this gem from Loretta Lynn called “Your Squaw is on the Warpath”

I’ve always been a big fan of Loretta Lynn for blazing a trail for female musicians. And this song is kinda awesome, if you follow the narrative in the lyrics. You can easily argue she’s simply using Indian metaphors for the plight of a frustrated woman. But I can’t excuse the use of the word “squaw”. It’s one of the most offensive terms out there referring to Aboriginal women. I have trouble even saying it. Apparently she’s also part “Cherokee”, which is her supposed license to sing such a song.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find any Cherokees in this crowd…

Shifting from pop music to sports, baseball fans will be familiar with this. It’s the “Tomahawk Chop”, insensitively popularized by Atlanta Braves fans in the early 1990s. This dumbfounded me as a 12 year old, and it blows my mind even today. I made a more comprehensive commentary (see “Indians Finally Win One!) a few years ago on Native American imagery in pro sports (originally an article turned down by VICE Magazine), so I won’t go more into this now. But the chop is alive and well, proving white suburbanites in Georgia still want to be Indian. Scalp those Pittsburgh Pirates!

Such examples are varied and far-reaching, so a post like this could go on and on. But fear not, we’re slowly taking over the mainstream media and we’ll do our best to eradicate exploitation! Cue the pow-wow intro music…

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