Last night I went out with my friend Laurel, who’s been my best friend since daycare. She’s Saulteaux, which because of geographical proximity is pretty close to Cree. We were talking about the current problems in the aboriginal communities, like the fact that we treat our children really horribly when before colonialism they were afforded the same respect and reverence as elders. But then European thought was imposed on our cultures, and children were treated terribly of course, they weren’t even considered persons of value until they reached adult hood. And so we have learned that from Europe, to disregard children and abuse them in all the ways that they can be abused. Not everyone, but child abuse is epidemic in our communities today. Dickens had the Blacking Factory and too many aboriginal children are working the streets.
But I was extending it to something else. In Cree culture, and many other aboriginal cultures, people with disabilities were also honoured. I know people, usually white people, try to say that we would have just left them on an ice floe or in the bush to die, I don’t know about other tribes but Crees did not do that. If someone like my sister was born they would be a good omen for the community because they were seen as being spiritually advanced. The parents lucky enough to have such a child would also be honoured. People like me were recognized for having abilities to speak to spirits and see the future, and would have been trained to control their mind powers (not stifle, just be more in control).
This idea is starting to be lost in our communities since European values have been imposed on us. Disabled people are said to be a “white thing,” like we never showed up in aboriginal communities before contact. They try to say the same thing about gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people too. But we’ve all been showing up in our communities here forever. I should also note that it would never be just the immediate family who would act as caregivers to disabled people, the whole community would be involved in looking after that person. My sister would have been able to wander around the camp and everyone would keep an eye out to make sure she was safe.
It is strange to read things about people with disabilities that violates the values I was brought up with. Like when the Ashley X thing happened and some comments on various blogs were to the effect of her life being worthless because she can’t work or think in specific ways. That is such a European concept to me, and horrifying. How can someone’s life be considered worthless just because they can’t work? Ugh, so disgusting.
And I think about myself too, and my times of extreme poverty and starvation, and I wonder why that was allowed to happen, why I have to earn things like food and shelter, why anybody has to earn those things, when as a community we should just be ensuring everyone is being taken care of. I hate when I hear people tell panhandlers to get a job, like it’s such an easy thing. Or to get a house. People don’t think about what is involved in that, you need an address and phone to get jobs, you need references to get housing, you need money to get housing, and often you have to put down a damage deposit when you first move which can almost double your rent for that month. Sometimes you have to pay first and last months rent. And shelters and housing for street people often comes with conditions, like not being allowed to drink beer in your apartment because it’s a sober living arrangement. I know alcoholism sucks, but not all street people are alcoholics, and it’s not always a good idea to stop drinking. Take someone who has incest flashbacks that create suicidal episodes who’s drinking to forget. Yes, it’s a problematic thing to drink, but is someone going to be there looking after them when they start having those flashbacks? Some shelters require you take part in religious services, some require you meet with a psychiatrist and start taking medication. These aren’t conditions that will improve these peoples lives, these are just situations where poor people are being blackmailed.
I remember when I was in the hospital I got in there during a severe cold snap, so all the homeless people had been rounded up and sent to the psych wards. They weren’t really crazy, most of them, not more so than anyone else who’d been streeting it for a while. But it was a chance for them to get housing and three meals a day, so that people could think it was a good thing. They weren’t freezing to death, but on the other hand they were being exploited to prescribe heavy antipsychotics which were paid for by Quebec Healthcare.
My cultural values are so different from mainstream Canada’s. Take the concept of wealth. In white culture, wealth is demonstrated by how much you own. In Cree culture, wealth is demonstrated by how much you can give away. We still have give aways, ceremonies where a family will collect things like blankets and dishes and toys and so forth, and invite people and give it all away to them. In contemporary life, if we come into more money than usual, no matter how little we may have, it’s common practice to share it amongst friends. I’ve had periods of extended poverty where I suddenly get an artist fee windfall and take some friends out to dinner. Things like that. It means we can get taken advantage of by unscrupulous people, but it’s also just a nice thing to do.
So I am very interested in reviving some of these values which I don’t want to see us lose because of colonialism. Children should be served food at the same time as elders again. Disabled people should be respected members of the community. And we need to find a better way of distributing wealth.