Friday, February 6, 2009

Cultural Capital in a New Millennium

I’ve just returned from visiting a number of our northern communities in Saskatchewan. Each time I get a chance to fly north, it feels like I’m going home. In reality, I feel most comfortable in many of our First Nations communities. Whether it’s a Dene or Cree community, there’s something familiar for me. Maybe part of it is growing up in a northern Alberta Cree community as a child, before moving back to New Brunswick for 13 years, and then eventually moving back into northern Canada as an adult for the next 20 years. Even though that is not the way I live today, because I live in Prince Albert, SK, a city of 40,000; when I am in those remote northern communities, I immediately have that connection to the people and the land. It’s a world of snowmobiles, boats, hunting, fishing, community, language, cultural events, and more. While I am nostalgic for the past, I am also deeply concerned about the present. Something is getting lost. It’s hard to put my finger on it.

However, something I read this week tweaked my interest about culture, anthropologist James Watson said that culture is no longer “a knowledge system inherited from ancestors. Contemporary anthropologists, sociologists, and media specialist treat culture as a set of ideas, attributes, and expectations that is constantly changing as people react to changing circumstances.” This grabbed my attention, because I think we spend a great deal of energy trying to recover the past, when we expend very little energy helping people live for today. We reminisce about the simplicity of living in the old days, when in truth, those were tough days. We had less access to medicine, doctors, medical treatments, just to name a few things that we take for granted today.

In our First Nations world, we talk a lot about reclaiming our culture, but mostly people are talking about retrieving long lost religious beliefs and traditions practiced by our ancestors. Yet, we are neglecting a whole generation of youth, who are developing a whole new set of ideas, attributes and expectations for themselves that has no interest in practicing the old ways of life. They have their own culture emerging that is completely different than ours. Lecturing the youth doesn’t work, they don’t want us telling them what to do. This is a generation of youth that are asking a lot of questions, and sadly very few people are stopping to take the time to listen.

What’s getting lost is the values that many of us were taught growing up about how to respect and care for one another. Growing up we learned about the importance of showing kindness to people in all situations and practice generosity by sharing what little you had, because your character mattered. Our culture is changing and seems to be in flux, but the values or virtues of life don’t need to be lost in the midst of changing ideas. In fact, the change of ideas, attributes, and expectations need to be rooted and directed in those core values and virtues that should not be representative of only our ancestors in the past, but of each of us in the present.

As I sit with many of our First Nations youth and listen to them talk about their lives and problems, so many of them feel lost. But I see so much potential. Just yesterday, I watched a young lady, who graduated from our high school two years ago, demonstrate tremendous ability and aptitude to logically analyze a mechanical malfunction of a school photocopier that three seasoned, veteran teachers laboured over for 30 minutes to no avail. She stepped in and had it figured out in minutes without any training. I couldn’t let that go unnoticed, I had to tell her, that I saw wonderful potential in her technologically and with her grades, she could be an engineer. Her response? “Awesome. How do I do this? Where can I go to get this training?” We need to affirm the youth, and build their confidence in themselves. When we affirm them for who they are as individuals that matter, all the changes going on around them will not steer them, but rather they will steer the changes for positive results for themselves. In fact, a new culture emerges that develops positives ideas of themselves based on attributes and values that recognize the good they have to offer and determines their goals and expectations in life.

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