For years I have been listening to, and subsequently thinking about, questions such as, “What does the sound of a crow – caw, caw, caw – mean?” For the most part I have found that these questions come from people who are not Indigenous to Turtle Island. I have always found these questions perplexing. Unfortunately, my response is conceptually tough; regardless I will give it my best shot here.
The fundamental difference between humans and other animals is our dependency on cultural teachings and the deep meaning inherent. As an example, other animals, as is the case with trees and water, simply do what they do. Humans cannot; we need cultural teachings, and the meaning inherent, to guide us toward the good life. Given this, one has to ask, “Where and how do humans achieve these cultural teachings and the deep meaning that is inherent?”
All human knowledge and inherent meaning is constructed and passed on through cultural teachings. The knowledge and meaning serve to help us understand our location within the broader cosmos of the universe, as well as give us guidance and direction in moving forward. These cultural teachings are passed on to us from our ancestors.
Contrary to what many people may think, all ethnic groups had and continue to have a rich tradition of cultural teachings that serve them in living the good life. The Indigenous people of Turtle Island do not have the monopoly on cultural teachings and meaning. Please don’t make this mistake of thinking we do. As a matter of fact, knowledgeable Elders suggest that all people’s cultural teachings must be respected. This is what is meant when Anishinaabe Elders offer, “All Creation stories are true”. Quite simply, without cultural teachings and meaning humans are disenfranchised and lost in a world of chaos and disorder. It is Clifford Geertz’s argument that without culture, humans are nothing more than “mental basket cases” (The Interpretation of Cultures 1973, 40). This is a profound statement of how much humans are dependent on culture and the cultural meaning.
Conceptually speaking, it is best to think of our collective cultural teachings as analogous to a “cultural meaning field” that we exist within, and that serve us as we move around the world. Just as there are many Indigenous or ethnic groups, there are many cultural meaning fields. Interestingly, cultural meaning fields are not rigidly defined, but rather are open to change through acts of borrowing and sharing from other ethnic groups, as well as through the ebb and flow of our larger ecosystems within the greater cosmos. In this way it is best to think of cultural teachings and meaning as consisting of a fluid body of knowledge rather than a body of knowledge that is static and frozen in a particular place at a particular time.
While today some people’s cultural traditions may be laden with meaningless materialism and refuse production, we all are born into a rich cultural history and tradition. Before industrialization and capitalism swept over the earth, all people held a cultural meaning field that they were proud of and that guided them forward. People need to return to this place of being. Anishinaabe spiritual leader Jim Dumont has suggested, “Go back to your own Indigenous knowledge,” be it Russian, Irish, Danube Swabian, Haudenosaunee, or Anishinaabe (personal communication). Furthermore, as Grandfather William Commanda said, “We all need to learn our own teachings the Creator gave us,” as this is where you will find your cultural teachings that will lead to a good life (personal communication).
That said, people who do not go back to their own cultural teachings and meaning, and who continually impinge on the culture of the people of Turtle Island, do great harm. While indeed cultural meaning is fluid and open to change, the pressure to provide meaning for too many people outside of our cultural tradition causes our cultural meaning to wear away and therefore become meaningless. There is a limit to what a culture can sustain in terms of remaining meaningful to the Indigenous members of a group.
It is for this reason that my only response to, “What does it mean?” can and will always be, “What does it mean to you?” This is my way of suggesting people need to return to their own cultural knowledge and the meaning inherent.
Schultz, Emily A. and Robert H. Lavenda (eds). Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition. 4th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1998.
Lynn Gehl is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process, and she recently published a book titled Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.
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