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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4/10/2013 11:18:51 am
Good insights and well presented. If you have more thoughts along this line I would like to read them; I sensed you just stopped because you had completed part of something. You are showing me new ways to think about culture. Chi Miigwech.
4/10/2013 12:29:15 pm
5/16/2013 12:53:52 am
I do have a lot to say about culture and its role in shaping the human condition. Here is another blog that me be useful:
4/15/2013 03:44:07 am
Hi, I really liked this article. I'm saying this, not to disagree but to ask your opinion about some of the nuanced ways that this plays out. I'm of very mixed European ancestry, from countries that have very different earth based practices from each other, I'm also partly Jewish. I was raised with some Jewish culture and no other cultural traditions, I've never had the means to go to any countries that my ancestors are from and my Jewish relatives died in the holocaust. I am in no way claiming entitlement to other people's spirituality by saying this. I have my own spirituality that is not cultural but it has many vast aching holes that come from a lack of cultural identification.
5/16/2013 01:01:01 am
Kwey Naali, I think people need to remain close to their own Indigenous knowledge. This does not mean that the IK of other nations may not be found to be useful and meaningful. Their core, though, must be who they are. As for your questions about ancestors - I think they are where you are and not always attached to their land. I hope this is useful and clear. Lynn
5/24/2013 11:11:26 pm
Hi Lynn - and Naali -
5/26/2013 12:41:01 pm
This is so great. Thanks.
5/26/2013 02:05:30 pm
Yes! Where and how ever possible people should connect with the cultural traditions of their ancestors. Part of our modern challenge in the Americas is to even know what that culture was and what those traditions were. So many of us come from a mixture of heritages, and the modern creation of "white" and "black" cultures are disconnected from connection with the earth where we live. Just as people abused sexually as children can become sexual predators, the "white" connection to the land was taken, then the "whites" took connection from others along with many other things. I teach in prison. Many of my students have been convicted of sex crimes. Statistics predict that those offenders will commit those crimes again. I see "white" culture trying to appropriate others' cultures as a new form of predation.
1/4/2015 09:05:23 am
Approaching and living out personal recovery issues, took me to a place inside of absolute confusion. I'm White-European Ancestry from many European Nations. My Canadian Heritage is Cree/English. In recovery I chipped away at what this means, in terms of Canadian History. I find myself still confused: emotionally and spiritually. I'd chosen to celebrate my heritage as a Metis person. This is helping in terms of personal identity. However, reading your work more closely. I'm starting to wonder how 'borrowed' the Metis Culture is, for those of us of English descent? In terms of Canadian History, I simply wish to learn the truth: I wish to acknowledge the truth of Colonialism. I grew so angry as I became ill (First-Responder-PTSD). My ancestry, became for me one of the issues that justified some of the anger. I'm finding it difficult, being in the middle (so-to-speak) of the truth of Canadian History. I want desperately, to celebrate (personally) both European and Cree Culture. As well, I wish to celebrate the Metis Culture. It seems, in the Metis Community that I'm now part of, that we're 'stuck' with needing to borrow French/First Nations, cultural information to help us with identity. I know nothing of Cree Culture. I'm dabbling to learn, but am still wandering in the dark. I'm very disappointed in my English roots. I wanted to share this with you. I'm enjoying taking in your point-of-view, and am learning about some issues, I realized now, I haven't thought through enough. I remain angry at my English Grandfather: Somewhat angry at my Mixed-Blood Grandmother for choosing the side of White Society. It's a rugged, personal reconciliation process going on still inside of me. One the often feels as though it is mirroring the Truth and Reconciliation we are facing now as a whole in Canadian Society. It's painful. Thank you, for your words. I'm happy to find your writing and page. Be Well. DMG
1/4/2015 09:36:50 am
Kwey DMG, I hear you and thank you for sharing. I think you will like my article under "Academic Publications" titled Disenfranchised Grief. And this blog: http://www.lynngehl.com/black-face-blogging/2 on the intelligence of the heart. In addition, I think you may find my recent book titled: The Truth that Wampum Tells.. useful as is my story about identity and my struggle with understanding what colonization has done. You can find the needed links here on my website. Lynn (let me know)
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