Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, has made a practice of being a loud and regressive voice on subjects he doesn’t understand and can’t be bothered to learn about. One of those things is Canada’s First Nations. He claims that he can speak for them because he participated in a couple of long ceremonies and was made an honorary member of a tribe, or something like that.
I have some things to say about that. About him and everyone like him who wants to claim a voice in regard to First Nations.
Let me tell you a bit about myself, who I am, and who I am not and cannot speak for.
I grew up on the Stoney Nakoda reserve at Morley, west of Calgary. My parents are from the US, of entirely European descent (there’s talk in my mom’s family that a great-great-grandmother may have been American Indian, but that’s just talk and has nothing to do with heritage).
My parents worked on the reserve, my dad as a writer, photographer, translator, etc. for the tribe, my mom as a teacher in the school. Our family was “adopted” into the tribe—i.e., my father and mother have a Stoney family, brothers, sisters, etc., and Stoney names; my brother and I also have Stoney names. I was born after my family started living there, and so I was given my Stoney name before I was even born. It’s Îpabi Daguskan, Son of Rock or Stonechild.
I spent my childhood on the reserve. We went to I don’t even know how many pow-wows, feasts, and other events. Hundreds of hours. Can’t say how many times I fell asleep to the sound of drumming and singing while my dad talked to everyone. EVERYONE. And in Stoney. (My dad is fluent in Stoney. I regret to say that I am not. I barely know any.)
I rode the school bus with the Stoney kids. I went to school with them right through grade 9 (then went to a different high school for reasons that had more to do with the white kids in my class).
My parents don’t live on the reserve now, they live near it, but they retain their strong bonds to the community.
So. You’d think, given that my exposure to and participation in and welcoming in the Stoney Nakoda First Nation is several orders of magnitude greater than Jordan Peterson’s, I’d feel that I could speak for them or on their behalf or or or.
My parents don’t either.
All the time I was growing up, I could see that their reality, what they were subject to, how the world looked to them, was different from my experience, background, expectations, what I had to face.
I watched the cartoons on Saturday mornings, cartoons I knew the Stoney kids watched too, and in these cartoons, if there were any “Indians” at all, they were villains.
In school I learned from books that focused entirely on my culture and people like me. My mom was very frustrated as a teacher to have to use material that had no cultural meaning to the students. Opaque references.
If I went into Calgary, I was surrounded by my own cultural heritage and people who looked like me and, to the extent possible for a dorky kid who sucked at behaving himself, I could fit in. The Stoneys, in town, were looked at as “those Indians.”
I remember Moses Fox, a kid I rode the school bus with. He really picked on me a lot. Of course, kids are mean, but then you move on and grow up.
Moses didn’t. By the time I had my BFA from the U of Calgary, he was lying under cold earth. Like many other Stoney kids.
I lived my whole childhood on a reserve. My family was welcomed and was part of the reserve culture. I was given a Stoney name. I was carried around in a hand-made moss bag like any baby on the reserve. I have a picture of myself as a little kid in full pow-wow dress. But.
I rode the bus with the Stoney kids. I went to the feasts, the camp meetings and house meetings, sat through innumerable long prayers and testimonials and songs in both Stoney and English. But.
But I did not come from their heritage. And I did not carry around with me what they all carry with them, good and bad. I could move on and move in the world in places that were made for people with my face and background and not theirs.
And so I would never, ever, speak for them. Not ever. I would never, ever lecture a member of Canada’s First Nations on how to be better at being a member of Canada’s First Nations.
I do not say I am Stoney. I’m not. I know them, they are like family, but I am not them.
They and their parents and grandparents and on back were subject to theft and discrimination and suppression by, and for, and enforced by a government of, people like me and my parents and grandparents.
It’s not my job to speak for them. It’s not my job to wallow in otiose guilt either. It’s my job to try to amplify their voices, and to think about what I can do to help fix things for them and their future, and to try to do it.
If I say something about Canada’s First Nations, and a member of Canada’s First Nations says “No, you’re wrong,” I can say one thing: “I’m sorry, please tell me what’s right.” And then pass them the microphone. Which they should have had in the first place.
So. The TL;DR: I have many times more reason to claim to be able to speak for First Nations than Jordan Peterson has. But many times zero is still zero.
I have the authority to say just one thing: Shut up, Jordan.