Had this conversation today with someone – let’s call them S.
Me [talking about indigenous peoples and their rights and Canada and #idlenomore and all kinds of such things]
S [finding it all very interesting, then asking suddenly, in the end]: Have you ever been to Canada?
Me: No, I haven’t. Have you?
S: Yes! I’ve been to Nova Scotia, Halifax [starts explaining where it is and what it looks like on the map]
Me: I happen to know very well where Nova Scotia is. I’m kind of learning the language of Nova Scotia, and around.
S: Really? Oh wow. Yes, they speak a bit differently [starts imitating a strange English accent to illustrate]
Me: No, I’m learning the indigenous language of Nova Scotia.
S: ??? There’s an indigenous language in Nova Scotia?
Two worlds. Two semiospheres. Two completely different background systems.
A year ago, I didn’t know where Nova Scotia was. I did know where the Mi’kmaw people were located on the map, though – more or less. By now I seem to be more familiar with the Mi’kmaw names for places than the other ones. It was a natural choice for me – to learn from the people of the land.
Sometimes I come across a similar semiospheric confusion while talking with people who live in the world of French-speaking geography that I am not very familiar with. The confusions are easily solved by giving the English equivalent of the place name, and I learn, quickly.
In any area with indigenous peoples there’s a yet different reality layer, though – consisting of place names that often make sense, a language, a culture, a relationship with the environment around. It is all so very interesting, unique, rare, and often endangered.
The general public tends to know the layer of the prevalent culture(s), and very often they are not even aware that an alternative exists. Yet it does, and it’s in most cases not dead, decayed, deteriorated and forgotten, but alive, thriving, surviving, and carried by real people in the real world – as real as anybody else.
But the average occidental regards this as a dream world, long gone, dead, buried, and fairytale-ish. It’s so very romantical! To wear feathers on Halloween and remember the lovely natives with a good word on Thanksgiving, but living your whole life not knowing where your neighbours actually come from, or even that they exist, to say nothing of… knowing and understanding what they feel and think, or trying to learn some of their language in return of their having learnt yours. There are so many little things, being “the least” we could do! I suppose it hasn’t been made easy over the history, but it doesn’t excuse the ignorance.
It’s the diversity we all share and should attempt to keep and hold on to, until we still have it, in the present tense.
Having been stripped of their natural strengths, they have been forced to survive in a strange culture and society – that, in their own land, having no choice to go somewhere else. They have had to cope, and they’re doing it as much as they can; only that up to 50 years ago they were pretty much treated like animals, and I’m quite certain that it is this attitude that has destroyed life and opportunities for many of them.
I can emotionally understand the feelings of the newcomers, Irish and of whatever descent, that they feel betrayed about the fact that there is no “special treatment” for them. But they have come to their conditions by choice – of their own or their ancestors.
There were many Estonians who emigrated during the WWII, and even before. Just like anyone else, they went to search for luck and happiness in a new land – Australia, Canada, USA and elsewhere. They probably didn’t receive any special treatment either, but just used their hands and wits to advance in the society and make themselves a living and a home.
Many of them were definitely blessed with skills for survival in an occidental society – it’s something that most Estonians did not yet possess in the beginning of the 19th century, for example, when they had been, for centuries, treated the same as the indigenous anywhere else in the world – as slaves and animals.
However, through occidental education (and that, by the way, in our own – Estonian – language) they acquired the skills necessary to manage in this different type of society, and even the skills necessary to cope in another country that doesn’t speak your language (which cannot really be said about the Irish or any anglosaxons in Australia or Canada).
But when they went out to other countries – those that had built their successful societies on the misery and exploitation of the not-so-technologically-advantaged local peoples, the Estonians eventually joined the exploiting culture – with its attitudes and fear towards the ‘natives’ – and of this I am ashamed. I know they probably didn’t have a choice, and couldn’t have possibly changed the attitudes of a foreign country as immigrants, but I am still ashamed.
“Don’t complain, put the past behind you and get on with your life like anyone else” is undoubtedly a good suggestion to any individual who wants to cope, but it has nothing to do with being fair and just. Getting slaughtered and discriminated in your own land without any options of escape is not fair. Getting deported to the other side of the globe is not fair, either. But what the occidental mindset still cannot own up to is the fact that it has destroyed and helped destroy hundreds of previously well-functioning societies, and instead of making an attempt to understand what there is to learn from the others, it has arrogantly decided that it knows the best what’s good for the humankind and has executed this knowledge in full force. And it just cannot stop and ask itself: what if we were wrong all along the way?
We could debate over who and what is responsible for the environmental conditions of the Earth today, for example, and probably still not get anywhere, because there’s just THAT MANY people saying “but I don’t want to go back to living in a cave”. Not wanting to imply anything specific here, but what if one day you just don’t have a choice any more? Because you know what, the vast majority of the inhabitants of this planet are on this day living in conditions where a cavewould be an upgrade, and that’s partly because of your lifestyle choices. Things cost way more than you think they do, and it cannot be counted in money.
Of course, we are all bricoleurs, and when given an opportunity, it’s not certain any of us would be any wiser to make a good decision for the benefit of all. — That’s what the occidentals like to say. It’s certainly comfortable to say that, and it’s also convenient to think everyone is equal and anyone’s perceived inequality is the problem of their own minds only.
Well, if you think like that, too, why don’t you watch Tim Wise speaking on “The Pathology of White Privilege” and see if your conviction of absolute equality still stands after that:
I don’t know too much about racism, but I’ve met cultural intolerance; and Kerryn Pholi seems a bit confused in using the terms ‘race’ and ‘culture’ as synonyms. She might have the ancestry, but I don’t see her speaking of being part of any Aboriginal culture, truly. It’s ‘them’ for her and she’s not sure whether she’s proud of it or not. She has a different kind of weight on her shoulders – the weight of globalisation and creolisation, the burden of not having a place to belong, perhaps. I cannot imagine what it’s like because I will always only belong to one little people and their land, even if I travel around or change location, my roots will only ever have been in one place on the globe and it makes me want to be rooted, in the end, and I understand others who wish the same. But after centuries of colonisation and deportation we now have a mass of people with no roots, or roots everywhere in the world, and with a culture that is a bit universal and a lot of an exploiting kind. I understand that they feel a bit lost, but I don’t really know how to help them, and I am truly sorry for that.
But should this be the reason to take any opportunities or support away from the rest, those who still more or less know where they belong, and need help in supporting their languages and cultures to survive? I don’t think so.