Many years ago, when I first moved back to Saskatchewan, I was working at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians as the head of the communications program. I took the opportunity to meet as many people as possible and learn from the elders.
The Indian Cultural Centre had an august group of elders who hung out and offered their knowledge and experience. Sometimes we would sit around and talk about the past, indigenous philosophy, and things in general.
One day, one of the elders posed a question which stuck with me and has formed a part of my personal education that I treasure. The question was simple, but the answer thought provoking. He asked, “Who do you think is our greatest enemy?”
The usual answers came out. Racism? The department of Indian Affairs? Pierre Trudeau? After several more attempts, he gave us the answer. Our greatest enemy is fear, he said.
Fear is a normal emotion; I am afraid of heights, and fear being torn apart by a grizzly bear, but these are normal fears. He was speaking about irrational fear.
Fear is something learned and reinforced over the years. Many of our people fear failure because they have experienced the negative and paternalistic attitudes from teachers, government bureaucrats and priests and ministers.
We have been taught subtly and sometimes forcibly that we are not as good and capable as the settler population.
One time in high school our teacher told us that the reason the white race was so successful was because they had the ability of self control, which others (us Indians) did not.
In elementary school, we had teachers that called us down and said we were stupid and not as well-behaved as other classes they had taught. It’s no wonder our people fear failure and lack self esteem.
Fear of success also comes from poverty and a lack of self worth. Even today, I know people that will be on the cusp of success and give it all up. I read the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr., and he pointed out that all his life he feared losing everything.
He came from poverty, and he felt that its return was just around the corner. This feeling is common among our people and with success comes the nagging fear that you don’t deserve it or that it’s all going to come crashing down.
Perhaps the worst and most debilitating fear is the fear of other people. For some reason white people fear people of colour, especially Indigenous and black people. This irrational fear is the cause of a lack of communication and understanding among people and it leads to racism.
One day I was working on a film production and several of the crew who were indigenous felt tension on the set. I pointed out that white people tended to fear us; our production manager, who was an African- Canadian woman, told us, “Try being black, people cross the road to avoid you.”
It’s true. We are stereotyped as dangerous, drunks or drug addicts carrying knives and guns and liable to go nuts at the drop of a hat. I recall when I first went to an integrated school. We hung out in two groups and many years later I found out that initially the white kids feared us as much as we feared them.
Our people tend to clam up and be quiet when they are out in public, so the image of the serious stoic native is etched in people’s minds. But among ourselves the teasing, joking and laughter flows freely and some of the best times are with your own people.
Now, we don’t have a corner on humour by any stretch, but because we often live in silos of our own kind, we deny ourselves the wonderful experience of knowing other people on more that a superficial level.
So yes, when you stop and think about it, our worst enemy is fear because it isolates us and inhibits growth.
Canadians pride themselves on developing a multicultural society, but multiculturalism is more than food and dance; it’s the meaningful respect and understanding we afford each other, and our goal for the new year should be the elimination of irrational fear.
Doug Cuthand is the Indigenous affairs columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation.
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