I Know you are but What Am I? Reclaiming Narratives of Cultural and Individual Identity

With a course as interdisciplinary and multi-voiced as this, it can be difficult to connect the dots between these lectures and construct the intentional metanarrative latent in the masterful curation of these activities into a single “Course”. One theme that seems apparent in the speakers we’ve seen—from The Pass System documentary, narrated by indigenous peoples whose families were directly affected by these restrictive impositions, to Sam who refracted World Wonders through his cultural lens and transformed them into original, interpretive beadwork, to Dr. Robyn Bourgeois who travels around to national organisations and the UN trying to get her people’s stories of murdered and missing women and girls heard, and even to Paula Gunn Allen rescuing Pocahontas’ biography from Disnification to reframe it in its original context and storytelling devices—is the idea of reclaiming your own narrative voice to define your cultural and individual identity. In light of this apparent recurring theme, I could not help but recall a delicate issue Dr. Bourgeois forwarded to us when she asked us “what happens when another nation steps in and tells you who you are”?

In Robyn’s case, she was referencing how the Canadian government’s “Indian Act” imposed genealogical requisites for having status as a Registered Indian, a status that would ultimately determine not only how much citizens could move about the land and go about their business, but also who was to be included in the provision of whatever rights the government had not yet revoked from the indigenous peoples on the Reservations. Contrary to the matrilineal structure of actual indigenous peoples, the government decided that Registered Indian status would be passed through the male, a decision that phased out many of the mixed-married women and their offspring from the recognized indigenous population, which in effect excluded them from their communities and way of life. Because of these conflicting regulations, Dr. Bourgeois told us that her children do not qualify as Cree like their mother according to the Indian Act, but the Six Nations often turns them away despite their patrilineal connection because they only recognize the indigenous methods of cultural qualification. Similar examples of outsider intervention and cultural classification came to mind: the German colonists deeply polarized the people of Rwanda when they gave the more European-looking members of the population, Tutsis, an elevated status above their more African-looking counterparts, the Hutus, and planted a toxic seed of resentment that would grow into genocide. The German would-be-colonizers also imposed curated genealogical categories of who constitutes a Jew when Hitler published the Nuremberg laws which trace the Jewish Disease up to 4 generations. Interestingly, like the Indigenous peoples affected by the Indian Act, Jewish tradition follows Jewish lineage matrilineally, and so Hitler’s laws and violent decrees victimized some who none had previously considered to be part of the Jewish community.

Years later, in a time when the government is looking for actions that count as “reconciliation” and self-government to the indigenous, and Germany’s divisive influence has waned in Rwanda and Europe, I think the trauma of having had one’s narrative–and cultural identity–stolen and regurgitated back in a different tongue by an outsider nation has lasting consequences on the disempowered nations. These consequences, I posit, take the form of a profound identity crisis both on the level of the individual and the culture. As outside forces no longer continually force its paradigm to the same degree, the disempowered culture must make a decision about how to move past these oppressive notions that for so long impacted their identity and way of life. Especially as the indigenous are left wondering how to patch together their scattered territories and lost members, and as Israel sought to take their wounded and abused people under their wing and offer them citizenship, these cultures must decide whether it’s more important to welcome all who seek acceptance into their fold (ie embracing members who have been identified as one of you, whether by the old standards or the new), or to reclaim your culture’s narrative, and reinstitute its rules of identity. The downside of the latter, of course, is that it often leaves some people with individual identity crises to walk alone between two worlds, and part of neither, like Robyn’s children.

Philosopher Root distinguished between natural kinds–groupings which, upon deeper inspection, point to robust, categorical similarities within each grouping–vs human kinds, which are superficial and often arbitrary. Race and cultural identity, Root asserts, may have started out a superficial kind–based on little to no deep biological differences–and yet, having it imposed upon mankind for so long has produced great uniquenesses individual to each racial grouping. In sum, Root asserts that long-lasting divides–even if externally and arbitrarily imposed–can have lasting impacts on people. Relating Root’s words to the topic at hand, though there is no denying that many flaws were made when outsiders took it upon themselves to label and group people; we cannot deny the profound impact these categories have had on the way we have lived our lives until now.

Yes, our identities–personal and cultural–are fractured. While we may never seal these cracks caused by our would-be destroyers to the point where it seems as though they never happened, we may allow grass and flowers to grow between the cracks, or, as the Japanese ancient practice of Kintsugi suggests, paint those cracks with gold and turn them into a meaningful part of the whole that renders it even more beautiful than before. Perhaps being lumped in with a group that previously was not on your radar may lead you to reconnect with that part of your heritage, fall in love with it, and feel at home.

I feel we should welcome our lost people into our folds and teach them our ways where they are strangers to them, and bond over our mutual love for its core. In social processes, it is even natural for the core that anchors us to change and grow as we continue connecting and communicating with each other, just like language goes through changes and dialects during the course of communication. Perhaps we have mischaracterized culture to be more like morality, attributing to it a normative weight when really culture is like linguistics and has an element of descriptiveness rather than normativity.

To clarify, I do not advocate for a true melting pot where all cultural differences meld into one; not only because people have a right to their heritage but also because the largest metropolitan communities only provoke us to carve out smaller, more polarized sub-communities within it for ourselves. Thus, if and when we embrace a new, polymorphic and inclusive direction of culture in general, we must still preserve and respect the richness and diversity of specific cultural voices.

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