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Tripping Over My Moccasins

A few years back, as a part of a Pastoral Care course I took at Taylor Seminary, I was required to take a self-test to determine my personal CQ (Cultural Intelligence). Upon getting the results back, I stared at the screen with surprise. The results revealed my cultural intelligence is much lower than anticipated. The course instructor soothed my surprise by stating that my results are indicative of much of the Canadian population. This is because we live in a multi-cultural nation and assume that cultural mishaps are nothing more than a clash of personalities.

The truth is, I was born into an intercultural family. My mother is full-blood Tse’khene Indian, while my father is of Irish-Scottish descent. I was born into two cultures, Native and White, and grew up learning to walk in both Nikes and moccasins, yet the results of the self-test indicate I still fumble when switching between cultures. Especially from Tse’khene to non-Indigenous cultures.

When walking and working among non-Indigenous people, I assume the cultural norms of being at home among Indigenous People and to some extent, vice-versa. At home, I enjoy living as a part of the collective by sharing work and other responsibilities. Decisions are made to the benefit of the community, and all are kept informed for the well-being of the collective. Presuming these cultural norms are practiced by non-Indigenous people has landed me in unsavory predicaments..

One such incident occurred when my brother-in-law was diagnosed with two types of lethal cancer. I visited him daily while he was in the hospital, and upon his release I drove with him 162 km to his home. Here, I did what I would do for any other family member that might be going through the same thing. I sat down with his family and talked about the reality of heaven and hell. My brother-in-law is neither Christian, nor First Nations, and the resulting explosion of his temper was indicative of a situation poorly handled on my end.

I politely ended the conversation and changed the subject. Upon going home, I prayed about the situation and consulted with a few friends. I then checked with my sister to see if it would be okay to send him John Burke’s, Imagine Heaven: Near Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You. She agreed, so I sent the book with a short note explaining that he is important to me, and I want him to be prepared for his next journey. Doing this, addressed my sister’s need to be informed as a part of the collective and, addressed his need for privacy in thought and decision making. However, this is not the only cultural blunder I have made.

Ultimately, I am too white to be Native and too Native to be white, yet I have always self-identified as First Nations because I have been the subject of racial profiling, Indian jokes, and racism and discrimination based on the color of my skin since I was a child. Nobody ever mistook me for being white. My hair and skin were dark and, in the words of Fred Flintstone, my “eyes are as black as frying pans.” That is, until age grayed my hair and my skin and eyes lightened with age. Growing up and into my adult years, the word Indian was spoken in reference to me as a swear-word and worn as an insult.

With maturity came the understanding that it is not the word that is the insult, but the spirit in which it is spoken. Indian is a legal term. My treaty papers, treaty card, as well as being a part of an Indian Band all indicate I am Indian, and I reserve the right to be identified as such; however, I also expect the term to be spoken with respect. Not all, or even many First Nations people agree with my preference in terminology where cultural identification is concerned, but the people from my home reserve do, and that is what is important.

In David Livermore’s Cultural Intelligence: Improving Your CQ to Engage Our Multicultural World, the author asserts that cultural mishaps often feel as though they are nothing more than a clash of personalities, a discomfort that feels like crude mannerisms. It is important to note that cultural blunders do not occur strictly between Indigenous and non-indigenous people, as they can also be made between the various Indigenous populations, as well as between various First Nations groups. I am Tse’khene Indian but live in Cree territory. Many of my friends are Cree and make expressions of Cree traditions. One such mishap occurred between one of my Cree friends and myself.

Some friends had just come through an episode of exterminating unwanted pests from their home and was forced to get rid nearly all their belongings in an effort to purge their home of the unwanted guests. In a friendly gesture, I brought over a few boxes of extra items I thought they might find useful. They took the items and several weeks later, when I was searching for something in their basement, I came across those same boxes tucked neatly away in a corner. I was upset they were not making use of the items, but left without saying anything. I eventually got over it and, some time later, the daughter of that same friend offered me some potato chips. I politely declined. The young girl went into the kitchen and said something indecipherable to her parent and came back offering me the snack once again. Again, I politely declined stating, “I don’t like potato chips. You eat them.” Her parent then came out of the kitchen and asked me why I would insult their daughter so intentionally. I was taken aback and asked what they meant. “You know you never refuse anything from an Indian,” they touted. It was then that I realized this was a cultural mishap, that they had taken the boxed items I brought in a gesture intended to preserve our friendship.

We both assumed that because we both come from First Nations communities that our cultures are the same. However, in Cree culture a person should never refuse anything that is offered for fear of insulting the other person, while in Tse’khene culture, one should never accept anything that is not going to be used right away. Across Canada, there are six-hundred thirty-four recognized nations and more that are unrecognized. We all have distinct cultures. We speak different languages, express our relationship with Creator in different ways, and resolve differences with specific traditions. Nothing in creation is the same, and neither are our cultures.

Among our white brothers and sisters there are cultural differences between the French, English, Dutch, and German to name just a few. There are also cultural differences between churches, even within the same denomination. One church might have a strong focus on worship, while another focuses on outreach. There are even cultural differences between city, town, and country folk. Yet, when we are not looking for cultural differences, we tend to assume everyone is like us. This is called ethnocentrism and it can cause all kinds of misunderstandings, due to cultural blind spots, in which we cannot see the difference between ours and other cultures. These mishaps can strain friendships that result in blunders in which we think people from other cultures are rude. Throughout history, many derogatory terms came out of these cultural mishaps because the settler communities could not see our cultures were different, and vice versa.

One such term is Indian Giver that came about because most First Nations and Inuit cultures are nomadic. It was therefore unrealistic for our people to carry more items than absolutely necessary. To remedy this situation, the entire community would possess only an insignificant amount of a stated item that would be shared among the community. If a person asked their neighbour to use the axe, it was expected they would have possession of it until they no longer needed it. Then it would be given to the next person who needed it, whether if it was back to the person from which it came or to another community member. The settlers, who owned things individually, called this Indian giving, or worse yet, thievery.

Another term that is often misunderstood and misused is Indian time. I grew up knowing that all things happen in their due course. A baby does not come by the clock or the calendar, it comes when it is ready. Many FNMI people, as well as many other Indigenous cultures from around the world, believe that life events occur when Creator ordains them to occur and not before. This is much akin to the Christian idiom, “everything in God’s time” yet, many people believe that Indian time means we are late for everything, which simply is not true. We come when we are ready emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally.

Another cultural idiom came about due to the warm weather that often occurs after an initial cold snap, often referred to as Indian Summer. This term came about because the settlers noticed that this is a time of year in which First Nations communities were moving about in a flurry of activity. Certain berries and other harvest items such as rosehips are not ready for harvest until the first frost sweetens them for picking. It is also a time to dry fish and meat to make pemmican and other goods to get us through the cold wintery months. The resulting flurry of activity came about because the Indigenous communities took the cold snap as a warning to prepare for winter, resulting in the term Indian summer.

The point is, every culture, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous has their own culture as well as cultural blind spots. Cultural blind spots often give the feeling that we are wearing an ill-fitting sweater. It just does not feel right, and we often assume it is because the other person has poor manners, when in reality each culture has their own distinct way of doing things. Things that include not only, food, language, dress, and hairstyles, but also include our ways of celebrating, settling differences, and dealing with grief to name a few.

Rather than thinking of incidents in which cultures clash as rudeness, we should think of them as cultural blunders and move ourselves towards understanding the culture of the Other. Throughout history, many settler cultures tried to alleviate this discomfort by attempting to assimilate us by “teaching us the right way to do things.” However, this is an attempt to paint the beautiful rainbow of cultures God created into a bland, white-washed society.

Some go so far as to state they are color blind and do not notice the difference between the beautiful array of skin colors and cultural differences, which is who the Father created us to be. However, this is as much an insult as attempting to assimilate us. God knit us together in the womb, making us who we are, inclusive of our skin, eye, and hair color. Our languages were given to us at the tower of Babel, and he intentionally placed us within our cultures because everything in creation is diverse, and he loves diversity.

So, how do we move past blunders and reach across the cultural chasm to love the Other authentically? Livermore asserts there are four factors to CQ:

“1. Knowledge CQ: Understanding cross-cultural issues and differences

2. Interpretive CQ: The degree to which we’re mindful and aware when we interact cross-culturally

3. Perseverance CQ: Our level of interest, drive, and motivation to adapt cross-culturally

4. Behavioral CQ: The extent to which we appropriately change our verbal and nonverbal actions when we interact cross-culturally.”

Ultimately, we want to take appropriate steps to love the Other as Jesus first loved us. Jesus treated the woman at the well with dignity and respect even though she was a Samaritan, a group that was not well thought of by the Jews. We too, need to treat others with dignity and respect by understanding differences between cultures and making an effort to reach across cultural chasms with love.

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Livermore, David A.. Cultural Intelligence (Youth, Family, and Culture) (pp. 47-48). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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