My clearest memory of school when I was a child is the yearly project on culture. I say, yearly, because it seems like every teacher in the world thinks that they have developed the “BEST IDEA” to get kids to not only explore their personal histories, but to appreciate the cultures that they come from. I wouldn’t say that I was a cynical recipient of the ever-present “culture” project, but I wouldn’t say that I was enthusiastic either. In fact, my general thought was that my culture was pretty boring, and I’d really rather study someone else’s culture. Any culture.
Dutiful, obedient, compliant – I would trudge to the front of the room to collect the large sheet of white paper that my teacher wanted me to fill with the patterns of my cultural background. Then, there I would sit, wondering just what was my culture? As I had already done this project the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that I already knew what my mother would tell me when I asked her for help. “You are Canadian,” she would say, “just show what it means to be Canadian”. And I would sigh and stare at that big piece of white paper. Are we Scottish? Irish? English?
“No,” my mother would reply for the fourth, fifth, sixth (?) year in a row. “We are Canadian.”
Beavers? Moose? Fish? My family didn’t do any of that stuff. Farming? Maybe, but I’d never set foot on “the old family homestead” in Bruce Mines, nor had I ever picked up a pitch fork, let alone hoe-downed in a barn. “Canadian” just didn’t have the same flavour as my best friend’s ravioli, meatballs, crusty bread, and home-made sausage which she helped her Nona prepare in the basement kitchen of her house. “Canadian” didn’t have the wild allure of bagpipes being played on a misty heath, in the midst of Scotland.
Later in university, I learned that I wasn’t the only person stumped by her Canadian heritage and culture. Authors and artists have been pondering this question since the first colonists settled in the wilderness. So, perhaps that big piece of white paper contains a valuable lesson about identity. What do we value? What do we wish to preserve for our future generations? What do we wish we could forget but can’t because it’s as much part of us as our eyes?
Now that I’m a teacher, and working in a northern, First Nations community I am well aware of the irony when I pull out the “big, white sheet of paper” and tell my kids we are going to do a project that reflects/preserves/expresses/develops an aspect of their cultural background. Thankfully, they wait until I turn away before they roll their eyes … still, I am certain that the warm wind at my back is more from a collective sigh of resignation than a zephyr of inspiration.
With practice, I will be able to say “Ji siix-mukws n̓iin” with confidence. For now, I will settle for simple English. “Listen carefully,” I will say, “your culture is important. It tells you who are, where you have come from, and where you will go. Some days you will appreciate its familiar rhythms; other days you will question – maybe fight – its pattern. Still, it is the compass that will guide your steps.”
“Ji siix-mukws n̓iin. Today, we are going to write a poem. Think about what it means to listen carefully. Where are you? What is happening? Who is speaking? How do you feel? Write a free verse poem about listening, and use the phrase “Ji siix-mukws n̓iin”.”