5 facts about the diversity of Indigenous Peoples

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The first inhabitants of Canada, our Indigenous friends, welcome us to their homelands. But aside from the fact that they are the original owners of this land, what else do you know about them?

Indigenous Peoples, plural

One of the biggest misconceptions about Indigenous Peoples is that they belong to one homogenous cultural group. In reality, there are more than 600 distinct Indigenous communities across North America, with over 60 Indigenous languages. There is diversity and richness in this community beyond what we see in media or our immediate environment.

Voyageur & Calliou, in their study Diversity of Canada’s Indigenous Community said that “The Indigenous Peoples of Canada have distinctive identities, vibrant cultures and varying traditions that are as different from each other as French society is from British”. Similar to multicultural immigrants of Canada, these differences can be grouped into geographical (where they chose to live), linguistic, legal, and social.

Welcome to our Homelands (Video to bolster dialogue between Indigenous Peoples and newcomers), ISSofBC.

Facts about multicultural Indigenous Peoples

  1. Indigenous cultural traditions in Canada existed as far back as 400 years ago

    When the first Europeans arrived on the continent in the 11th century, the First Peoples of Canada have lived in North America for thousands of years and have built established societies. What historians described as “primitive” in history books merely meant that what they saw did not meet their ideas of what an established society should be. On first contact, Indigenous Peoples were already self-governing and had formed complex social, political, economic and cultural systems.

    Early First Nations were grouped by historians according to six main geographical areas:

    1. Woodland First Nations lived in the dense boreal forest in the eastern part.
    2. Iroquoian First Nations lived in the southernmost area.
    3. Plains First Nations lived on grasslands and prairies.
    4. Plateau First Nations lived in semi-desert conditions in the south to the high mountains and dense forest in the north
    5. Pacific Coast First Nations lived in the western continental coastline on the North Pacific Ocean.
    6. First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins lived in dark forests, barren lands and swampy terrain known as muskeg.
  2. There are more than 634 First Nations communities all over Canada living in traditional territories and in urban centres

    Indigenous Peoples are composed of three major groups: First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. But there are over 600 distinct Indigenous communities across Canada that fall under these major groups. Just some of those mentioned in the video are:

    Dzawada’enuxw of Kingcome Inlet
    Composed of four united tribes that are members of the Kwakwaka’wakw group of nations. The four tribes are: Dzawada’enux̱w, Gwawa̱’enux̱w, ḵwiḵwa̱sut̕inux̱w, and Ha̱x̱wa’mis. They refer to themselves as both the Dzawada’enuxw and the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw. They are rich in tradition and natural resources, with copper being an important symbol of power and wealth. However, they still believe that close family ties and cooperation between communities are their greatest wealth. They are also known to practice the potlach system, a gift-giving ceremony where valuable goods (for example: firearms, clothing, food, even copper) were given by high-ranking individuals to invited guests.

    Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Metis – Inuvik

    Inuvik is the traditional land of the Gwich’in and Metis people (200 km north of the Arctic circle). It is also the home of many Northern artists. Traditional crafts are part of their modern-day life. Communities come together to celebrate Northern Indigenous arts and crafts during the Great Northern Arts Festival which takes place in July. To see some samples of Inuvik art, go to Northwest Territories Arts.

    Syilx – Okanagan Nation Alliance
    This community is composed of seven member communities in the Southern Interior of British Columbia. They are the: Okanagan Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands, and Westbank First Nation; and the Colville Confederated Tribes in Northern Washington state. For thousands of years, Syilx/Okanagan people have been self-reliant and rich through their own ingenuity and use of land and resources. They have a sustainable economy built on hunting, fishing, growing, harvesting, and trading. They are a distinct sovereign nation sharing the same land, nsyilxcən language, culture and customs.

    Six Nations of the Grand River
    It is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada by population and the second largest in size. It is where six Iroquois nations live – the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Senecca, and Tuscarora. The reserve is located between Hamilton, Brandtford and Simcoe, Ontario. Six Nations has been home to many well-known figures, among them poet Tekahionewake (E. Pauline Johnson), Boston Marathon winner Tom Longboat, actor Jay Silverheels (The Lone Ranger), and Academy award nominee Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves). They also host one of the largest Powwows in the country called the Grand River Champion of Champions Powwow (The Canadian Encyclopedia).

    Want to know more about different Indigenous communities living in Manitoba? Read Get to know the Indigenous Peoples of Manitoba and What are Pow Wows, vision quests and sweat lodges?

  3. There are more than 60 Indigenous languages

    Indigenous cultures have a rich oral tradition. Teachings (values, spiritual and traditional beliefs) were passed down from generation to generation by way of storytelling, song, dance and other oral means (Indigenous Foundations – culture). Despite the adverse effects of the Residential School system, many Indigenous languages continue to thrive. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, there are 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada that fall into 12 separate language families.

    These complex and diverse languages are spoken widely in various parts of the country. In fact, nine of the 11 official languages of the Northwest Territories belong to Indigenous language families. In the Prairies, the following languages are used: Algonquian and Iroquoian languages east of Lake Winnipeg as well as Siouan and Dene (Athapaskan/Athabascan and Tlingit). In addition, Plains Sign Language (PSL) known to various First Nations such as the Cree, Dakota and Siksika, is also used.

    As mentioned, colonial policies have restricted the use of Indigenous languages throughout history. This endangered the existence of some of these languages. This is why in recent times, revitalization efforts have been launched to promote use among the youth. Aside from programs in communities and schools, various educational and governmental institutions have initiatives for learning, teaching, documenting and revitalizing Indigenous languages. In 2019, students of the Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni First Nation, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia translated the song ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles into Mi’kmaq to put a spotlight on the endangerment of Indigenous languages. One of the students, Emma Stevens, recorded this version which became a viral video.

    Emma Stevens – Blackbird by the Beatles sung in Mi’kmaq, Allison Bernard Memorial High School (produced by Carter Chiasson)

  4. There are 10 Indigenous cultural areas in North America, six are in Canada

    These traditional lands are the Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, Plateau, Plains, and Eastern Woodlands (sometimes referred to as Northeast). These areas are based on linguistic divisions defined by Edward Sapir, an ethnologist and linguist. It’s important to note that while the groupings were made based on shared culture and history, groups within each area have similarities and differences. These cultural and geographic groupings are fluid.

  5. Residential schools contributed much to the decline of Indigenous language and culture

    The Residential Schools is an extensive educational system set up by the government which aimed to “educate Indigenous children and indoctrinate them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilate them into mainstream Canadian society” (Indigenous Foundations). From the 1880s until the closing decades of the 20th century, this system separated children from their families, forbade them to practice their own culture, or speak their own language. The result was lasting damage, not only to Indigenous culture and language, but to the physical and psychosocial health of generations of Indigenous individuals across various Indigenous groups all over the country (read What newcomers need to know about residential schools to know more).

Sources: Study Guide, ISS of BC; Various shades of Red: Diversity within Canada’s Indigenous Community, Cora J. Voyageur, University of Calgary and Brian Calliou, University of Alberta, London Journal of Canadian Studies; Indigenous languages in Canada, Keren Rice, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Zach Parrott, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Indigenous People of Manitoba, a guide for newcomers, Anika Reynar and Zoe Matties for Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba; The Residential School system, Indigenous Foundations (BC); First Nations of Canada, Government of Canada; and Statistics on Indigenous Peoples, Statistics Canada. Accessed February 17, 2020.

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