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  • Writer's picturezhaawano

Teachings from the Tree of Life, part 26: Our Role as Storytellers

Updated: May 9

Iskigamizige-giizis/Ziisibaakwadoke-giizis (Boiling Sap Moon/Sugar Making Moon; April 29, 2024)


Waabandizowin ("The Mirror") Illustration by Zhwaawano Giizhik
Waabandizowin ("The Mirror") © 2022-2024 Zhaawano Giizhik

"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster...The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." - Milan Kundera
"Listen to no heart but your own. As it beats, so will you be. As you are, so will your People remember you." - Zhaawano Giizhik

Boozhoo, aaniin,

Today, I thought I'd share a musing with you.

I can't help but sometimes wonder, what is my role a an artist, not just in the world at large – but particularly in a Native context? Or in an Indigenous, or First Nations context if you will?

Just a thought...It is said that the artist's task is to find harmony among discord. Perhaps this is true. But what about the role of Indigenous artists or rather, storytellers in their own communities? 

I tend to believe that artists are in fact storytellers whose stories aim to heal.

Perhaps being storytellers/artists helps us seeing the world in a somewhat broader perspective?

It was under the influence of the Europeans with their dualistic and patriarchal thinking that the old Anishinaabe/Indigenous worldview shifted into a belief that is, to say the least, contradictory, if not paradoxical.

Although the Anishinaabeg had resisted Christianity for a long time (at least until the mid-nineenth century, when they became confined in reservations/reserves), many 19th century Mideg (members of the Midewiwin) were actually members of Christian churches. Mide rituals became heavily borrowed from Scottish Freemasonry, which introduced into Midewiwin a patriarchal and "vertical" outlook on society and the world at large. The terror exerted on many consecutive generations of Indigenous children by the Boarding School and Residential School system (established from the mid-19th century to the 1970s with a primary objective of "civilizing" or assimilating Indigenous children and youth into Anglo-American/Canadian culture) only increased the physical and psychological trauma which, in a modern psychological sense, has led to something that could be described as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance, in the field of psychology, is defined as "mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time."

Like any other person, Indigenous persons who experience cognitive dissonance tend to become psychologically uncomfortable. So what happens is that many of us, our psyche automatically motivates us to reduce stress-related factors like depression, anxiety, and severe identity struggles caused by these contradicting belief systems. We strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally in the "real world"; we do this by changing the contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values that we hold so that they become "consistent." In other words, instead of recognizing and acknowledging these contradictory beliefs, ideas, and values and dealing head-on with them, we tend to fool our psyche. Instead of having to live in a constant state of mental and emotional confusion, it is easier to believe in values that are alien to our own, traditional, Indigenous values and belief system.

So, what happens is that many of us stick to dominant society's worldview that thrives on the Christian dichotomy of good and evil. Or, in order to cope with the confusion in our minds and souls, we flee into sexual and/or substance abuse. Ignoring and moving away from the pain by escapism and hurting the innocent ones we are responsible for only increases the confusion and pain, both individually and collectively. Which, of course, leads to more cognitive dissonance among ourselves, our offspring, and our community at large – and the vicious circle is complete.

I like to believe it is an artist's task to prevent our People from further avoiding situations and information/narratives that increase the culturally-religious-Boarding/Residential School-terror-prompted fears, the shame, and the self-hatred that have been holding our communities hostage for so many generations. I like to believe that challenging, through storytelling or visual arts, the Christian-infused outlook that has been poisoning and confusing and distorting for many consecutive generations the hearts, minds, ceremonies, and stories of our Peoples, can work cleansing and healing in the long run. I also like to believe that it is our task to remind our people of the importance of learning the language our grandparents grew up with – a culturally specific, unique form of communication that has been almost completely replaced by dominant society's languages such as English, French, and Spanish. And the songs! Our language and songs define who we are, they reflect our cultural identity and worldview, and when we lose them we lose an entire mode of thought that used to be specific to our cultural and spiritual identity. The task of an artists is not only to produce images. An good artist produces ideas and besides images, language and words and songs are mighty tools in the process of conveying these ideas. The words and songs are precious, a piece of understanding about us, the world, and our unique relationship to it.

Geget sa go, I like to believe we have no choice but to go back to telling, in image, word, and song, our own story.

Miigwech gibizindaw noongom. Thank you for listening to me today.


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