01/17/2012 05:52 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Newsflash: I Can Use an iPhone and Still Follow Indigenous Tradition


Dude. Say it with me. Traditions aren't technology-dependent.

I feel like I've said this so often, it should be indelibly emblazoned on the mind of every person who has ever lived, but the sad fact of my limited vocal reach requires me to repeat myself, and really it's okay. I like exploring this concept.

What the heck am I talking about, you ask? As always, I'm talking about misconceptions. Some of them are even funny!

Often they're hunting-related.

"That wasn't a traditional hunt, they used high-powered rifles, not bows and arrows!"

"And they should have dragged the deer home with their teeth too, right?"

"Well I guess if that's the tradition..."

Sometimes they're communication-related.

"Some traditional Indian she is, with her Facebook and iPhone."

"You're going to say something about smoke signals, right?"

"Well you know, however you guys traditionally used to talk to each other...sure..."

Or, related to living conditions:

"Oh a house hey, real traditional that! How do you like all that non-traditional running water anyway?"

"You mean the non-potable water that isn't safe to drink? Oh man I hate that stuff."

"You know what I meant..."

Aaaaaand there are plenty of other examples. I am always amazed how much people seem to know about our traditions. You know, the next time you're not sure about a traditional practice, I suggest skipping the whole thing with the Elders. I bet you could zip on over to the internet and get the real scoop in nanoseconds! Try the National Post comments's full of ancient wisdom!

Okay but for serious.

The idea that indigenous traditions require us to only use technologies that were available to us pre-Contact, or more generously just a bit post-Contact, is silly. If silly was all we were dealing with, then I'd let it be. But silly ends up translating into policy, and I have to take that seriously. I'll give you an example.

Back in 2004, King Ralphsigned an Interim Métis Harvesting Agreement (IMHA) with the Métis Nation of Alberta. Now, this former Premier of Alberta didn't always act with class, but this was a pretty ground-breaking agreement.

If you are unaware of this, until the Powley decision in 2003, neither the federal nor provincial governments really recognised the Métis right to hunt. Powley was applied pretty narrowly, so it still did not grant province-wide hunting rights, but the IMHA was the first step towards doing exactly that. Sort of. (Oh please don't make me go into the many problems with having a provincially legislated framework for the exercise of inherent aboriginal's late and I just want to pretend it's simple, okay?)

Before you anticipate the swelling music of victory, you should know that the IMHA was scrapped once Steady Eddy took over, and things have gone back to the "traditional" tale of Métis hunters having to fight their cases out individually (and at much greater expense to the taxpayer than a negotiated agreement) in the Courts.

Back to the point. Although the IMHA seemed like a better way to approach the issue than forcing us into the Courts every time we wanted to assert our right to hunt, there were some silly interpretations being applied, based on notions of "what is traditional."

The IMHA mentioned fishing with nets specifically. Some Métis were being ticketed for fishing with a rod and reel instead of the more "traditional" gill nets.

What you're not seeing is me, rolling my eyes.

A lot of the men from my community were traditional fishers. They fished back when you could actually eat what you caught from Lac Ste. Anne. You can bet that as the technology improved, they were right there, using it. I'm not talking about camping out for a week to get the new iRod, and they kept the know-how so that when all they had were the materials at hand, they weren't left without a way to fish. But the point wasn't what they were fishing with, it was that they were catching fish.

The arbitrary decision to say, "That isn't a traditional practice if you're using 'new' technology" freezes us in time, and for no good purpose. It would be like me telling you that you don't get to travel anywhere if you're not doing it in a horse-and-buggy. That unless you wear your powdered wig, you don't get to dance if you wanna, so just leave your friends behind.

It would be like me saying that your legal system is invalid, because you no longer have the Courts of Chancery and I have decided that only your pre-1740 way of life is "traditional."

Just look at Canadian property law, if you'd like a sense of how you can be both "traditional" and "modern." The rules governing what you can do with your land, what rights you have in your land, and who you can pass it along to, are all based in feudal notions of ownership. I'm a geek, so I think that history is actually pretty fascinating, but I'm not going to insist that you ditch computers and start administering the Torrens system via clerks with quills and ink bottles and reinstate the feudal system in the meantime. That would be stupid.

I'm not going to belabour the frozen-in-time approach and how freaking bizarre it is to read people telling us not to haul game home in pick-up trucks, or use kitchen appliances to make frybread, or use gasoline in our motorboats, because once you think about it, the weirdness should be self-evident. I do want you to think about this conversation the next time you think to yourself, "Oh hey that can't be traditional because they used [insert some new technology]."

We are just as capable of adapting to new technology and using it according to traditional beliefs and philosophies as you are. It'd be cool if you thought of a few ways in which your culture has used new technologies in a traditional way so you really get what I'm saying here.

And if you're still sticking to the whole, "Nope, you've got to do it the way your ancestors did way back when," then I'd like you to name a specific date after which any technological innovation renders our traditions invalid. Then we can both agree that from now on, our people will only be allowed to do things they way they did it before that date, and we'll see how that works, okay?

Originally posted on the author's blog, âpihtawikosisân.