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Traditional rite of passage laid ‘bare’ during holiday season

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YOU’LL have to "bare" with me (pun intended) as I unfold a story that is both fact and folklore across several generations of my family. During this holiday season when customs and traditions abound, it is the best example I can remember to demonstrate the similarities, as well as the profound differences, between First Nations and non-aboriginal communities.

This rather naked tale begins when my Uncle Henry was just a boy. With sling shot in hand, he ventured out to the marshes, where he successfully harvested his first duck. To a lot of city folk, this may be a horrifying thought, but to a growing Cree boy, Uncle Henry’s successful hunt was not only a badge of honour signifying that he now possessed the skills necessary to thrive in the North but it was also a spiritual experience demonstrating a connection to and a respect for the life taken so that he could provide food for his family.

Soaked to the skin, young Henry bounded through the door, duck in hand and eager to retell his triumphant story in step by step fashion.

With his first yank, off came his hat, then his soaking boots, as the story began to tumble out of him. Little did he realize that his exuberance in revealing the details of the hunt was equally matched by his speed in ridding himself of all his wet clothing.

Yes, to his great horror, there he stood in a living room full of family, stark naked as he proudly acted out the final scene that ended his hunt.

After the shock and laughter subsided, my kookum (grandmother) cooked the bird and the whole family feasted. Even though the portions were small, this young boy was honoured for providing for his family. It was and remains a day of immense pride.

The story of Uncle Henry is re-told through the generations of my family in that typical northern way that always mixes accomplishment and pride with a dash of humility — lessons worth remembering in all aspects of life.

And so the family tradition goes. Not the risqué disrobing, but the celebration of a young person’s first successful hunt, or trap used successfully, or a fish caught and reeled into the boat.

When our daughter snared her first rabbit, we held a similar family feast, and if all goes to plan over this Christmas season, it will be her brother’s turn to provide the bounty. That is, of course, if he doesn’t inherit his father’s poor hunting record.

As crass as it sounds to celebrate the killing of a fish, bird or animal, the truth of the matter is that whether we gather as family to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas or Malanka, meat tends to be a central focus of our dinner tables.

The main difference for children of aboriginal descent is that the tradition of the hunt helps them realize that the things they eat are not created in pre-packaged cellophane trays in grocery stores. Full respect for our food means understanding where it comes from and what it endures so that we can survive.

It also reinforces the role our children play in contributing to their families and beyond. It is similar to framing the first dollar a child earns, this small family rite-of-passage symbolizes selfsufficiency in a uniquely Cree-Canadian way.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a traditional feast with First Nations people, you will often see a plate being prepared which falls in line with this philosophy. A small portion from every dish being served is offered to both our ancestors, and to the animals and plants that sacrificed themselves for our well-being. It is a giving back (which is why trappers and hunters offer tobacco or a gift when an animal is taken), a reverence for our relatives, and a spiritual practice that we are willing to share with all Manitobans.

Most contemporary ceremonies reflect a mix of both ageless traditions and the modern life. Like most other Canadians, we celebrate Christmas, give presents, and eagerly spend hours in present-buying frustration. But we also do our best to hold on to the practices that make us unique and that bring meaning to our lives.

One of the beauties of the holiday season is being able to celebrate family traditions, both old and new. Breaking bread, not shaving, not worrying about work and sleeping in a little — each allows us the time to think and participate in the deeper things that families and communities hold dear.

As we close out one year and look to the next, let’s draw on the best of our collective pasts and work, with renewed vigour and open minds, toward the day when we can create a harmonious community that respects our similarities while truly celebrating our differences.

 

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect among all peoples in Manitoba.

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