As I walked into a meeting with a group of elders a while back, one of the women said to me, "Commissioner, you look handsome today. Then again, I am not wearing my glasses." Laughter ensued as she explained she was used to seeing me dressed "like a white man" and, on that day, I was wearing jeans and a golf shirt.
Her comment exemplified the struggle many First Nations people face in navigating the identity politics of fitting into mainstream society while maintaining connections to their unique cultural identity. This struggle is neither new nor uncommon. In fact, every person, group or movement that seeks to take a seat at the table of power faces it.
Jackie Robinson, Colin Powell, Phil Fontaine, Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey each have dealt with this issue -- and each has been called a sellout at one time in their careers. Many First Nations people who have done well in business, professional careers or have moved up in socio-economic status have been saddled with a nagging, persistent fear of being labelled a sellout. Grappling with this term and its implications has become a centrepiece of aboriginal identity politics.
The term sellout is not new. Historically, it was used against First Nations people who were determined to pursue higher education. I remember students in Grade 6 teasing one of our peers for getting high marks. They claimed she was "acting white." This is the worst form of racism. Not only does it push a lowering of standards and self-expectations, it is generally internalized by the person at the receiving end.
The African-American community in the U.S. has taken a hard look at this language and its implications through such works as Randall Kennedy's Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal and through popular media via Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell.
As a First Nations community in Canada, we have not tackled these divisive phrases. We either pretend they don't exist or falsely believe the name-calling does no harm. Meanwhile, the jargon continues.
Unfortunately, the persistent use of these phrases has risen in correlation with the growing contribution First Nations people are making across all sectors of our economy.
The business leaders, economists, farmers, academics and tradespeople of today are the true cultural carriers. They are the ones implementing their version of what was intended in the treaties when the Crown first sat with First Nations -- that the partnership be about opportunities, self-reliance and independence.
Our business leaders and professionals continue to forge a path forward that was first intended by our elders of so long ago, and it is time we honoured and celebrated them, not degraded them, for their determination and tenacity.
There are those challenging the negative notions. In response to a University of Regina cheer team dressed as cowboys and Indians (redface connotes its equivalence to blackface in the U.S.), a U of R student started the twitter hashtag #NotYourStereotype.
Aboriginal people from all across Canada have been posting pictures of themselves in military uniform, suit and tie, with their Harvard doctorates (my sister!) to proclaim they are not the headdress-wearing caricatures of modern stereotype. Simultaneously, they are proclaiming they have the freedom and depth of identity to dress and act how they like, to set high goals for themselves and to succeed on their own terms.
Sadly, some First Nations people have bought into and internalized the thinking that we cannot take our seat at the table of power in this country without compromising who we are and what we believe in. They cannot comprehend that a First Nations person on the board of a major corporation or in a senior position in government might be there because of who they are, what they know and what they believe in.
There are First Nations and corporations who compromise community interests for personal gain, just as there are within mainstream society. But selling out should be equated to putting personal gain ahead of our values and beliefs, not with taking pride in our successes. Because after all, we can be successful and still be First Nations.
Changing mindsets requires time, education and positive role models, which is why the Treaty Relations Commission invites readers to watch for a special supplement being distributed across Manitoba in the Saturday, April 19 issue of the Winnipeg Free Press. Its focus is celebratory and its intent is to profile individuals and the growing influence and contributions of First Nations and aboriginal peoples across all sectors of the Canadian economy.
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 between all peoples in Manitoba.