Being Native till the end


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in October 2011

I am going to tell you the obvious. It’s a complex world out there. More specifically, all across this country, in its bureaucracy, in its media, in its politics and in its culture, being Native is becoming more and more complex.

It’s also becoming more departmentalized and segmented.

For example, there is a First Nations’ bank. There is the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. There is a Native university, and in some places, Native schools for young kids.

Let us not forget Native social services and Native granting organizations. If suddenly the mother ship returned to Earth to pick up all the non-Native people in Canada, I think Canadian society would be able to carry on pretty much the same way. Because there are Native police services boards, and Native baseball leagues and Native theatre companies, publishing houses, restaurants, casinos, smoke shacks etc.

There is a Native version of practically everything you can think of. I have even seen a Native Elvis impersonator, as the King (or the Chief as we call him) would say, “Meegwetch, meegwetch very much.”

One of the things that separate us from the United States is that we are not the great melting pot they claim. We are more of the grand mosaic. Cultures, different and unique, unite to make an even greater country.

So, obviously Native people are a part of that great mosaic.

Still, I sometimes wonder if perhaps occasionally, things can go a little too far in establishing our place in the larger Canadian society. True, it’s rare if you find a Native person who is not extremely proud of their people and their place in history. But that can be said of Jews, Arabs, Japanese and so on.

I guess what I’m trying to say is sometimes, in our attempt to celebrate who we are and where we come from, I am occasionally left scratching my head by some of the choices made. What some people consider is a truly Native way to live…. And die.

Not that long ago, I came across a brochure from a company that, being perfectly serious here, specializes in handmade ‘Native caskets. Our wood caskets provide what nature and our Elders taught as a natural process.”

The company has an ‘understanding of the culture and the needs of the Indigenous people.’ That’s impressive when you consider at one time there were almost 600 Nations across Turtle Island.

In terms of how you spend eternity, you have a choice. There is the Four Winds casket, which goes for $2,500 American. It could be made from northern pine or aromatic cedar, and ‘can be lined with various styles of Pendleton blankets.” You may also include a ‘framed picture of choice with engraved script included’. Or there’s the more economical Wilderness Oak, which retails for a more comfortable $1,000 with a fleece lining ($200 to add Pendleton).

Don’t get me wrong. I am not attempting to ridicule this company. It’s a beautiful concept and the caskets look first rate and exquisite. I know there are Jewish cemeteries, just like there are Catholic ones, and now, maybe, Native ones.

I’ve been to services for Native friends that have passed away where they were buried with an eagle feather or tobacco, with a drum group present. But, and don’t kill me for this, are we now trying to make our deaths uniquely Native too?

It’s all a very weird discussion. I know that when my mother died she didn’t particularly care what kind of casket she ended up in, as long as it was nice and respectful.

Me…I don’t know yet. I’m not tied to the idea of a necessarily Native casket. I figure any casket I end up in will be Native as judged by its contents, and not its exterior.

A Pendleton blanket, as beautiful as they are, doesn’t necessarily make you Native, unless they are made out of status cards.

With that said, as the years continue to pass me by, I have expressed a wish to those I will leave behind, on what to do with my remains.  I want one of those ancient Egyptian pyramids built for me. I like the geometry of the idea, and Curve Lake could use a decent tourist site and a make works program.

And let’s face it. Those things last forever. It will give everybody something to talk about.

If someone wants to paint a medicine wheel on one of the stone blocks, fine with me. More power to them.  In addition, the stone blocks could have pictographs and petroglyphs on them for authenticity. Anything more might be a little too ostentatious.

Hey, chock it all up to living in the Canadian mosaic. An Egyptian Ojibway mausoleum, which, it turns out, is actually a Greek word.