Western Port au Port Peninsula, Newfoundland
Kwesowaak, Pukt aq Pukt Kwe’sawe’k, Taqamkuk
While it is understood that not all will follow the rules at all times, most Mi’kmaq people try to respect them.
That is the principle that one Indigenous person will never tell another Indigenous person what to do. It is considered rude behavior to give instructions or orders to another Indigenous person. That’s quite different from the non-indigenous society. Two non-indigenous men at a cocktail party – say they’re standing there side by side – and if one of them announces he wishes to buy a pear tree another non-indigenous man will immediately suggest that he buy a peach tree instead. The same thing occurs if he says he is going to buy a Ford. Somebody will tell him that he ought to buy a Chev or an Oldsmobile. If he ventures an opinion about music or politics somebody will immediately tell him, in a friendly way of course, what he ought to be listening to, or who he ought to be voting for. In the non-indigenous society the one who can out-advise the other is one up, and the loser is expected to take his defeat with good grace. Now in the Indigenous society, this is not permitted. Advising or instructing, or ordering or persuading, is always considered bad form or behavior.
This also is a very widespread and very widely practiced behavior. It seems to have had its origin again in the Indigenous society, in which there were shamans and the like about all over the place. And one dared not show one’s temper because these shamans and what-have-you could cast a spell on you, put the bothers on you if you insulted or offended them, or showed them your temper. And because they did not always reveal themselves – they were such secret shamans and others – it was not possible to tell by an ordinary glance who was the good shaman and who was the bad shaman, etc. And anger was something which provoked them, so that the children were taught from a very early age never to demonstrate any angry behavior.
This is one that personally gets me into most trouble, not only experiencing the concept of Indian time, but explaining it. Time is, to an Indigenous person, something which must be used and enjoyed. One does not move onto something else until one has finished what one is doing. It seems to have had its origin – again I have to say “seems to” because we don’t have precise information – in that activities of Indigenous people used to be regulated by the seasons, by the sun, and by the migratory patterns of birds and animals; a changing food supply, absence of electricity and hydro power, so they had to be dependent upon the seasons and nature to supply them with food, with light and all kinds of things. And having learned to live in harmony with nature and relevance to these things, the concept of “doing things when the time is right” came into play – which is still in play today.
All the assets and resources of a community or of a family, or of the extended family, are shared and one is supposed to take no more than what one needs from the environment, than one needs to survive. To take more to waste is bad. To take more than one’s fair share or more than what one actually needs to survive is considered greedy and wasteful. This is one of the greatest of all the Indigenous ethics and it’s universal. It could have had its origin in the need to show hospitality to wandering hunters even though there was not much food in the village. The hunters from another group, another family, or another clan, must be fed in order that they would take food back to their own people. That may have been the origin of it. But the principle is survival of the whole group over individual prosperity and individuality. This is the principle of utopism, the principle of all socialism, and alleged to be the principle of Christianity as well. The Indigenous people do not use it as a political ideology or as a religion; it is acted out as the way Indigenous people live.
Gratitude among Indigenous people is very rarely shown; it’s very rarely verbalized. One is not rewarded for being a good teacher, doctor, farmer, fisherman, hunter, because that is what you are supposed to be. If you are trained to be a nurse you should be a good one. To be less than perfect would be a bad thing for you to be. You would not be developing the best part. So that if you do a good job, that’s fine, you are not going to be thanked for it. To be thanked for it would be superfluous because doing a good job has its own intrinsic reward. Our people have a lot of difficulty accepting gratitude, but that’s another ball game. The non-indigenous people who work with us though, sometimes in helping situations – especially the ones who go to remote villages and suffer some sacrifice for working with Indigenous people – the non-indigenous people need a great deal of praise, reward, and reinforcement for what they do and when it’s not forthcoming they often turn on us and say, “You ungrateful savages! I’ve done so much for you. Why aren’t you giving me a gold watch? I’ve been here for two years and not one of you has thanked me for what I did.” This gives rise to difficulty with kids in school when the kids are praised by their teachers. They will often deliberately screw up the next day so that they get away from this gratitude. They know that they have not done a good job and to be told in front of the rest of the class that they have, is being lied to and humiliated for having their work pointed out to them.
Now that is a word chosen to summarize; ceremony, manners, way of doing things, strictness. It might seem to a casual observer that the Indigenous society is rather loose and unstructured, and there are not many rules of etiquette or behavior. This is not the case at all. It is one of the most highly structured and demanding sets of manners or social behaviour ever seen. We have specific rules about how to behave and they are local to each group and each tribe.
This is a more technical kind of thing. The non-indigenous people use this method of teaching their children – it’s called ‘shaping’. Whereas the Indigenous use ‘modelling’. Shaping is B.F. Skinner’s ‘Operand Conditioning”, if you want to look into that one. Say a non-indigenous person is teaching a non-indigenous kid how to dress – he uses the shaping method, one way being “rewarding successive approximations” of the behavior he wants. Some are really complicated; for instance, if a non-indigenous woman wants to teach her kid how to dress, she puts his sock on halfway and encourages him to pull it up, finishes dressing him and says he’s a good boy having done that much. The next day he learns to pull the whole sock on, then the other sock. Now that process takes about six weeks. But the non-indigenous mother who does not have all that much to do can take that time to do that sort of thing every morning to teach her kid how to dress. So in this group that we ran, with these young Indigenous people in London, we started to sniff this out, and there is nothing random about this, as a matter of fact. I asked Mary, a Native person, how she taught her kid to dress and she said, “I didn’t, he just did it.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” It came to me that she did it until he was four or five years old, and then one day when the kid felt competent, he took over and did it himself. He did it then ever after, unless he was sick or regressed in some way.
When non-indigenous people are placed in an anxiety-provoking situation, such as a party – there are all kinds of situations, but one of them is the psychiatric interview. They are taught to react in an anxiety-provoking situation with a great deal of activity and that is usually talking – talk your head off – and that is what they will do.
It might seem that because the Indigenous people live on welfare that they are very dependent people. This is again the furthest thing from the truth. Indigenous people are the most independent minded people. One is expected to look after oneself, take one’s own council and not be told what to do by other people; make up your own mind about everything, listen to advice but not follow it very precisely, incorporate it into what you know is right, and go on from there.
Copyright © Benoit First Nation