People of the Valley

Late January. -33 yesterday evening, as we returned home by dogteam from an unsuccessful hunt. This morning another wide front of warm moist air is depicted on the aviation weather chart, my weather forecasting crystal ball. Pushing in from the coast of northern B.C. and southern Yukon, it has already blotted out the crystalline stars and Milky Way we enjoyed last night, and the barometer is in free-fall. The temperature is climbing. In fact, a mile above the lake surface at 6500 feet, the winds aloft forecast predicts a temperature right around the freezing mark — in late January over the Arctic!  Minus 17 at ground level now – just slightly below zero for you Fahrenheit fans. Two hours before sunrise. It has been a winter of many such systems, shouldering in from the west one after another, and thus a winter of poor flying conditions such as we normally endure in November and early December, to happily put behind us as true winter sets in. This year, no true winter. One of those years. Sure is easy on the firewood pile.

Lately I have been pondering the word “indigenous.” A recent column in the Yellowknife paper re-kindled these musings. “To be indigenous, or non-indigenous,” by Walt Humphries. Walt is a long-time Northwest Territories resident – a prospector, pundit, artist, man about town and man about the bush. A fellow who might be irked by the adjective “colorful” but to whom it might still apply. I don’t know Walt but we travel in some shared circles and I enjoy his contributions to the local paper which appear under the title “Tales from the Dump.” (The Yellowknife city dump is a city landmark, part landfill and part barter-and-trade marketplace. It is common for Yellowknifers of a certain stripe to bring a load to the dump, and essentially just exchange it for another load which they then bring home. Thus Walt’s title.)

Walt was pondering aspects of the label “Indigenous” in his January 15 column in the Yellowknifer.  He had recently discovered, in some back alley of bureaucratic rule-making and definition, the interesting – though evidently mostly meaningless – fact that a person in the NWT becomes officially indigenous when more than half of their lifetime has been lived in the NWT.   A quick personal calculation went on as I read his piece, as I am sure it did for many other readers: I am in my 59th year, and this year will mark my 29th anniversary of life on the shores of McLeod Bay, at the mouth of the Hoarfrost River. Yup, I am there. Or I will be in July.

Walt went on to write about the complex bureaucratic labeling that is applied to people’s status and race in the North. This is, as you can probably imagine, a minefield of political correctness, proper-speak, old wounds and new scars, and hot tempers. A place where even many pundits fear to tread. But not Walt. “What bonehead or committee of boneheads came up with the status and non-status categories?” he asks. “I also have similar feelings about the ‘non’ category. In the long run nothing good will come from that designation because it marginalizes and divides people needlessly. It seems odd to classify people by what they are not because a person is not a lot of things including races, religions and cultures.”

Call me timid, but I am going to try to sidestep that minefield, because believe me it is almost literally a minefield hereabouts. Let’s not go there right now, as the cool correct people say these days.  Or let’s go there, but try to do so gently and abstractly.

Indigenous: what say you, Dictionary?

  1. Occurring or living naturally in an area; not introduced; native. From Latin indigena, meaning native.
  2. Intrinsic; innate.

I like this definition, from my old American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition.  (1975!  Off to College he goes… Yikes.) What I like about it is its lack of specific reference to genetics. Because there is the rub, these days, for all denizens of the back-country reaches of the North, and I imagine it is a rub too for others similarly back-of-beyond in other parts of the world.

Are we to divide this entire country forever on the basis of race, or will we someday, down the long road of progress and enlightenment, begin to accept and embrace a casting aside of racial division and racial privilege and racial discrimination? Sometimes, in pondering trends and current affairs, I find it helpful to look farther ahead, and farther back, than our myopic habits usually tend to do. Sometimes it is helpful to look way ahead. (A blink of an eye, a few generations.) Fast forward 200 or 300 years. Rewind 200 or 300 years. Ponder.

Think about this: Is it likely that, in 2216 or 2316, assuming that by miracle and bold action this beleaguered planet still provides a home to this overpopulated and destructive species of ours, we will on a January morning still be parsing out rights and privileges based on the genetic and historical background of individuals and bloodlines, circa 1910 or 1920? Check the rewind, just for perspective. Consider such issues as they were in 1816, or 1716… Yikes again.

A quick look around would seem to answer my rhetorical question. Today the melting pot is hot, and heating up hotter by the week, fired by rapid worldwide communication, mass migration and jet-speed movement, and a global marketplace of trade and commerce.

Whither, then, Indigenous? Will we someday finally remove our notions of “native” from the boundaries of race, and instead place “native” in the context of a person’s daily – walked and breathed, watered and fed – awareness and way of life? An awareness based in a place, a watershed and an ecosystem, its cycles of food and weather; in a local livelihood, neighborhood barter and trade; in allegiances to place and family, and the care and appreciation of place and family?

Whoa there, Nellie, we’re sliding toward the minefield again – the PC cavalry is mounting up and I don’t mean the Progressive Conservatives.

So let’s go with a poem. A poem by Wallace Stevens nails what I think – and sincerely hope – will come of this clumsy word “Indigenous,” down the long road ahead:


Anecdote of Men by the Thousand

 The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world.

There are men of the East, he said,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
There are men of a valley
Who are that valley.

There are men whose words
Are as natural sounds
Of their places
As the cackle of toucans
In the place of toucans.

The mandoline is the instrument
Of a place.

Are there mandolines of western mountains?
Are there mandolines of northern moonlight?

The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Made visible.


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