How to take part in Indigenous culture
By: Callum Denault
Published on: December 19th, 2023
Canada as it is today was built by immigrants, both the European pioneers several white Canadians call their ancestors, and the many people who are currently arriving in this country to build a new life for themselves. Sadly, this colonization came at an unmeasurable cost to the Indigenous people who already lived in Canada for thousands of years before Europeans knew this land even existed.
To live as a non-Indigenous person in Canada is to acknowledge that this country’s original people faced centuries of genocide and abuse well into the 20th century, and that both Indigenous and Black Canadians suffer from higher rates of discrimination than citizens from other ethnicities.
If you are interested in learning about Indigenous Canadian culture or even helping to preserve it, here are some ways non-Indigenous people can get involved in Indigenous culture.
Use Indigenous media
The Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) is an Indigenous media provider, which has its own TV network and shows, along with APTN News which mostly has written articles. The APTN says 80 per cent of its content is Canadian, and available in English, French, and different Indigenous languages.
The APTN was found to have a high degree of factual reporting by a media bias fact checker, and it is “an independent non-profit broadcaster with programming by, for, and about Aboriginal peoples”.
Enjoy some modern Indigenous artists
Tanya Tagaq is an experimental artist whose music combines modern genres, such as punk and metal, with traditional Inuit throat singing. Throat singing is a friendly contest among Inuit women, where women use their voices to imitate sounds of nature and see who can last longer without laughing or running out of breath. Tagaq is also an activist, using her platform to advocate for Inuit issues, such as her community’s need to hunt seals for food, even when their sustainable hunting is criticized by animal rights groups.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is another Indigenous musical artist of Canadian Plain Cree descent who was raised by American parents of Mi’qmaq ancestry. As early as the 1960s, Sainte-Marie’s music made waves for her unique folk style, and for addressing Native American issues in her lyrics. Some of Sainte-Marie’s live performances can be found on YouTube along with several of her songs, including a collab with Tanya Tagaq.
There are plenty of other popular Indigenous musicians other than Tanya Tagaq and Buffy Sainte-Marie, feel free to check them out as well.
Take Okitchitaw lessons
Okichitaw is a martial art tracing its techniques and weaponry to the Plain Cree, and has been taught before the colonial era as a method of hunting, warfare, and survival. In a 2020 interview, Okichitaw’s chief instructor George Lepine said he remembered learning the art from his uncle in the 1970s, when their training was a great risk, as getting caught could have meant jail time.
This is because The Indian Act banned Indigenous people from practicing several aspects of their culture including the Potlatch and Sun Dance. Fortunately these practices never fully died down and people began to protest the laws. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was illegal to spread Okichitaw, according to Lepine.
Nowadays, Okichitaw is open to many students. It teaches a blend of different unarmed and weapon-based techniques, with Lepine saying advanced students train with the art’s four main weapons: the knife, gunstock war club, tomahawk, and lance.
The Toronto Training Lodge is accepting new students. If you are interested then Okichitaw’s official website can be found here.
Buy Indigenous items without culturally appropriating them
Brittanica defines cultural appropriation as adopting the language, clothing, behaviour, or other traditions of a minority group’s culture in a way that is disrespectful, exploitative, or reinforces stereotypes. For example, the didjeridu—belonging to the Aboriginal Yolngu people of Australia—which is a musical instrument that outsiders have used for giving scalp massages, meaning they appropriated an Aboriginal instrument for their own purposes and ignored its cultural meaning.
A Canadian Indigenous item which has often been appropriated is the dreamcatcher: a distinctive Indigenous object made with a hoop containing a web, often adorned with feathers and beads. Dreams are extremely important in Ojibwe culture, and dreamcatchers represent a form of spiritual connection that is unobtainable to people outside Ojibwe culture who make these dreamcatchers. When dreamcatchers are sold to outsiders, the Ojibwe spirituality surrounding these items is often watered down to something simple like, “they catch bad dreams”.
The Indigenous Foundation encourages people to remember how sacred these items are, and while it is not illegal to purchase a dreamcatcher, they strongly advise people support an Indigenous-run business. They say when a non-Indigenous person sells items related to Indigenous culture, it is appropriation. However, it is not appropriation when Indigenous people choose to make and sell things like dreamcatchers to customers.
Take a free course on Indigenous culture and history
Some schools offer a free, online course about Indigenous culture, history, and other subjects, including this course by the University of Alberta on Coursera. Coursera is a website that offers several free courses, and more behind a free trial, so if the University of Alberta course is expired you may be able to find other, more recent free classes about Indigenous issues on Coursera or a similar website.
Donate to or get involved with an Indigenous charity
There are several charities with missions to help the Indigenous people of Canada overcome issues facing them and their communities. One particularly noteworthy movement is the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which aims to address how female Canadians of Indigenous descent are at increased risk of violence and disappearance.