I had a conversation with a friend. We had coffee together and I was talking to him about a phenomenon that I had been encountering. It was a group of people that were culture consultants. Yet, they didn’t seem to be really practising the culture. You rarely saw them in the community. They came with high price points. Sometimes they even took tobacco and gifts and didn’t follow through. In one case they cancelled for a higher paying gig the day before their promised date due to speak. I recognize that people need to be paid for their work, but this wasn’t like that. It was all business for some of these guys. So he called them “culture pimps”. At first I laughed; then he went on to explain to me the dangers associated with some of these things. Especially ceremonies, he explained the protocol and the difference between real ceremony and culture pimping. Then he warned me about the dangers of it. It can be used in a negative way. If you can buy a ceremony then it can be manipulated. In some cases, the ceremonies are not properly performed because the mentorship is not there. It was one of the best conversations of my life. He and I are still great friends. I have many good and wise friends. They make me think. Since this talk, I have always tried to maintain a healthy respect for the ceremonies I partake in, where I partake in them and who is leading them. I have also moved away from this kind of cultural exposure. Although, many of my works include cultural knowledge, it is done in protocol and not to give away the sacred. I believe it needs to be earned and it has to be a part of your everyday life.
Later I was talking with another friend. I had been doing some volunteering and had been invited to this community discussion about Urban Poverty and Homelessness. Although, I am quite vocal now, at the time, I was still quiet. I didn’t say much but I noticed a lot. The first thing I noticed was that no one in the room was an actual poor homeless person. There were social workers,business people, people that I knew from various boards and government branches but not a single poor homeless person. When I initially left my husband, I transitioned into the crushing poverty of being a student single parent of two children. I was struck and in awe of the lack of insight into what their real priorities and barriers were. I was also shocked by the dismissive and marginalizing attitude of the people in the room. They all had all the answers but not one of them actually had a clue to the amount of barriers they were putting up. Their frame of reference was very much from within their own personal worldview. There were many assumptions tossed around about what people in poverty should be able to do because that’s just how things were done. Like I said, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. Later these barriers were included in the terms and conditions to receiving supports and I had to begin dealing with them. My job became harder as transportation became a barrier, wait times became barriers, new policies for identification became barriers, assumptions about the priorities of a poor person became barriers. Then I got copies of the reports and I realized that these meetings were filling a mandateof consultation. I wished that I had been braver.
At first these meetings seemed to be collaborative, they wanted ideas and knowledge of barriers. They changed. They became about telling us what the next round of changes would be. There was no negotiation. This is what is going to happen. Much of these recommendations were in direct opposition to the current research but any counter point was dismissed and dissenting voices were quickly silenced. It was like what we were saying just didn’t count. Again, I received the reports and realized that this too, was considered consultation. So over a period of about 4 years, the parameters of consultation shifted. It had some form of dialogue. It needed work because it didn’t seem to be inclusive or in solidarity but it was workable. Then it became an information session where we were informed of all upcoming changes; no dialogue…figure out how to make it happen…but on the reports it was still recorded as consultation. Obviously, there was a reaction to this. We stopped going to those meetings. There is no point going to a meeting if your voice won’t be heard and if the work has stopped progressing. It’s actually passive resistance but the institutions I was dealing with called it lack of engagement.
This is where these two trends merged into one new. The consultation process required some form of Native involvement;something new developed. Suddenly the culture pimps re-emerged. They were opening with prayers or songs or doing talks or mc’ing and I don’t think theyrecognized what was happening with the overall process. It wasn’t their job to find out that stuff;it was their job to make things look cultural but you couldn’t question it because it was a ceremony and finally our ceremonies were getting recognized,our languages were being spoken; unfortunately, it was all being used as consultation. So things that an Elder would say, “No, youshouldn’t do that because…” were being shopped around to the consultant whowould do it…for a price. Another disturbing thing started to happen, there were points of protocol that were being checked off like a list. As I became more and more involved in community projects, I saw it more and more. Start with a prayer from an Elder, have ashort teaching, then business as usual. Timeafter time, I saw a shift happen as the “Aboriginal” consultants cognitively and spiritually remove their culture from themselves to be on these boards and committees. I saw kids do in school too. I called it “hang their culture atthe door”. In the community they were oskapios and youth leaders but at school; none of that mattered so they didn’tuse those skills and values. I was watching it happen on a larger scale in Boardrooms, in conventions, in conferences. Indigenous values were lined up at the doorwhile we were in the room doing business. I suppose it may have been a survival strategy. I asked an Elder about it. He told me a story…I have permission to share this story openly and often. It goes like this:
First we had the Indian Agent. He controlled everything we did. Where we could go, what we could do. Then they had to go so they chose a few of thepeople and trained them up on how to control their own people. These people had children and they raised their children in how to use this control…and now those children are our bureaucrats. They are used as weapons against their own people. They are neo-Indian Agents and very dangerous. They know enough about their culture to use it against their own people.
Somewhere in this, I found my voice. I started advocating against the policies that were marginalizing youth. I began doing even more volunteer work and in this capacity got involved in more and more projects. It wasn’t until I got intimately involved with someone who worked as an Economic Development Consultant for oil and gas that I saw how deep this well really went. Part of why I was attracted to him was because he was a traditional dancer and spoke a lot about ceremony and the relationships he had with Chiefs. As we became closer, I realized that much of what he said and stood for was window dressing. Yes, he was a dancer…he was also a heavy partier. Yes, he went to ceremony but not to seek wisdom or actually pray…he went to broker deals for oil and gas. He considered it part of the job. He spent a great deal of time and thought trying to figure out how to spin things for the Chiefs to “buy in”. He had a very opulent lifestyle. He made a very good living, pretending ceremony as consultation for oil and gas. So was my introduction to full immersion checkmark consultation in First Nations politics.
This painting was a response to about 5 years of experiential learning. In talking with my friend and Elders, I began to recognize that our extinguishment of Treaty and legal standing as First Nations would be through a process of check mark consultation and culturepimping. I did the painting 2 years ago but I didn’t explain it until now…again, out of fear to offend. Many people think that speaking against any cultural inclusion is disrespectful but the announcement of the First Nations Control of First Nation Education Act has quickened my knowledge of this painting.
The background of this painting was done to resemble certain things that contemporary Aboriginal people deal with. Our backgrounds include brick buildings, rivers, fields and buildings. We are here, contemporary and traditional. We wear many hats and flourish in many situations.
The second layer is all the colonial industry complex that has influenced us. The railroad, agriculture, oil and gas. All of these things are considered progress and try to affect our Chief and councils. The thing is that they are also killing the land. There is a cost to progress. We lose our land, our water, our medicines,our traditional knowledge and indeed we also lose our Indigenous Identities aswe chase down the concept of the white man’s normal. We assume the identity that begins toassociate our worth through fitting in with the economic paradigms. We are no longer cheering for the person whois willing to speak the truth. Those people are often jeered and dismissed completely because they don’t fit that paradigm.
So I have a Chief wearing one of those headdresses that you find at the Dollar store in their party supplies. There are 3 feathers. I realize that the imageprobably initially angers people but I am portraying the metaphor from the perspective of the non-Indigenous consultants and perspective of Industry. They see C & C in three year terms. There is often a quick turn around. In cases where there is constant turn around,it works to the advantage of these guys. For one, new Chiefs have a very short period of time to get up to speed and learn all the ins and outs of the Indian Act system and all the attached bureaucracy. There is a reliance on the training on the issues by consultants. I had a friend who found himself elected to council. He told me about how he was so overwhelmed. No post-secondary education, no experience with law or governance. He got tossed in cold. His first few months in, he was sent to spend time with the lawyers in Edmonton. The consultants were nice, treated him with great respect or so he thought. They reassured him that they had been working with these projects for a number of years through different councils. They were on top of it and were experts. He went through Indian Act Bureaucracy 101 in lightning speed and then was rushed from meeting to meeting for 3 years. He was sent to conferences and meetings and had everyone calling him for his opinion on everything. He felt important. Everyone wanted to take him for dinner, have meetings and he spent so much more time with people outside the Reserve.
The demands for accountability from the membership were counteracted with a reinforcement from consultants and other experienced political people he had met with the advice to ignore them. They didn’t know what they were talking about anyways and weren’t worth the effort to educate about it. That’s what the confidentiality agreements were for. After three years,he felt like he had the hang of it; but he didn’t get re-elected. When he was in it, he didn’t see it. As soon as he done in council, none of those people wanted anything to do with him. Suddenly, he wasn’t important. They were busy grooming the next person. His phone stopped ringing. And all those projects and important deals didn’t include him anymore and his confidentiality agreements gagged him from speaking about them. His phone stopped ringing; no one wanted his opinion anymore. The C and C rotate but the consultants stay the same and no one wants to talk to the people on the Reserve. They want to talk to the people that can make decisions. So this isn’t about disrespecting Chiefs and Councils. It’s about the three year terms that make it impossible to create long term analysis and plans under that constant rotation.
The horses are made out of pics of metal and steel structures. All the signs of progress and they face away from the C and C. This symbolizes that sometimes, these consultants make more money than ever comes back into the community. In the case of our culturepimp consultants, that money goes into the pockets of individuals who will saythat the company consulted the community but they actually recruitednon-community people who worked around most of the people by engaging the C and C and specific administration only. Completely omits Elders, grassroots people, traditional knowledge holders.
The three consultants on the left of the C and C: lawyers, the government and the culturepimps who go to ceremony with them to pitch oil and gas projects. They steer them away from traditional values and encourage “progress” and “economic development”.
So why wouldthe announcement of the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act remind me of this painting. It’s because I have spoken many many times about both of these things; checkmarks and culture pimps. The culture pimping ofhollow ceremonial practices that give the outward appearance of cultural protocol but are left at the board room door and therefore the deals do not reflect Indigenous Values. They have been co-opted by economic development and Robert’s Rules of Order. The use of ceremony to silence dissent. We watched this happen before an International audience. We also learned that this deal was struck through “high level meetings”, which implies, checkmark consultation through a small group of people who are complicit in neo-colonialmindsets. Ceremony and protocol werecheck marked to give the illusion of inclusion. It was exactly as my Elder warned me about. I remember telling my friend, ”Checkmarks and Culture Pimps will be the end of us.”
I was always afraid to say this and describe this painting because I knew many would consider it negative and disrespectful. Perhaps I will deserve the criticism that will come out of it…but I doknow this…someone needs to say it. Perhaps I am crazy…and negative…and too angry or maybe it’s just prophecy.