Beating the Drum on changing culture

Beating the Drum

Beverly Blanchard is an Ojibway First Nation from Northern Ontario.  She holds a degree in Economics. During the last twenty-two years, she has worked as a consultant to First Nation and Inuit organizations in a variety of disciplines including: homelessness, suicide prevention, violence prevention, childcare, HIV/AIDS, women’s issues, business planning, and economic development. She has also designed and delivered Aboriginal awareness and stress management workshops to Federal government employees. Currently, Ms Blanchard is a life strategy coach, author and energy healer in Ottawa. She is the author of the blog Ancient Wisdom, which will be found at

The changing culture — then to now

Beverly Blanchard photoAs I walked into my office this morning, I looked out the window to see a large picture of a First Nation man in braids and traditional clothing. In behind him was a horse. The image was plastered on the side of a U-Haul truck. My first thought was how fitting; here I am preparing to write an article on First Nations culture.

Unfortunately, the image on the truck is one that is carried into today. The proud First Nation on a horse in communion with nature.  As I sit down to write this article, I find myself grappling with the concept of culture. What exactly do I say?

I have worked for more than twenty-five years in the community and I have seen the culture change. I have seen the words culture and tradition battered around. I have watched community members fight over who is more traditional. I have seen the word Elder morph into something that does not resemble what it used to mean. I have seen the homogenization of culture.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there were distinct tribes. Each practiced their own form of spirituality based on the geographical landscape in which they lived. Many of the tribes believed that we were all related and everything was sacred. Unlike their European counterparts, this relationship included all animals, plants and even stones. When hunting or taking something from the earth, a ceremony was held and there was an appreciation for all gifts received.

In my early years, I was very fortunate to be taught by some amazing Elders. Unlike today these individuals were chosen as Elders not because of their age but because of their wisdom. One such Elder was Chief Dan Pine who was originally from Garden River.  He was a healer who understood the medicinal value in many of the plants, and was known around the world for his healing abilities.

I remember him telling the story of how we communicated across Lake Superior. Contrary to the popular story about the use of smoke signals, he told the story of vibration. Messages were often communicated to the tribes across the great water by pounding stones on the rocks by the shore. The vibration would reverberate across the water and the message would be picked up and interpreted by its intended recipient.

In the early years I was told about the four sacred herbs (sweetgrass, sage, cedar, and tobacco). They were to be collected in a ceremonial way and offerings were to be made before the harvesting. Today these herbs can be purchased in a store.

I have a friend who is an Ojibway Elder in her community. She is a very traditional woman and practices many of the ceremonies. We have had many conversations about how much the culture has changed. No longer do people wait to be gifted with drums, eagle feathers and pipes. Instead there are many who purchase these commodities from stores, and self identify themselves as traditional carriers.

The medicine wheel which is commonly used today in teaching was never a traditional Ojibway tool and the four colours (red, black, yellow, and white) that are depicted for the four directions (north, south, east and west) have been adapted to today’s world. I was somewhat surprised one day when I was looking into the Hindu religion and saw the four colours used to outline the caste system.  There are some nations who use completely different colours in their teachings. For example, the Cherokee use seven colours in their teachings (red, blue, black, white, yellow, green, and brown).

Pow Wows as we see them today were not how they were in yesteryear. As Ojibway people, we held gatherings held at certain times of the year. Usually these were around the Solstice and were a time of giving thanks and appreciation by dancing and feasting. Nowadays, during the summer months, there are Pow Wows held every week-end and the dancing is competitive. Powwows may include contemporary music performances, rodeos, baseball games, fairs, concerts and trade shows.

Next article I extrapolate more on the culture and demonstrate how the Christian missionaries and Europeans influenced and changed the culture.