Saturday, February 13, 2010

Canada: The Gold and Beyond

Statue of Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq, mascot of the...
We really are different countries, the United States and Canada. Before you say, "Well, duh!" let me tell you what I mean. While watching the opening ceremonies of the 21st Olympiad last night, I couldn't help but marvel at the emphasis placed on the role of Canadian First Nation aboriginal peoples. The entire show was incredible and the creative dance depicting a young man soaring over the plains of Saskatchewan had me in tears.

I love the Olympics, particularly the winter games, and am an unabashed fool for heroism. Give me a story about someone overcoming the odds knowing full well they'll likely accomplish only a personal best, and I'm on my feet, cheering. Show me a medal winner overcome by emotion and I have to reach for my handkerchief, no matter which country they're from. John Denver said it, "There's a fire in the heart and it feels like a hunger, the spirit is burning consumed by the flame, to be one of the best of the best in the world is its name."

But as I watched the First Nations dance and celebrate their wide-ranging heritage, I couldn't help but think how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to have a similar presentation in this country. To begin with, America is very much a melting pot, to borrow a well-worn phrase. Most of us, at some time or other, have come from somewhere else. And, at the same time, our history, with respect to Native Americans, is complicated.

The settling of the American West was accompanied by encroachment onto tribal lands and the subsequent outbreak of war. Although I hesitate to use the word, "conquest" does seem applicable. Manifest Destiny -- the belief that America was destined, even divinely ordained, to expand to the Pacific -- provided sufficient justification for eliminating interference by native cultures. As a consequence, I think it's safe to say our national identity is not substantially rooted in the contributions of those who were here first. And certainly not in the ways Canadians demonstrated in Vancouver.

My intuition tells me that a similar broadcast in the United States would require some alteration of our national consciousness, lest it appear as little more than entertainment. While films like Dances With Wolves go a long way toward enlightenment on a popular level, we need to pay closer attention to what our children learn. If education can be the magic bullet, then the history of Native Americans should comprise more than a few pages in social studies. By the time a student graduates from high school, s/he ought to be familiar, not only with who lived where, when, how, and why, but who they are today and how they define themselves, for themselves.

That nearly all of us can trace our ancestry to another place and time, doesn't change the fact that we are here, now. Who we are as a People is marked by two hundred plus years of slavery, a Civil War, and our country by several thousand years of habitation by individuals who, at one time, also came from someplace else. This land was their land, to borrow from Woody Guthrie, and in many ways, it still is -- theirs and ours together. It does us all well to honor that relationship

(Creative Commons image of the statue of Ilanaaq the Inunnguaq, mascot of the 2010 Winter Olympics via

(The Gold and Beyond, words and music by John Denver; This Land is Your Land, words and music by Woody Guthrie)

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