Putting a Price on Culture

When you come to my Kokum’s house, you just walk in the front door if you’re family. I grew up thinking it was weird people knocked on each other’s doors before they entered. My family would just walk in our front door, take their boots off, and head to the kitchen. The kitchen table at my Kokum’s house is the centre of the universe, it’s where we discussed matters of grave family importance, hosted political leaders, discussed community governance, celebrated, and grieved. How you conduct yourself at the table, says a lot about you. It’s a fine dance of unspoken norms and being with each other. For example, Kokum takes a cup of tea, Red Rose of course, with milk and sugar (and honestly it’s more milk than tea). Often, as the youngest and the granddaughter, I made and served her tea. Where we sit, who serves who, how to ask for things, and when to know to just serve yourself, are intimate and deeply cultural things. If I were to walk into your Kokum’s house I would know what to do, more or less, because of these lived teachings of being together. The principles of kiyokewin, visiting is the heart of our wahkotowin, our kinship in our community.

When people think of Métis culture, it’s generally synonymous with Red River carts and the finger woven sash. This is true. The sash, the cart, and jigging are all a part of our shared Métis identity; but our culture is very diverse, complex, and can vary from community to community. Our community ways of being are influenced by the languages we speak, our connection to First Nations kin, and where we are located. Métis in Northern Alberta share a Nation and some cultural similarities with Métis in Southern Manitoba, but community to community there are nuanced cultural intricacies. Our Homeland is vast, we are a polylingual and culturally complex people. This cultural nuance is often erased in the pan-Métisification of Métis cultural identity, and complicated further at the intersection of Métis culture and capitalism.

With a growing urban Métis community and new Métis folks discovering their heritage later on in life, many people are just beginning their journeys home. With the onset of pan-Métisism, many Métis in the beginning of their journey back to their community are not able to learn these cultural intimacies. Furthermore, this is made even more complex by those who claim tenuous heritage to our Nation and monetize this tenuous connection.

We all have a right to our culture, language, and belonging to our communities, but the act of reconnecting is often fraught with deep complications. Often, out of deep want, we romanticize community, but our communities are healing from the complex intergenerational trauma of colonialism. With the history of settlement, forced relocation, Residential and Day schools, and our lived experiences of colonial violence, we are all in a healing process. Even those of us who grew up connected to our communities are in some process of reconnecting. No one said being Indigenous is easy, but it is beautiful. I find myself questioning, when I see fellow Métis people who don’t take the time to find their ancestors and where they’re from. It’s a humbling and difficult process, but it’s the first steps to understanding our kin. Wahkotowin, our kinship, extends beyond just our human living relatives. It reaches deep through space and time to our ancestors, our living kin, our non-human kin, and the plant world. Our homeland is our kin, and we are of our lands and will one day be returned to the land.

You can’t monetize this process. You can’t put a price on culture and community, these things are beyond colonial conceptions of capital. I am always wary of people who put a price tag on culture, because this is our ancestral right, and we shouldn’t have to pay for it. I’m not referring to art, which is a part of the culture, but it does walk a very complex line. I’m referring to individuals who sell the idea of a cultural experience: those who are new to their heritage or have tenuous connections, selling cultural experiences when they’re still reconnecting. How do you sell something you’re still learning? This is an exploitation of Métis who want to reconnect but aren’t sure how, this is not wahkotowin.

When you come into my Kokum’s house, and you want to ask her a question, ask her how she takes her tea. Bring her a small gift, some sweetgrass or some tobacco or some sweets. Ask her how her day is going. The ongoing process of healing from colonial trauma is also a never-ending learning process. It’s important that we continue to look at who is taking and who is giving back, in this learning process. As Métis, we are not only accountable to ourselves, but our family, our communities, the land, and our Nation. It is in our best interest to uplift each other for our collective growth, not see business opportunities in coming home.