The broad brush of aboriginal reporting

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One of the most interesting things I was told at the 25th anniversary for the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement was that they weren’t hosting any hand games for the evening.

Inuvik Drum Editor Stewart Burnett
Inuvik Drum Editor Stewart Burnett

All of the other communities had hand games for their corresponding celebrations.

Purely from my work-driven need for photography opportunities, I was hoping for hand games in Inuvik and curious why they weren’t on the agenda.

Apparently not everyone here likes hand games. Some view it, I heard, as a Sahtu tradition. It’s not part of the history of the people here and not something many of them want to engage in.

Learning that made me reconsider how I report aboriginal issues in general.

Being non-aboriginal myself, it is natural and easy for me to report on aboriginals as a block, writing that they are engaging in an “aboriginal tradition” or showing their “aboriginal culture.”

Even if I don’t personally like to use those kind of blanket terms, cookie-cutter reporting kind of writes itself.

But hand games are as much an “aboriginal tradition” as hockey is a “white tradition.” It would be bizarre to refer to it like that.

Closer would be calling hockey a Canadian tradition, and in this sense rather than taking such a broad brush of ethnicity, calling something a Gwich’in or Inuvialuit tradition would be more accurate.

Traditions across aboriginal cultures are not all the same, and neither are traditions across white cultures or any other ethnicity. Broad brushes paint a poor picture.

It bothers me to ever refer to someone’s race but as a journalist I can’t escape the fact “aboriginal issues” is a repeated theme of coverage in the North. Almost all the institutions, government to private sector, use the same blanket terminology.

To an extent it makes sense, as the subject of aboriginal history is its own niche considering the circumstances in Canada, whereas “Canadians” is used only as a matter of fact and identification.

Although many aboriginal people speak proudly of the fact they are aboriginal, I can’t help but wonder if any get tired of all aboriginals getting lumped together like tends to be done.

I personally bristle at any sort of group identity being placed on me, whether it’s Canadian, white, male or what have you. I am all of those things but don’t want to be reduced to one and equated to everyone else who shares that trait.

I’m sure there are individualist aboriginal people out there who are rather sick of being recognized for just one characteristic of the many they have. Some, I would bet, are also tired of having “aboriginal” put in front of every title they have, whether they’re an aboriginal musician, aboriginal businessman, etc.

Same goes for women, who are also often treated by the media as a block, all thinking the same and being invested in the same issues. The blunt presumption of using group identity to determine an individual’s opinions is inaccurate at best and downright offensive at worst.

When you’re writing on a deadline, “aboriginal tradition” is an easy way to get through a sentence and move on, without being more precise.

But perhaps I owe the same nuanced view I have of myself to the people on whom I report.