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Are You Sure?

by Barbara Johnstone

Manitoba Pageant, April 1956

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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"Ugh!" says the Indian when he greets you ... or does he? As a matter of fact, he doesn't! Indians don't speak "Indian" for the simple reason that each tribe has its own tongue. There are eleven language groups among the Canadian Indians alone. In just one of these groups, the Athabaskan, there are fourteen tribes - each speaking a variation of the basic Athabaskan tongue.

We have a funny notion that all Indians lived in wigwams, paddled about in birchbark canoes, had totem poles and went about in great, feathered war bonnets. Some Indians lived in wigwams, true. But these were people such as the Ojibway who lived where there was birchbark with which to cover their tent poles. What did the Plains Indians, such as the Blackfeet use though? Why, what nature provided them with - buffalo skins. And of course, they had another name for their house. They called it a teepee. On the Pacific Coast, they had neither buffalo skins nor birchbark, but they had plenty of great cedar trees - so they made their homes of cedar planks.

Similarly, in making their boats the Indians used the materials at hand best suited to boat building. So we have the West Coast Indian digging out a cedar or cottonwood tree and making it into a dugout; while the Woodlands people of northern areas (well within the tree line) constructed the beautiful, graceful birch-bark canoe. And what did the Plains Indian do when he came to a river and wanted to cross ? There were no trees on the prairie. Well, he made a framework of sticks (probably from the willow), covered it with the ever handy buffalo skin, and poled himself across the water.

Nothing seems more natural to us than the idea of an Indian girl with a headband about her head - and from the headband comes the inevitable one, lone feather. This is no more Indian than the little trinkets we buy marked "Souvenir of Canada" on one side and "Made in Japan" on the other are souvenirs of Canada. Sometimes you will see Indian girls and women wearing this feather adornment ... but only because they are dressed up as tourist attractions. The feathered war bonnet was worn only by men belonging to certain tribes on the Plains between the Rockies and the Mississippi River. Furthermore, only certain men were awarded them - powerful medicine men or valiant warriors.

The totem pole is another Indian article we have odd ideas about today. Some of us think that these poles were religious idols. Some of us think that the poles were common to all Indians. Neither of these facts is true. They were made only by certain tribes living on the coast of British Columbia and southeast Alaska, and they were made to show family names and legends. Just as some of us wear signet rings with family crests, so the Haida, Tsimshian and others had their totem poles. Last year a totem pole was presented to some Mohawks of Ontario. How embarrassed those people must feel, knowing that the average white man will associate this West Coast culture with their own Mohawk culture under the handy but ignorant term of "Indian".

When you think about it, aren't the true facts about Indians more interesting than the untruths? If you think so, write us ... and we'll tell you some more!

Page revised: 13 June 2009

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