During the course of my doctoral research – which focused on the political economy of my father’s people, the Ahousaht – I examined whether engaging in capitalist enterprises negatively compromised our identities as Nuu-chah-nulth-aht. My conclusions are complicated, but during my inquiry I uncovered some issues around Indigenous identities, cultural norms and social conventions that I wish to examine further. Specifically, I am interested in the role of shame as a tool in maintaining cultural integrity and norms in Indigenous communities.
In a peer-reviewed journal article there will be a lot to unpack, but here I simply want to identify some of the key issues that will require a more thorough examination and nuanced analysis. First is the issue of Indigenous cultural integrity. I believe that all cultures are dynamic and contested. I do not adhere to a dogmatic or essentialist understanding of Indigenous cultures that are frozen in time. That being said, I believe that how an Indigenous culture is perpetuated should be, as much as possible, determined by those Indigenous people. True Indigenous self-determination requires political, economic, spiritual and cultural autonomy. This does not mean that cultural cross-pollination never occurs, but that it does so consensually, not through further colonisation.
My interest in shame came about because as I kept digging for a method to evaluate Indigenous participation in economic development projects, I started asking the questions: What makes us uniquely who we are and what characteristics exemplify good Nuu-chah-nulth behaviour? I started to identify various characteristic, traits and behviours as well as explore the means by which these were encouraged or enforced. One method was origin stories and another was shame. We often talk about our stories, but we seldom talk about shame as a social tool.
My interest was further piqued when I came across the 2015 book, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool, written by NYU assistant professor Jennifer Jacquet. She distinguishes between shame as a public act enforcing cultural norms and shame the emotion, although they are certainly connected. She also distinguishes between shame and guilt. Shame is more common in collectivist societies, while guilt is more common in individualistic (liberal) ones. The former is a public interaction, while the latter is a private, individual affair. Jacquet writes, “Shame’s performance is optimized when people reform their behviour in response to its threat and remain part of the group” (p. 99). We are not talking about banishment or other more severe forms of punishment, but of mechanisms that are meant to re-establish balance and perpetuate Indigenous cultures and community harmony. However, we cannot ignore the impacts on settler colonialism.
Settler colonialism has complicated (to say the least) Indigenous lives, governing institutions, spiritual beliefs and cultural norms. The principles behind settler colonialism and the ways in which it was carried out – including residential schools – amount to what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada called, “cultural genocide.” The experiences of Indigenous people in Canadian residential schools introduced whole new realms of shame previously inconceivable and this must be considered in my inquiries. Indigenous children were taught to feel guilt and shame for everything about their traditional cultures and communities. And even though the residential schools have closed, the settler governments and societies of Canada have continued the tradition of shaming many aspects of Indigenous cultural traditions that have not been considered liberal, benign, commodifiable and consumable
I am also talking about resistance and decolonisation, two areas that are not receiving much attention in our current ‘era of reconciliation.’ Referring to Idle No More and Mi’kmaq resistance to natural gas “fracking”, Glen Coulthard reminds us that they are a resistance to that which is destructive, but, “they also have ingrained within them a resounding ‘yes’: they are the affirmative enactment of another modality of being, a different way of relating to and with the world” (2014, 169). The present day politics of recognition, symbolism and reconciliation seem to demand that we only exhibit and accentuate the positive. I believe that our lives are more complex than that, and that we should not shy away from uncomfortable truths, both about settler colonialism and our own internal critiques.
So, as I move forward with this I will ask: Is shame still a valid tool for encouraging and enforcing desirable cultural norms? What are our desirable cultural norms and undesirable aberrations? How has settler colonialism complicated these? How do we avoid the pitfalls of colonial essentialism, while maintaining our own senses of cultural autonomy and integrity? This will require a closer look at contemporary Indigenous communities and their unique circumstances and challenges. Ultimately, I hope to better understand Indigenous community dynamics, particularly as we remain surrounded by, and infused with, settler neoliberal governance and economic hegemony, and struggle for a better future for our children.
Coulthard, Glen. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Jacquet, Jennifer. Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool. New York: Pantheon Books, 2015.