Indigenous Communities, Cultures and Shame in Canada

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.


  1. Kiri.Dell

    Kia Ora, thank for this blog post, it provokes an interesting discussion. I can see the line of thinking of to use shame to control people, but don’t agree with it as a modern day tool.

    Shame is a disconnective emotion. It is a feeling that overwhelming forces you to withdrawal by – retreating, hiding, or a need to be alone. However, a protective function, or survival response of the body is to very quickly convert shame to anger, also another disconnective emotion that keeps people separated and disconnected.
    Shame disconnects your from others, and because human survival depends on co-operation with others, shame reduces your chances of survival. I’ve been considering the evolutionary function of shame, which I believe is an innate, primal response that believes you are inherently defective, i.e the belief that you are fundamentally flawed and therefore you, and consequently your ongoing lineage, and future progeny is unworthy of continuance. Prosperous and flourishing human communities absolutely rely on connection, belonging and acceptance – this is not a quality of shame. Shame is the inherent belief that you are unworthy of continuance.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Dara Kelly

    Thanks for joining our community Cliff!

    Kia ora Kiri,

    I also had evidence from my doctoral research that shame is a signal to something that has gone wrong, and that what’s most important in order to preserve balance within communities is a collective commitment to deal with it. This tends to happen in ceremony because of exactly what you have identified – that it is dangerous to grow an ethic of ostracism and exclusion, and that to have the shame borne by individuals will breed internalised negative behaviours. So in one example, there is something called a shame feast where blankets representing the shame are hung on walls, and as guests leave the ceremony, they take the blankets with them as a form of acknowledgement, and a release from one individual and family carrying that weight. These feasts are not supporting shameful behaviour because by having the feast in the first place, you have to face up to the widespread consequences, but ultimately, the community carries the weight together.

    Where a lot of the challenges lie today, is that so much shame is borne by individuals, and goes unseen. And the disconnect, and unworthiness is palpable.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Amber Nicholson

    This is a great piece that has sparked some good discussion!

    I think the fear of shame is currently and was previously a form of social control in many societies, but in Maori society (like in Native communities as mentioned by Dara, we also had ways of righting the wrongs. Maori have the concept/virtue of utu – which restores the balance and includes exchanges of kindness and hospitality, goods and services, as well reconciliatory exchanges for injustices. It was a way of evening the slate. I don’t think our modern mainstream world deals with this balance well (if at all). Today, you are sent to jail or do services or the like for crimes, but that does not mean that your debt to society is paid – in fact we ostracize those people even more. I think there needs to be a way in which these shame feasts, or utu can be played out and balanced restored.

    I don’t agree that there is good shame and bad shame, and so disagree with the thought that shame’s performance can be “optimized”. Shame goes deep to the core and labels oneself unworthy, and so I don’t believe there is a “healthy” version of it. Brene Brown (although not Indigenous) does a lot of work on shame and guilt and how shame is used in modern society.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Abigail McClutchie

    Thanks for the blog post. The hegemonic power of shame not only keeps us oppressed and internalising the coloniser’s oppression but shame also keeps us divided and conquered. We must be very careful about our negative self-talk and our shame-mocking of each other whether it is done in jest or not.


  5. Paul Whitinui

    Great blog, and one the warrants careful critique of the social-historical-political context surrounding shame – working in both worlds. For example, and as aforementioned, shame can be used both as a weapon to exclude, ostracize, punish, isolate, silence, stigmatize, cause self-doubt, withdraw, make inferior, as well as, a way for specific groups to maintain power and control.

    Indeed, defining, deconstructing and re-framing shame is much a personal/cultural endeavour as it is political. We have all had experiences of shame/guilt in our own personal and family lives, yet, what is less known is how we cope, bounce back/forward, change, self-determine or transform that experience into something that is much more positve and strength focused.

    Some Indigenous men, I know, even use their shame status to define who they are because it motivates them to strive to prove others wrong about what they think about them – which I think would make for a very interesting study. In other words, what drives or motivates Indigenous men to excel after being socially or publicly shamed? What strategies do Indigenous men use in this regard? Where do these views, ideas, values, beliefs and attitudes come from?

    There have been a number of examples and studies where Indigenous men have been publicly shamed or made to feel inferior (sport for example) for being violent, abusive, overly-aggressive, hard-men, warriors, etc, rather than being defined as loving fathers, brothers, uncles, relations, or even friends.

    The degree of shame an Indigenous male experiences for doing something wrong can be seen for some as overwhelming even debilitating resulting in further isolation, self-blame, guilt and even depression. Indeed, there seems to be a lack of what constitutes how Indigenous men are able to restore their mana in today’s fast-changing society to the point many Indigenous men end up accepting that this is just the way life is. And, then can be defined as having other conditions that may further complicate the issue that actually began as being or feeling shamed. Add to this the experience of inter-generational colonization and we see a variety of other conditions emerge.

    Levels of shame, status of shame, voices of shame, re-defining shame, de-constructing shame, transforming shame narratives, and even the amount of silencing and stigmas associated with shame are apparent every-day – even when someone says, “I’m not good enough” could also be seen as another example whereby this invidivual may have been shamed to believe they shouldn’t excel or see themselves as better than anyone in their own family – the crab in the bucket scenario, but similar context. The idea that a kumera shouldn’t speak about it’s over sweetness has its pitfalls when we start to dig deeper about issues concerning shame within Indigenous Maori families.

    I think we (even myself) need to talk about it more, re-define it and re-frame it alongside people who understand shame in the same way – it isn’t going away, and in many ways I have seen it shift modes in different spaces – academic snobbery, academic mean-ness, academic competition, etc, Shame is most certainly a barrier to personal healing, and indeed, to the idea of Indigenous flourishing.

    In my own family, those who experience deep-seated shame tend to revert to merely survival mode – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, especially, if they don’t have the capability or opportunities to the seek help required. In other words, they live in a different country and are struggling to make ends meet.

    These are just few anecdotes that came to mind whilst reading this blog. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert in critiquing shame, trauma, or indeed, have any underlying motive other than to share some of my own personal experiences:)

    Noho ora mai ra,


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