Throughout the history of the northern Great Plains there was significant intermarriage and a blurring of cultural identities due to close alliances between the Ojibwe, Cree, and Assiniboine people, and the numerous Metis people who arose from European intermarriage with these peoples – and the tendency of Metis children to move freely between their (often multiple) tribal affiliations. However, today many people choose to simplify their identities in an attempt to "re-imagine their communities" into something that is more readily understandable and easier to deal with on a personal level. Instead of acknowledging the reality of the multi-layered, ambiguous genealogies of our ancestors – and by-proxy ourselves – many people simplify their identity to one tribal group, most often to whatever band (or tribe) that they are enrolled within under the current colonial construct of the reservation/reserve system in the United States and Canada. This tendency to identify as a single heritage misses the great richness and uniquely layered cultures that existed for over a century.
It is undeniable that historically, the Cree, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, and their Metis relatives were allied with each other, and that there was a great deal of cultural and genealogical overlap among these groups. In most of these communities it was natural for people to be multilingual and multi-cultural. However, with the rapid loss of culture and indigenous languages due to the separating of people onto reserves, boarding schools, and assimilative efforts led to a breakdown in culture. Subsequently, many people have begun to simplify their identities, and gravitate towards one tribal group as this is a relatively easy path to cultural revitalization that doesn’t require an in-depth understanding of the nuances of multi-cultural history and genealogy. For instance, in some communities in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, it has become vogueish, both politically and culturally, to identify as solely Cree or Ojibwe, whereas historically many of these communities had both Cree and Ojibwe elements. This is similarly true in American communities like Rocky Boy or Turtle Mountain, where many members of these historically mixed communities have chosen to cast aside the nuanced identities of their ancestors and have chosen to identify simply as Cree or Ojibwe – ignoring the Metis, Assiniboine, and other heritages and cultures that contributed to their community culture and history.
This simplification of heritage and history ignores reality and in many ways is a diminishment of a rich community culture into a basic, colonized, whitewashed version of reality that is easier to present to outsiders. It is much easier to explain to a non-community member that one is simply Ojibwe (or Cree) than it is to explain that the community is a unique expression of a multitude of culture and heritage that developed over hundreds of years, through intermarriage, cultural sharing and exchange, and that it includes elements of many different cultures (e.g. Cree, Assiniboine, Dakota, Ojibwe, Metis, and others).
During our modern cultural revitalization efforts, is it possible to avoid the pitfalls of trying to simplify ourselves? Can we rebuild our diverse, myriad cultures without falling into the trap of simply being Ojibwe, or Cree? Can we rise above colonialism and become who we once were, and who we truly are?
A collaborative effort of members of the Ojibwe and Metis communities