By Beverley O’Neil
In the Aboriginal community people like to tell stories. Stories about frog, raven, coyote, bear – how each of these creature’s experiences can teach us a lesson about life that makes each of us better people. One of these stories, “The crab basket”, has almost become one of those urban myths as well as a pan-Indian story adopted by many First Nations. It was one of the first stories I heard when I worked as Director of Economic Development for the Ktunaxa Nation Council. While technically we have no crabs in our territory (at least the kind that live in the water), the story had relevance to my Bands and Nation. Often used as a tale in community economic development, the story goes…
A young man walks onto a wharf and sees an Indian contently fishing for crabs. The two men begin conversing. The young man notices that beside the Indian sits two large baskets. The one with a lid on it is weighted down with rocks; bangs continually reverberate from the lid by the crabs below it who are frantically hitting the cover to escape. The other basket has no lid. The young man looks in to see several crabs sitting on the bottom, virtually lifeless.
The young man asks, “You have two baskets of crabs one with a lid, the other without. Why?”
The Indian replies, “Oh the one with the lid are white crabs. If you leave the lid off they’ll climb out and get away. The other basket without the lid has red crabs.”
“So why are they different? Why are the red crabs just lying on the bottom? Are they dead?” The young man asks.
“No,” the Indian man says. “Whenever a red crab tries to crawl out of the basket, the others pull it back down.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that story told at conferences, in speeches, by many Aboriginal leaders of many backgrounds – business, education, health, and politics. It always leads me to wonder, if this story is about our communities, our people, how can this story be changed? How can we help those red crabs get out of that basket? Among the answers lie economic development, self-esteem, culture, pride, values, perspective, opportunity, and education.
Over a discussion with a friend about North American society values, quality of and standardized education, and labour, unions and their employers, I told the crab story.
His question, “What does the basket symbolize?”
“That depends on what the topic is,” I replied. “It could be education, community, but let’s just say it is the economic and social environments of a community.” But in the back of mind I wondered, What if that basket is the community? What is wrong with that basket? Or should we ask, what is wrong with not wanting to stay in the basket? Should we really try to encourage people to leave like the white crabs?
Confidently he said, “You have to change the basket.”
And I began to think about how that basket can be viewed. If it were the community, what can be done to make the community a more joyous place to live? I thought of the gatherings held in different communities. The way many Bands ensure their people have firewood and food, the kids have Christmas presents, the Elders can stay in their homes because support services are available to them, the kids learn their language and about their culture and history, and new houses and schools are being built. And I thought too of those villages where opportunity are few, there isn’t a Band hall for people to gather, people are afraid to voice their opinions or feel their concerns will not be heard, and where there is high alcohol, drug and physical abuse. And I couldn’t forget those people that do work in their community, but are beat and pulled down with verbal slander, jealousy and hatred by people who are supposed to be their friends. No wonder people want to leave those communities or resort to self-exile, what reason do they have to stay?
The “basket” is not such a wonderful place for many Aboriginal people. High unemployment rates, high youth suicide, high alcohol, drug and physical abuse, poverty, poor housing, lack of economic opportunities, poor health, and low life expectancy have become interwoven into the spokes of our communities. In Canada more than half of registered Indians live off-reserve (out of their communities), many have moved to urban centres seeking “a better way of life” than the one they left behind. Few find it. Poverty prevails among Aboriginal people in urban settings along with alcohol, substance and physical abuse. BC has roughly 170,000 and of these an estimated 40,000 live in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD). In this area, of the homeless, over 30 percent are Aboriginal of which 7 in 10 are living on the streets (SPARC Homeless Count 2005). The balance move from shelter to shelter; they have no permanent home. The homeless rate is alarming in a province where Aboriginal people represent 4 to 5 percent of the population.
What contributes to this dreadful fate? The answers were not revealed in the study. Are the baskets, the homes and communities of these people a place to be escaped? It is all in the way you interpret that basket. For those that think it is better elsewhere, the goal is then, “Get me out of here!” But to change the story you have to ask, “What is the goal of the individual, community and nation? What elements went into creating and maintaining that basket – i.e., education, economic environment, values, resources, knowledge, and people? What values, principles have to be promoted to change the view of that basket and the basket itself?”
Someone said, “The greatest asset of a nation is its people.” The knowledge and experience of those people is what will change that basket. This is gained through education.
Few of our Aboriginal youth are completing high school. According to the 2001 Census only 41 percent of youth living on-reserve are finishing, a slight increase from 1996’s rate of 37 percent. In First Nations where more than 40 percent of our people are youth and our birth rates are 1.5 times greater than the Canadian rate, time is of the essence. Change must occur. What is wrong with education to youth, or to their family, and to their community? Is it seen as something for those “Who think they are better than others”? Are people afraid of what they will learn? Are people afraid of those that do learn? Do some feel inadequate? Does the school system fail them?
Ask some of the Elders who are Indian residential school survivors their view on youth and education and don’t be surprised if they reply with comments like, “School taught me discipline and skills I could use – writing, math, reading. Our youth need discipline. Many youth can’t even write. They don’t respect what they have.”
A conversation with an African-American man one day led to his comment, “My father told me to get an education because there was a time when we were not permitted to go to school (or to learn).” Education to his family was a right, a right that they were going to exercise because their ancestors were banned from that right based on the color of their skin. Many African people were also punished, beaten and killed for becoming educated. An educated African was to be feared because it meant they could understand, learn their rights, make change, become independent, be leaders in their community, and rise up and above the social disgrace their masters/captors forced them to live. To his family, education provided choices and was a means to a better life. It was not to be shunned, but to be held in high regard and to honor those that attained it.
For our Aboriginal ancestors, they too faced abuse through education. In the late 1800s, First Nations were forcibly removed from their communities to be educated in a residential school, and then after denied access to college and university education because they were Indians. There was a day that the only way a registered Indian could go onto post secondary studies was to resign their right to be recognized as an Indian. The view was that an educated Indian earned the right to be “Non-Indian” and thus gained access to societal benefits that an uneducated Indian was denied. Canada felt an educated Indian should feel privileged to be considered non-Indian. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that registered Indians could choose to attend a provincially operated public school; this was when Indian education was first shared by the federal government, as the primary agent, with the provincial.
In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB, subsequently the Assembly of First Nations) wrote National Indian Brotherhood Releases Indian Control of Indian Education which recognized life long learning as a part of First Nations culture. “Education began at birth and continued through one’s entire life… they were taught according to their role as a contributor to society.” The paper proclaimed, “The right to education had been negotiated through the treaties” and referenced the Indian Act of 1876 where it was entrenched.
So then why are so many Aboriginal people shirking education? It is a right that our ancestors enforced, that contributed to the survival of our communities and nations and languages, and that in recent times our political leaders succeeded in having it established in legislation as a right. There are Aboriginal people who value education. The average age of the Aboriginal post secondary student is higher than non-Aboriginals; more mature Aboriginal people have returned to post secondary studies. Where are the young?
For registered Indians, the post secondary tuition fees and a living allowance may be provided by their Band, thus removing the barrier of money. And when the Band can not cover these costs, the student can make application for a student loan. For those who don’t want to leave their community, more credited college and university courses are available by correspondence and on-line (the Internet), and many B.C. community colleges have become universities. Education is more accessible than it ever was.
Why are so few Aboriginal people exercising this right, especially when so many rights of Aboriginal people are being degraded? Common advice of our leaders is “Exercise your rights now before they are lost.” If we don’t use them, they no longer become part of our culture, like the lessons taught to us by raven, bear, coyote, frog and crab.
Education must be promoted as a wonderful thing to be gained, and that it doesn’t stop the day you get your high school diploma, or walk out of that classroom throwing your books against the wall saying, “I don’t need it.” You will always need it. Lessons are all around us. When we stop learning, we stop living, and we stop fulfilling our responsibility to ourselves, our family, our nations and we dishonor our ancestors and the leaders who fought for our right to education.
Should each of us become lackadaisical like the red crabs and accept less out of life than we are able to achieve to appease what is becoming the status quo in our communities?
The movie Spelling Bee (of an inner city African-American girl who goes on to win the national spelling bee contest) quotes Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. It is our light more than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves – who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you to not be so?” When we give ourselves permission to be all that we were born to be, we give others the courage to face their fears and to be who they were intended to be.
Beverley O’Neil is a citizen of the Ktunaxa Nation, President of O’Neil Marketing & Consulting and Numa Communications Ltd., as well as a freelance writer. Tel. (604) 913-1905 www.designingnations.com