culture Archives - St. Stephen's University

Confiscating Cultures?

By | 2017, Europe | No Comments

The weight of the historical achievements of architecture, sculpture, engineering, technology and art can be felt in many great museums, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London. The feeling that all of these artifacts that formed cultural and societal development throughout the world were in one place for me to experience was a great and exciting sensation, which I felt very prominently as I walked through halls filled with various specimens from long-lost cultures of Europe and Asia.

Victoria & Albert Museum (Courtesy of website)

However, this sense of awe was overshadowed by a question of ownership that had been brought up earlier in our week in London and before the trip. It deals with the fact that some of the artifacts in these museums may be have been stolen for the museums without  taking into account the significance of those objects to the countries that they were from, such as the many Egyptian mummies in the British Museum.

I think the issue has more complexities than simply robbed artifacts, such as legitimately acquiring items through trade, purchase or quite possibly to preserve them to name a few, and it is often not an issue of larger powers robbing from others. I also cannot discount the incredible value of having all of those pieces in one place to study and for the world to come and see. However, in a time where most countries can easily access other ones for research and travel, I wonder whether or not it is necessary to continue to uproot historical landmarks and objects from their cultural context. This is the question I will wrestle with as I travel throughout the rest of Europe, encountering more cultures and their historical achievements.

Moose Bones and Truth

By | 2016 - Aski Learning Tour (Ottawa & Timmins, Ont), Education for Reconciliation, Short-Term Trips | No Comments

[The fourth in a six part series of posts from SSU students participating in a First Nations Learning Tour, hosted by Mennonite Central Committee. The group is travelling in Ottawa & Timmins, Ontario from April 26th – May 8th, 2016.]

Well folks, here we are in Timmins, a city so dusty that many of the graffiti tags are done with fingertips on glass windows (I don’t know whether to blame the spring, the mining, or the unfrequented selection of roads along our route). This marks the beginning of the segment of our journey with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for the Aski Learning Tour. Today was a day of exploration. We started with a presentation by CreeGeo Mushkegowuk Information Services, and from there set out on winding back roads that surrounded our train of vehicles with grey clouds of dust to get to Miken-otaski. When the tall teepee and glow of the warm fire became visible, we were welcomed with smiles and got the opportunity to participate in a traditional cookout consisting of goose, moose, bannock, dumplings, and Labrador tea. After our stomachs were stretched to their full capacity, Annie pulled out a box of freshly caught whitefish to smoke over the fire. We stood in awe as she dexterously decapitated and gutted the fish. However, we were not warned that we were standing directly in the splash zone of the gory deed. That’s a story for another time, but I just had to mention this incredible feast.

The real highlight of my day was what began as nothing more than an impromptu stroll. Amanda (the 14-year-old daughter of our MCC Learning Tour coordinator, Lyndsay) led me down the trail to see an older cloth teepee on a nearby site while pointing out different plant species and their uses along the way. We found that the teepee had been taken down, but I learned a lot from the 4-foot-something wealth of knowledge on the expedition. In addition to the typical conversations about school, pets, and family, she told me about exciting and hilarious encounters with animals in the woods we were travelling in, identified droppings, and explained several traditional ceremonies. By this time, we had been joined by a few more members of the group. We decided to make the most of this time by doing some exploring in the area surrounding the trail. In the clear, flat area where the old cloth teepee once stood, we came across scattered bones of some poor unfortunate soul that were picked clean. Among these remains was a spine, the size of each vertebra comparable to a small dog’s pelvis. Based on this enormity, it was unanimously decided by our bunch of unqualified people that this thing must have once held a moose together. In myself, this discovery revealed a possibly morbid fascination in skeletal systems and paleontology.

Picture1 Picture2 Picture3

Don’t fret: this little excursion did not pass by without a lesson. If I hadn’t gone on this little hike or cut up my legs by trudging through thorns and branches in the woods, I wouldn’t have found those bones. I wouldn’t have had my interest in historical traces peaked, and I wouldn’t have learned from Amanda. Something I’ve noticed in my observations of the First Nations cultures is the great amount of value they place in the passing-down of knowledge and tradition. Amanda (an indigenous girl herself) is more aware of her culture’s traditions than any non-indigenous person her age that I’ve met. I myself know close to nothing in comparison about my own ancestral history, but a new determination to dig for it has been placed in me. Like the moose bones and truths about First Nations, it will have to be intentionally sought after. In the same way, if you don’t go out seeking answers and truths for First Nations issues, you won’t find them. They are intentionally buried, and you won’t just stumble upon them by walking along the beaten path. The government and the public make sure of this by working hard to conceal the abominations to this nation and to our own unearned European dignity. If we sweep all of our unflattering history under the rug, we won’t ever need to address it– out of sight, out of mind. But the truth is that it did happen, and it’s time to move the rug and clean it up. The key is knowing where we come from and who we are, awareness, and education– whether it be self-education, curriculum-based education in school, or educating the public on corrected misconceptions of indigenous issues and the people themselves.

On another note: although today I ate moose meat for the first time- heck, I even held the very core of the animal’s physical body in my hands- I still have yet to see a living, breathing moose. I’ve made it one of my goals on this trip to spot at least one of these (increasingly likely to be mythical) creatures, which has proven to be a challenge. Wish me luck.


By | 2011, Europe | No Comments

Long Live Italy!! Today we saw an amazing and cultural thing. We went to a parade celebrating 150 years of Italienne unification. Everywhere you looked there were thousands and thousands of people standing out in the hot sun. As sweat dripped down their backs they waved flags, clapped, and cheered. They were proud of their country’s past victory. Italy is here to stay and they will make sure of that. We have been learning a lot about the European Union lately and many people believe that soon their will no longer be any countries, their will just be Europe. After today’s display of national pride and various other encounters on the trip I don’t think any country will disappear culturally. There will always be someone holding onto the culture, especially ones so loved by their people.


As we leave Southern Europe…

By | 2010, Europe | No Comments

I was riding the city bus today on my own, heading back to the campsite after seeing the Pope at the Vatican.  I was just sitting there a little bit unsure if I had got on the right bus, but pretty sure I had, when the thought occurred to me, “I’m on a bus in Rome!”  The city is fascinating and incredible with its ancient ruins that hold mysteries of a people and culture that have strongly influenced  the way societies are built and run to this very day.  However, I must admit that I will not have a pressing desire to come back – not to say it wasn’t great, it was.  It’s just very busy, chaotic and noisy… like any big city.

At this point I’m in love with Florence, there was something about that city that made my heart skip several beats.  Being surrounded by sculptures that are much more impacting in person than looking at a picture in a book.  I was surprised by my emotional reactions to some such as, Michelangelo’s David and the unfinished Pieta, as well as his finished La Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. With all three sculptures I had to pull myself away.

Orvieto I will go back to with enough time to sit and have an espresso at one or two of their many café’s and wander through more of the narrow, cobblestone streets that seem to only ascend at a steady incline and stop at markets run by cheerful local vendors.

There’s so much that we have done and so much more to see. I’m overwhelmed just trying to think of what to share.  It’s really hard to believe we’re only in our third week and just starting our fourth country.  With all the travelling I’ve done up until this point, there is one thing that I continue to notice; that although the scenery and culture changes from place to place, at the core of our humanity we as people are the same. This meaning no matter what the language barrier we can find people to laugh with, show love to or gain inspiration from – it’s a beautiful thing.


Coffee to Go

By | 2010, Europe | No Comments

At the beginning of the trip, I set several goals for myself. One of those goals was to be open to learning from the lifestyle and culture of Europeans. Little did I know that one of the ways I was going to learn was through doing one of my favourite things: ordering coffee, to go. Whenever I have ordered coffee to go during the trip, the baristas have used…unconventional containers as take away cups: two large fountain cups doubled up, less than a third full of coffee and in another situation, doubled up plastic cups with tin foil covering the top to avoid spilling. In the moment, I wondered why they didn’t have “proper” take away cups, upon reflection, I have reached a conclusion on the matter. Generally speaking, European culture has a slowness to daily life, hoping to be able to savour each moment. In other words, Europeans have an eat-in approach to daily life, so to speak. North America has a “to go” culture. We strive for takeout autonomy, drive-thru “cooking”, and microwaved “meals” dominate.

It seems that Europeans are on to something. Let me place a challenge to my North American friends: slow down, “eat in.” Savour life, conversations and relationships. After all, it’s better for the environment.


Conversations and “Conversations”

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

We are down to the last few days of our long trip in Southeast Asia and I honestly cannot say that I’m glad to be leaving.  I am looking forward to some of the comforts of home. The stability of staying in one place. Familiar foods. A place to take a rest from the realm of moving,waiting, engaging and engaging again with moments of cultural elation and cultural frustration. Though I’m not looking forward to completing the coming assignments I do look forward to the prospect of gleaning from my experiences.

There are a lot of things I could say stand out about what I’ve experienced of Asia: Bartering. Food. Interesting lectures on culture, politics, and contemporary issues. Rain forests. Mountains. Rats… the list can go on. I don’t want to sound idealistic or cliche but one of the best parts of this trip has been the relationships made with the local homestay families and local students. I’ve been invited into people’s homes, into their family and their everyday life. I’ve shared in their wealth or their lack of what my North American self would think of as normal standard of living. There is nothing else that has broken down my feeling unfamiliar with my surroundings like the genuine welcome and friendship of people I have met in the Philippines, Malaysia or Thailand… and it happened for me in each of these countries. The sharing of a name, a meal, of a conversation or the struggle through a conversation.

I’m becoming a greater believer in the idea of the “conversation”. It seems ironic to think of “conversation” when you have two people who are trying to talk to each other slowly and dumbly in two very different languages. But it’s more that we were there, we may have been laughing at each other but we were trying. Barriers seem to break down when people allow themselves to be vulnerable and open-hearted. The best conversations I had were simple. But they happened when I was willing to say “hello” or ask a name. Looking back, I hope that I will remember the hospitality and openness of the people who took care of me while I was a stranger in a far away place, and how even simple smiles and hellos can break barriers as wide as the ocean.

Blue Men, White Monkeys and Me

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

For the past two weeks I have been obsessed with the Ramakien, the Thai epic poem translated into English prose and based on the Ramayana.  I really cannot tell you why I have been so absorbed by this story but I have determinedly searched through at least twelve bookstores within walking distance in Chiang Mai just to find a copy of the legend and even ignored the hundreds of beloved and cheap Western classics!  On Saturday we, as a class, visited the Khon, a performance in honour of the 60th anniversary of the King’s coronation.  The Khon is a masked dance in which the dancers become glittering several-headed giant demons, monkey soldiers who yawn moons and stars, gods reincarnated as blue princes and gorgeous women equal to Helen of Troy.  It’s not fast paced.  Far from it! If you’ve ever seen The King and I, Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin should give a fair idea of the Khon’s style.

A portion of the fascination, for me, lies in the fact that the Ramakien and its dance performance so ably embodies all I have experienced of Thai culture as I could never have expressed it myself.  For one thing, the miraculous and rampant spirit world of the Ramakien is no mere fantastical legend here.  Every large building, almost every home and even some vacant lots are carefully protected through faithful maintenance of spirit houses, tended by all ages of all sorts of Thais at any time of the day.  Elephants are presented at the shrine in the front entrance of the Chiang Mai University to give the student good luck on his or her exam.  Temples are more common than flies!  (Yes, that may be an exaggeration, but it’s slight!)  For another thing, during the experience at the Khon, as we sat en masse and struggled to follow what little of the epic poetry that could be translated into English, fully aware of just how much we were missing in the Thai narration, I found I could finally put my finger on what it was I had been observing with confusion and a certain amount of frustration for the past three weeks.  Even still, my words alone cannot adequately express it and I must rely on the translator of my copy of the Ramakien to do so:

Neither political, religious, nor social obstacles of an overt kind stand before the institutions, temples and homes of the Thai, and many Westerners, thinking that to see is to understand, gain the impression from having seen so much of the country and people that they understand it–and them–completely.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  For like the chameleon, the Thai have perfected the useful art of being fully in view and remaining almost invisible. (J. M. Cadet)

While I am very grateful for what I have experienced of Thailand and I mean no criticism of this beautiful kingdom, I have still that haunting feeling as I explore the streets and temples that I have missed something, some of the depth and meaning of Thailand.  I have never been smiled at or welcomed so enthusiastically or fed so well or respected to such an extent as I have been here but neither have I found out what is behind the smile or discovered what could make them want to smile at me, the rich Westerner who tramps through their temples as they venerate their religious leader and cheapen their handmade wares to ridiculously low prices.

Cadet conjectured that perhaps it was because, and I paraphrase dramatically, all the fairies were massacred long ago in the west while their wonderful species is allowed to thrive in Thai culture that we cannot bridge the gap.  Personally, in discovering the Ramakien, I feel as though I’ve found a window that slightly lessens the thickness of the transparent glass wall standing between “us and them.”  I’ll never know the beauty of Thai poetry, straight from the pen of King Rama I, but I can share with them in imagination, at least slightly. And that in itself makes the hour long walks to so many bookstores well worth the sweat and stink!