Off-topic but on-topic. Cars and Aboriginal Poverty.

This is going to sound like a random thing to post about, but it’s something I see so often, and I’d like to say something about it somewhere. Maybe it will help someone out there – who knows.

Say you’re Plains Cree. Let’s start with a mental picture of your great-great-grandfather’s life. He was probably born – say – 1880. Before treaty 6. He was born into a family that depended on the mobility provided by the horse. The horse pulled the travois, the horse helped hunting, the horse was everything.

Now, imagine for a moment that this man decided he didn’t want to deal with feeding his horse, so he decided that whenever the horse was hungry, he’d just hire an outsider to feed it for him. Then suppose that whenever the horse was sick, he just abandoned it out on the plains and went off to try and find a new one. Then suppose that he didn’t like futzing with blankets, saddles, bridles, etc. Whenever one broke, he just tossed it instead of mending it, he just chucked it in the bush and went off to buy a new one. Or ditched the horse, too.

How long do you think this hypothetical Cree man would remain independent and capable?


Look, where I come from, there a lot of poor white people. I happen to know about all of that intimately. Intimately, intimately. I know, I know, white people are rich and privileged – I’ve heard it a thousand times. But the truth is, a lot of us are very, very poor. And a lot of us are getting poorer by the hour right now. I come from minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, frogs for dinner, no electricity, etc.

One of the first things I learned, growing up, was the power that self-sufficient maintenance of a car bestowed. My father always did all his own car work – out there, under the car, in winter, on his back. Brake shoes in the closet, engine parts strewn around. He had to do it, because we simply could not afford to have the car fixed. Without a car, he could not get to work. Without work, well, we’re back where we started, aren’t we?

Learning from him, I learned how to do my own car work. When I lived in the deep south, making minimum wage, in an apartment with so many cockroaches that I would wake up with them on my face (that’s the best way, by the way, to get over a fear of cockroaches… or make it worse, i guess!), I had to have a car, and I had to have it work. So I learned how to fix it. Painfully, with lots of blood and burning. (There was this one time, I was desperately trying to fix the alternator belt, but the bracket kept slipping. I drove it over to a friend’s house and checked it. Still slipping. *^%*^% I was so mad, I kicked the front tire. As I walked away, I heard SSSsssssssss. I’d busted the stem on the tire. Haha!)

Learning how to fix my car, I also learned a fundamental amount of self-sufficiency. I could keep a car 5x as long as my friends. I never paid the $120/hr for service. I never had to desperately look for a quick car because mine was dead. I never once – not in all my life – have been stranded. And this includes about 30 trips through the rocky mountains in cars that were so old that the reserve folks used to ask me, “You still got that ol’ car, eh?”

Because of my car abilities, I can buy an older car for less money, make it run longer, and get better performance out of it. I don’t have to spend money on mechanics, and I can buy the parts wholesale instead of paying the outrageous margin they often hit you with at the shop.

What I’m trying to say is that, for a poor person (and most aboriginal people are certainly in that camp, along with me), being able to maintain your own vehicle inexpensively, and ensure it doesn’t leave you somewhere, is often the difference between making it and not.

Thinking about this, I do think this is a Cree ethic as well. At least – it was. 150 years ago, the Cree were meticulous caretakers of their material possessions and the animals they depended on. Having been on many reserves and many inner-cities, I would say that ethic has eroded away almost completely. And I know, because of where I come from, of the costs that come with carelessness. I know the cycle of poverty it traps you in. And I want Cree people to get out of that cycle as much as I wanted to get out myself.

I think one of the ways you can do that is to look at your car out there, and think of it like your great-great-grandfather thought of his horse. It’s a friend. It’s your means of transportation. Out here in the bitter prairies, where you can die of thirst in the summer or cold in the winter, it’s your life. Treat it with respect (manâcihtâ! There’s a Cree word for that!). It will help you live, and give you back some of the independence your ancestors had.

Thus endeth the random side-track. I don’t know – maybe it wasn’t so random.

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About Mr. Môniyâw

Age: 37 Lives: All over the place. Education: PhD, linguistics, UBC.
This entry was posted in cultural meaning, Personality, philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Off-topic but on-topic. Cars and Aboriginal Poverty.

  1. sikak iskwew says:

    be careful that you dont fall into the trap of thinking that because you understand a little bit (and i emphasize little and bit) about “cree” culture and history that you know it all. as soon as that happens, you (the universal “you”) begin to look like an arrogant know-it-all projecting your erroneous interpretations and judgments all over the place. theres more to this story than simply a matter of taking personal responsibility and because you and none of your people (white people no matter how materially poor) have EVER experienced what the indigenous people have thanks to european invasion, it is unlikely that you will ever be able to truly understand the profundity of that.

    • I thought I’d put this up so people see what kind of comments I get on a regular basis. I liked your “universal you” in the context of telling me I talk about other groups over-broadly. Very nice.

      You actually know nothing about me or my experience. You don’t actually know anything about ‘white’ people or ‘white’ poverty either. But whatever. Keep it up with the one-trick pony.

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