Let me start by saying that what you’re about to read is in no way intended to be an endorsement of smoking cigarettes. In this increasingly fractious world, it seems that one of the only things we all can agree on anymore is that smoking is bad for you. Maybe one of the only other uncontentious statements I can safely make is that life is full of surprises.
A little over ten years ago, in a little village deep in the heart of central Bulgaria, two young men ran out of smokes. They stopped in at a shop to replenish their stock, and their eyes were caught by the flash of a gold necklace the shopkeeper was wearing. With what I would consider to be questionable manners, one of the men asked where she came upon the glittering piece, and the shopkeep told them that her husband, a farmer, found it while plowing one of his fields. This incident led to the discovery of 15,000 buried pieces of finely crafted gold dating from sometime before the 23rd century BC. The treasure had been hidden in plain sight, right under so many Bulgarian smokers’ noses.
There may be something instructive for us in this little story. Don’t get me wrong—I am no archaeologist, and I have a deep-seated aversion to digging in the dirt. But at this moment, we in this country have treasures all around us, lying just beneath the surface of our discovery. Ours are not precious metals and jewels though; they are the dazzling cultures and rich traditions of the Indigenous people who live here.
In talking to some of my First Nations colleagues, I have learned that there is an honest-to-goodness feeling of optimism right now. We have been presented with a magical opportunity that feels new. People—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—are opening their eyes to the inspired, unique and challenging Indigenous artists who are stepping forward to help us discover this plentiful store of riches.
Indigenous cultures, languages and traditions were systematically silenced, that much is undeniable. But right now there are so many brave Indigenous voices coming forward willing to share. These voices belong to musicians, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, actors and filmmakers. This in itself is not so new. In fact, it was Louis Riel that said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” To what extent this moment in time turns out to be precious and valuable will be determined in no small part by the number of us who choose to listen.
My suspicion is that the discovering part won’t be that hard—there’s so much that’s been right under our noses the whole time. Just find another starting point than going to buy smokes.