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A Different Approach to Cultural Awareness

Marjorie Roden

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      WINTER 2001      v31 n01 p22  
Mort Van Duzee For some, getting an education about another culture means reading books, watching videos, or surfing the internet. Others take the more direct approach by totally immersing themselves in the culture, like Mort Van Duzee did.

At first, Van Duzee simply attended powwows as a spectator. While he lived for several years in Vancouver, B.C., he first got to know some of the Aboriginal people of the region.

"That's where I first met (Chief) Dan George. He is an actor, and the elder of the Bernard band," said Van Duzee.

Although not of Aboriginal ancestry, at the time Van Duzee was looking for something else in his life. He found it within the different Aboriginal cultures he has observed from both the inside and outside.

"You know, it's hard sometimes to connect with what you really want, and so at one time in my life, I was free to do this, so I started with the powwows and the events with the (Aboriginal) people."

Then, when Van Duzee moved away from British Columbia, an event happened that changed his life. About 12 years ago, at a powwow at Sturgeon Lake, Saskatchewan, Van Duzee met an elder from a tribe in Nayarit, Mexico.

He made quite the impression on her, as she invited him to come to Mexico to visit with her and her people. In turn, her people made a lasting impression on him, as his visit wound up lasting between two and three years. In this time, he helped the people build houses and improve their living conditions, asking for nothing in return.

As a gift to him, the people in the village gave him some of their clothing so he could dance with them in their powwows. And as homage to their kindness, whenever Van Duzee is in North America in the summer months, he will register as a dancer and partake in the powwow activities that he had only observed before.

"People have always been very friendly to me, and welcomed me," said Van Duzee of his trips into the powwow circuit.

"I get some smiles, and I get some remarks sometimes, but I understand where they're coming from because I'm different than they are. My clothes are different, but on a number of occasions, I've been asked to talk to the people and tell them about these clothes. These are everyday clothes in Mexico, from that particular tribe."

Van Duzee understands how racism sometimes tends to build barriers, as he has seen it from both sides. "I think the people on both sides if the fence are victims of peer pressure," said Van Duzee.

His eyes welled with tears as he added, "I really feel sorry for people that have these racist feelings, because they're cheating themselves, and it goes for white people, it goes for Aboriginal people, it goes for Asians, it goes for African, it's everybody.

"I find the people, all the people, special. I guess I get a bit emotional because I feel like this about people. I've lived in the caves with the Indians in Mexico. Dirt floors. I've done everything, and I've been sick from it. It doesn't matter because it's a small price to pay for the experiences."

One thing that comes with living in Aboriginal communities is that once the people accept a person, they are thought of as family. Such was the case with Van Duzee, who now lives the winter months either in Mexico or in South America, where he lives with different Aboriginal peoples. He has actually been made a part of one family in Ecuador, being named godfather to a child of a family he befriended. And in following the gift-giving tradition when visiting people, they have, on more than one occasion, touched Van Duzee in ways he did not expect.

"It's customary to bring lots of presents. This family is poor, they don't have doors on their home, and they don't have windows in their house. They gave me a dozen eggs. At this point in the interview, Van Duzee began crying before adding, "Later on, they came and they gave me two guinea pigs. They're very special guinea pigs, they're not pets, they're food. It's a special gift, because at weddings, at special times, they will give food mostly. This is more than they could afford, because I know the family well. It's very touching, I feel very honoured."

The biggest life lesson that Van Duzee has learned through his experiences on both the North and South American continents is the value of life, and how precious it is.

"Life is wonderful," said Van Duzee. "I only wish that all people would come to realize how lucky they are to have people in their lives because we don't have anything else. We have material things, but material things can be replaced. They don't amount to anything, but people are special, they come into your life. You're lucky to be able to share a little bit of time with them."