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Culture is not a synonym for society

Music students at Mohawk College are engaging in acts of diversity and cultural sharing this semester as they participate in a novel cultural engagement project.

The young musicians will be shadowing Indigenous artists as they prepare for an event showcasing the project and the work being done towards reconciliation.

Through the project and the event, both students and artists hope to provide learning opportunities about culture. One of the lessons is that culture is not a synonym for society. Johanne McCarthy, a teaching and learning consultant for Indigenous Education at Mohawk and a member of the Beaver Clan of Six Nations territory, breaks down the difference between the two.

A close-up shot of sheet music resting on piano keys
The initiative uses music as a shared and connecting platform for reconciliation, helping to create an environment of healing by sharing a cultural medium that can be appreciated by all who are involved.

“Society is the group, and culture is like the dominant behaviour of that group,” said McCarthy. “If the dominant behaviour of that group is imperialistic, which means they want to categorize into hierarchies and they want to see themselves as the top of the hierarchy, then you can see a small percentage of the society dictating the culture.”

Shields says Western culture is built on an imperialistic mindset, and that mindset links directly to the hierarchal roots of the word.

“Culture is a term that can be traced to Eurocentricity and classification of people according to the things they make and produce,” said Bob Shields, a teacher at Mohawk College and the coordinator for the cultural engagement and exchange initiative. “It has connotations of high society being equivalent to a European, white male society, so it has some Eurocentric baggage to it. In a post-Eurocentric world, culture would simply mean the value attached to the things that we create, whether it’s a story or a song. That’s culture. A culture is not a people, it’s the stuff we make and attach value and meaning to.”

Uniformity is something Western culture has created and attached meaning to, leading to the idea that to be different is to be wrong, according to Shields. While more champions for diversity are emerging, the idea of being “the same” is still a deeply-rooted problem.

“Western culture very much likes to unite people by similarity,” said McCarthy. “In Indigenous culture, the big difference is that everything in our culture is valuing diversity. If you look at our clan system, we inherit our clanship through our mother’s line.”

“I’m Beaver Clan,” explained McCarthy, “I inherited my Beaver Clan heritage through my mother’s line. I could marry my partner because he’s Bear Clan, he has different skills and different talents. That would link our families in a unity linked by diversity. Our society is set up to really revere and respect relationships of diversity over relationships of similarity.”

The cultural engagement initiative will be hosting a performance day event during the first week of April where students and Indigenous artists involved in the project will perform music and engage in discussions. Details for the event will be released as they become available.

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