REGINA, Saskatchewan – Dr. Shunwa Honda of the Open University of Japan is on a mission to help win government legal recognition of indigenous status for the Ainu people.
To that end, he is heading a 10-member team on a four-year research project funded by the Japanese Ministry of Education to study relationships with indigenous and aboriginal people around the world, but primarily in Canada.
He recently stayed at the First Nations University of Canada, working through the Centre for International Academic Exchange to meet leaders of the Métis Nation and to research the political, social and cultural development of the Métis people in Saskatchewan.
“I wanted to learn through the Métis experience of how they became acknowledged by the government in 1982 as an aboriginal people.”
Some situations of Métis and the Ainu (pronounced I-new) are similar.
The Ainu (the word means “human” in the Ainu language) are a people indigenous primarily to Hokkaido, the northern most of Japan’s four main islands, and the Kuril islands. They are culturally, physically and linguistically different from the Japanese people of the southern islands. As the Japanese people moved north taking control among the islands, the Ainu fought back, but were unsuccessful.
Eventually, many Ainu people intermarried with the Japanese and even today, many don’t acknowledge their Ainu heritage, blending into the dominant culture to avoid discrimination.
While the Ainu path has been different than that of the Métis in Canada, Honda said he can learn from the Métis experience and their battle for legal recognition.
“There are similarities with Ainu and Métis,” Honda said. “Both have suffered assimilation policies that shut them out from the mainstream. … assimilated, but not part of (the dominant culture).”
Honda said there is probably only one completely fluent speaker of the Ainu language remaining. “Ainu language was never banned, but it was very strongly discouraged. School students could be punished for speaking native language, Ainu language.”
First Nations University of Canada First Nations University of Canada was founded in 1976 as the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College. It offers graduate and undergraduate degrees for First Nations and non-First Nations students with studies in a broad range from Indian fine arts, Indian education, nursing, health sciences, Indian languages, Indian social work, business administration, sciences and indigenous studies. It has three campuses in Saskatchewan in the cities of Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. This educational institution was mandated by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.
However, the language has been studied and will be preserved. While anthropologists have a bad reputation with the Ainu for digging up ancestral graves, Honda said, linguists have been welcomed. There are about 12 schools that teach the Ainu language around Hokkaido, although most of the students are ethnic Japanese rather than Ainu.
Honda is still interpreting which portions of Métis history may help the Ainu cause, but he said talking with Métis leaders and studying the culture and government relationship was an invaluable experience made possible by the First Nations University’s Centre for International Academic Exchange, which opened doors into Métis communities.
That opportunity is just the kind the centre is intended to deliver, said Dr. Wes Heber, director.
“We’ve been doing international work since First Nations University was the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.” The centre has been involved with international indigenous conferences, including a recent one in Hawaii examining indigenous education in the Pacific nations.
“Whenever someone contacts me and I think it fits our way of doing things, they can study through the centre,” Heber said. A recent example was a student from France wanting to study North American aboriginal people. Through the university, she got access to true experiences of First Nations cultures.
“We welcomed her and she worked with the elders, because we have aboriginal elders in our college,” Heber said. “Sometime perceptions (of North American aboriginal people) in Europe or other places are strange. To have a researcher do credible work and take that home, it’s very useful for others.”
As for Honda’s work, Heber said the centre wanted to support the work to gain legal recognition for the Ainu people. “If we can support indigenous people in other locations; in any small way, then I’ll do it.”
There is some hope that recognition may come for the Ainu people. In 2008, the Japanese Diet (the two-chamber governmental body) passed a resolution to request legal acknowledgment of the Ainu people as indigenous. Essentially it agreed that the situation will be considered, but the resolution did not legally grant indigenous status.
Such recognition, however, is only a first step. Unlike the United States and Canada, which developed nation-to-nation relations with aboriginal people, Japan doesn’t recognize such relations.
“There is no recourse to treaties or other legal documents, which the North American aboriginal peoples made great use of after World War II,” Honda said. “If and when the Ainu are recognized as indigenous, they must start from the very beginning.”