The Crash is a big equalizer

It’s been interesting for native people to watch the volatile world of the stock markets lately.

It’s been interesting for native people to watch the volatile world of the stock markets lately.

The financial markets are a foreign thing to most of us. In the Ojibway world, for instance, a stock trade is usually three chickens and a goat for one good cow, and a margin call is something that happens at dinner. As in “pass the margin for my bannock.”

There’s a whole strange new world of definition and meaning to interpret. Like the whole bull and bear market thing. Those are confusing concepts to us. Ever since settlement times we’ve known there was a big market for bull in this world and a bear market was the number of hunters to guide every fall. So we’re a little lost at the fiscal excitement.

We’re as concerned about money as anyone. We’re bent on saving and securing a predictable future for ourselves and our children. But the worlds of Wall Street and the TSX are distant universes. I’ve worked hard all my life and I’ve only ever had one bad day at the market. But that’s because someone ran over my pushcart. As far as most native people know, an inside trader is the man at the counter in the Northern Store and blue chips are those fancy taco chips you pay an arm and a leg for north of 60.

So when the world got all in a flap over the market frenzy we wondered what was really going on. To a native person, a credit fiasco is not being able to borrow on your house on the reserve. We’ve always watched the dollar go up and down. Mostly when we were flipping one trying to decide between Kraft Dinner or tuna.

Quite simply, most native people are dubious of the markets. After all, trading never really worked out all that well for us. In the old days of the Hudson Bay Company, we’d trade a musket-tall stack of furs for a kettle and a blanket. Then there was the whole Manhattan Island thing and no one’s ever really gotten over tobacco, corn and snowshoes for diabetes and alcohol.

Nope, for a culture whose idea of a market index is the big board at the shopping mall, the stock frenzy was mostly lost on us. But we empathized. After all, we went long on sovereignty with the treaty brokers in the 1870s and lost our shirts and we really got taken for a ride when it came to real estate. So we’re more than familiar with the vagaries of the deal and the harsh bite of unforeseen losses.

On the reserves and in urban neighbourhoods the struggle for economic survival is a visceral thing. We’re among the most impoverished people in the country and the idea of shelling out a loose thousand or so on an option is really not an option. Certainly, there are some of us who have managed to work our way financially upwards and have created portfolios, but for the average Indian, a mutual fund is tossing all the change into the pickle jar.

We’ve been in an economic downturn for a long time. When the Indian Act was enacted in 1876 it effectively removed our ability to leverage anything. We became wards and the cycle of dependency created a welfare mentality that’s been awfully hard to break. These days we have our own banks, financial institutions and corporations, but life for the most of us is an ongoing struggle.

Learning the economic realities of capital is a steep learning curve. When every dollar coming in goes out there’s nothing left to experiment with. When you can’t build equity in the home you live in there’s no chance for investment capital. When lending companies list the postal codes of reservations as poor credit risks there’s little hope of establishing a history.

So the world of the stock and financial markets remain unapproachable enigmas to the majority of First Nation people.

Indeed, what is so liberally taken for granted in the non-native world, and what causes such incredible consternation and fear out there, is a puzzling amalgam of speculation, theory, rumour and supposition for us. Day trading has always meant swapping shifts so we can get to a hockey game.

These last months have been a curious spectacle. Talk of trillions in bailouts, billions in losses, millions in debts, has often seemed fantastic, something scripted or created for effect rather than everyday realities for people.

But we’re hoping things settle down soon. Our non-native friends are in a tizzy over money, interest rates, foreclosures, credit practices and a looming recession. They’re afraid of some faceless person in power ignoring their needs and security.

I guess everyone gets to be an Indian now.