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One of the People: Recovering My Colonialized Indigenous Culture

We weren’t told about it as children. There was a vague knowing, deep inside, about being “Indian”, and what that might mean, but it was never explained, mostly because my mother, who told us about our culture, didn’t know herself.

There was always a sense of not quite belonging, when people talked about their culture. To know that you’re 3/4 English, and what being English actually means in a global conversation, and then to know that the murky, uncertain last 1/4 is something called “Indian”, or “First Nations”, or “Native American”, but not really know what that means, is a bit polarizing. I would stand beside each of my friends on Heritage Day in elementary school and watch them proudly talk about their cultures. We had a vague tie to some Scottish ancestry – maybe – and I wore a kilt with a clan tartan that matched my mother’s maiden name, but the part of me that did have a tie to a culture was uncertain. It was scared.

My grandfather, the only full-blood among us, didn’t talk about it when I was a kid. He preferred to tell stories of his time in the Second World War, or how to fix the engine of a motorcycle. And I’d watch his brown hands, stained with oil, show me how to work a transistor radio, and then my own hands, pale and unstained, copy his every move. But as far as I knew, he may have been Native, but he didn’t really seem to know what that meant, either.

IMG_9308I don’t look Native; at least, that’s what everyone tells me. I look like your run-of-the-mill white girl. I’m short, chubby, with long dark hair and very pale skin. My sister looks a little more Native than I do, and my aunts and uncle look like they could have been born on the reserve, but I don’t look like I have any First Nations blood at all. For a long time, I used to think that you had to look the part to claim belonging. We didn’t have status under the Canadian government, either – not until I was in my third year of university. It used to be that if a Native woman married a white man, she and her children lost their status. That was overturned in 1985, but we didn’t find out until a lot later.

I didn’t want status because it meant I could get benefits under the government. I didn’t, and still don’t, take benefits that I don’t feel like I really need. There are many reserves that have people that need them more than I do, and I’d rather the resources are allocated to them than me. But I wanted status because for once, I wanted to belong.

My grandfather never talked about being Native, but after we got status, he started throwing out little anecdotes, little tidbits of information. Like how his grandmother taught him different herbs for healing. Or how he used to know the Ojibwe word for “deer”. And then one day, in the bright summer sunshine, sitting on our back deck, he took one of my hands in his roughened one and said, “My grandmother was a healer. She used to be able to make people feel better just by touching them. And I think your mother, being a nurse, has that power, too. My grandmother used to say I had it. I think you have it, too.”

That started a series of phone calls that continue to this day. Sometimes it’s rambling, about the old farm, about the loss of language he experienced, about how he wishes he knew more about his culture. Sometimes it’s things I need to do – call our reservation, known as a band, to sort out this and that. Did I remember to renew my status card? And sometimes it’s simply stories. I’m a storyteller, he says. He tells them to me so that we won’t forget.

Our clan is the Thunderbird, he says, though I don’t know if it really is or if he’s just looking at the emblem on our reserve’s flag, which is the Chippewa stylized Thunderbird. He sometimes reminisces about the reserve, about hunting there. His grandfather taught him how to dress a deer. He remembers shooting game to bring home for dinner, long before he left to go to war at age 18.

He sometimes drops his voice, talking about his grandmother. She taught him all he knew – as the son of an unmarried Native woman, he was practically raised by this matriarch who seemed to hold her family of numerous children together. She spoke to him in Ojibwe – he’s not certain, but it may have been his first language.

He doesn’t remember any of it now, but he’s pleased to hear that I’m trying to learn. “Someone should remember,” he says.

In a world where being Native means you’re sometimes grasping after culture that has been largely pushed away and forgotten, it felt strange to me, before, to claim something that I felt I had very little ties to. But the thing is, that’s what colonialism is. The people who pushed away my culture are the same people who told my people that it’s wrong to be Native. It’s wrong to be one of the people. And it’s not wrong. In fact, it’s an important part of who I am.

To be Ojibwe – specifically, Chippewa – in a world that only recognizes belonging by the way you look is hard. I wasn’t raised in the culture. I am learning as I go. Sometimes, as a Euro-Native, I feel very outside of both cultures. I read the stories, I try to share articles and posts that will bring awareness to the plight of a lot of our people, and I fight stereotypes. But until now, I have hesitated to define myself as a Native woman because I have felt that it was stealing something that wasn’t mine. It was appropriating something that wasn’t mine to take.

That’s when I realized that colonialist view has absolutely no place in my identity and my culture.

I am an Ojibwe woman. I prefer the term “Anishinaabe”, which means “Beings Made Out of Nothing”. Anishinaabeg are people who were created from soul and spirit. We are healers, storytellers, artists, and hunters. Blood quota no longer defines me, or many others like me, from being one of these beings, and I reject the idea that I am supposed to cower in shame because I wasn’t born on the reserve or I don’t look like what a “typical” Native looks like.

The problem with colonialism is that it put a narrow view on what Natives are. And we are more than what we were crushed into and continue to be harmed by. My grandfather ignored his culture most of his life because to be Native was to let yourself in for a world of pain. And now, he passes his knowledge along – because he knows that what matters in the end is to preserve what we have left and build it back up into what we were.

The older I get, the more I see that I am Native – in the way I look, in the way I think, in the things I believe, in the connection to my culture that grows stronger daily. I don’t have to worry about taking what isn’t mine, because being Anishinaabe means that it belonged to me all along, before I had status, before I had knowledge – even when it was almost erased.

“Don’t let them tell you that you aren’t an Indian,” says my grandfather. “You’re a Native. We’re all Native – your mother, your sister, you, and me.”

I am a proud, strong, Ojibwe woman. I am one of the people. And I finally belong.

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4 thoughts on “One of the People: Recovering My Colonialized Indigenous Culture

  1. This resounds so much with me. My grandmother would speak on the phone to her sister, and her mother thought she was speaking Chinese. Turns out it was Algonquin.

    I struggle with connection. My grandmother died a decade before I was born. We had no connection, no memories. The family was so broken from the extensions into that reality, and so far away from the culture that remembering it is quite simply only done by connecting with other women who have been, and reclaimed, found themselves in each other and in a culture that is not lost or forgotten completely.

    The scariest thing we get told is that our culture is extinct. Algonquins number only about 8000 but the machinations of genocide have been so darned effective. So how… as white-read, white-passing Indigenous women, do we claim our identity, and find that place where we belong?

    Thank you so much. Yes, it is decolonisation, and this is the very same method I find myself working in. To stop looking, to stop mourning and find the Indigenous Knowledge that is still within me.

    Best of luck on your journey. Our walk isn’t easy in this world but we have sisters across Turtle Island. Glad to see another Nish on a similar path.

  2. Thank you. To be honest, I don’t know how to feel about this. I mean, I have absolutely no problem with you choosing to identify however feels right to you. I just don’t know how to feel about applying it to my own life. My story is similar to yours. My great-great-grandmother was the last full-blood Native in my family. I never knew her. In Oklahoma, back then, passing as white was the choice my family made. What I know of my culture I know because I studied it as an adult. In my 20s, I chose to learn about my culture, to embrace it, to incorporate it into my identity. In my late 30s and into my 40s, I became good friends with a number of folks who were raised with strong connections to their tribal traditions. I began to look more closely at issues of privilege. I became concerned that making any sort of claim (not a financial or legal one – my family did not enroll, so I cannot prove my blood quantum) to being Native, adopting tribal traditions, etc. was appropriation, and inappropriate. Now in my mid-40s, I read this post and it leaves me intrigued by the idea of looking at all of this with fresh eyes again. Thank you for that.

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