Just before sunrise ceremony on the morning of my wedding in 1995, Elder Vern Harper turned to me and said, “You need to learn from your own culture; your own roots,” to which I replied something to the effect of, “But I like yours better – as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant my history bulges with pillaging, raping and conquering.” I don’t remember his response to that, but he had generously agreed to conduct the traditional marriage ceremony for me and my Ojibwe mate. We shared the pipe under a marriage quilt designed for the wedding. I wore an elk skin dress which had taken my sister and me three days to make.
Because I’m fourth and fifth generation Canadian I’ve carried with me some notion that I’m ‘almost’ Native.
I am not.
During the 60’s when I was in public school in London Ontario, children from Munsee-Delaware First Nations were bussed in. I can see the older girls clumped together at the edge of the playground, their gazes sharp, their bodies braced to fight. I’m not certain why I was in awe of them but I did admire their grit; their toughness. They didn’t take shit from anyone, despite the fact that most other students were quick to hurl vast quantities of it.
In high school, I once drove a young man who’d missed his bus home to Munsee. His answers to my peppered questions about his life were single syllables. He never looked at me. But even as we pulled into his dirt-road, sad-housed reserve and scraggly little kids scrambled to check out the long grey Chrysler Imperial and its contents, I maintained my vision of some long-ago time in the community; a time of circles and fires, hunting and storytelling and communing with the animals. I was a clueless sixteen-year-old, blissfully unaware of my ignorance and my privilege.
Now I am a few decades older and painfully aware of my ignorance and my privilege.
As I write this, I am struck by so many elements that have informed my writing. That sixteen-year-old in her daddy’s car “rescuing” that Native boy is Carrie, my current fifteen-year-old protagonist, who steals her father’s credit card to “rescue” Meadow, a First Nations’ young woman, by taking her home to her remote reserve.
To rescue or be rescued? Is rescue required or desired? What is the distinction between support/helping and rescuing? Who is helping whom? Will there be redemption or just a kick in the pants? These are some of the questions this story seeks to explore.
Years ago, when I read Dancing with a Ghost by Rupert Ross, I began to understand some of my husband and his family’s behaviour, such as why he rarely asked questions and why he didn’t appear to defend himself when challenged. For me, asking personal questions has been an indication of interest and engagement, but, I found out, many such customs non-Native people consider polite are considered rude by the Anishinabek. When I asked him to explain this to me, he told me that if a person wanted you to know something, they would tell you – if they’re not telling you, it isn’t your business.
What’s interesting to me about this particular understanding is that even though he grew up more with me than with his father, my son finds questions intrusive, even when it clearly is my business. Of course, it could be his innate nature, his astrological sign, or his age, but it seems to be that it could possibly be a DNA/bred-in-the-bone kind of attribute.
What I’m realizing with sharp insistency is that there is so much I didn’t know and so much I still don’t know, but along the way there have been many indications, sign posts, and bells which had and continue to have the potential to wake me up to the consequences of both current and ancient wounds.
One was Vern Harper’s comment about learning from my own culture. Another was in response to a confusing statement by my husband’s mother where I got the impression she thought I was rich, my husband remarked that to those living on-reserve anyone living off-reserve was wealthy.
About twenty years ago, Elder Vera Martin agreed to lead a healing sweat lodge ceremony for me. While we waited for the rocks to heat, we sat side by side to split cedar for the lodge. She turned to me and said, “You can’t become an Indian, you know.” I tried to explain that although I knew I would never “become an Indian” I was honoured to embrace the culture and customs and had nothing but the utmost respect for them. She wasn’t impressed, I could tell. I wasn’t getting it because I was still full of romantic ideas about what being indigenous means. Or is.
That I was married for ten years to a Native man, or have a status son who is plugged deeply into the land and whose form of prayer is dance, does not give me status.
With so much attention in the past year/months/weeks on Indigenous issues – from the Water Walkers to the spotlight on Murdered and Missing Women and Girls, to the Truth and Reconciliation hearings to Joseph Boyden’s being taken to task over his heritage as well as his storytelling, to the non-Native visual artist whose exhibit was pulled because her painting copied the work of Norval Morriseau, to The Writers’ Union of Canada’s misguided editorial on cultural appropriation – I, along with many other writers and artists, sit back on my heels and look at EVERYTHING under a searing light. (Instead of being exposed to the many pieces written by Indigenous writers in that issue, we all got to read the offending article – despite the fact that the issue was dedicated to Aboriginal voices. Luckily, because Alicia Elliott’s piece has been published in Room magazine, the general public is able to read it.)
I think about the Anishinabekwe training midwife who assisted during my 48-hour labour. On her home visit afterwards she let me know that it had taken her considerable resolve to work with me, since she carried resentment and bitterness toward white women who snapped up all the “good Indian men.”
During those years when my husband and I attended pow wows every weekend during the season, he would ask why I didn’t wear my elk skin dress. The answer wasn’t simply because it was sacred to the wedding, but more because it wasn’t my heritage; I didn’t feel I had the right to wear it at pow wows. For the wedding it had been appropriate to honour the ceremony and my husband’s culture, but to dance in the circle with women whose regalia was steeped in history and story and pride seemed plain wrong.
The other truth was that I was privy to comments many drummers, dancers and vendors made about the various people who stuck painted turkey feathers in their faux-leather headbands and twirled barefoot around the dance arena. Those dancers are tolerated. No one tells them how misguided they are, nor how foolish and insulting their antics may be. Instead, those guests feel welcomed and included; perhaps even that they’ve made a contribution to the culture.
I never wanted to be one of those quietly ridiculed ‘visitors from across the water.’
But like those would-be dancers I have believed we could all relax and get along and enjoy all the good bits in each other’s culture, share, heal, and be happy. One big happy family, right? Well, yes. And no.
There have been times when I felt it unfair to be held accountable for the ‘sins of my fathers,’ as it were. After all, I mean well. I never meant to be rude, steal, assume, or insult. I never intended to be so misguided.
People like Jesse Wente and Wab Kinew among many others are being very patient and generous in trying to explain to us what it all means – to belong to this land, to be marginalized, overlooked, underserved, ignored, and especially to be taken from without consent and without the taker even knowing what the hell they are taking.
In an interview with CBC’s Rosanna Deerchild, Niigaan Sinclair, author and acting head of Native studies at the University of Manitoba said, “Anyone can engage with any culture and borrow things. People do it all the time,” noting he has written from the perspective of women, people with disabilities and non-Indigenous individuals. “To do it without responsibility or ethics is where violence and genocide begins… Appropriation is theft based on power and privilege. Appreciation is engagement based on responsibility and ethics.”
Whether one romanticizes and idealizes or simply snaps up the sparkly bits and copies them for their own amusement or thinks the people of this land should just get over it and come to the (white) party… Not. It is time instead, as Jesse Wente so clearly stated in his CBC interview with Matt Galloway, to listen.
I’ve been profoundly affected by my proximity and engagement with the Anishinabek culture and history, so it keeps showing up in my work.
In any case, these reflections and contemplations are just me trying to work it out, get clear, come clean, and to write my way through…