Aside from having to dream up a name to match any exotic ancestry I could claim, my real family history was more colourful than that anyway. We were the stereotypes of typical Indigenous life. Those lives scorned without understanding of the history behind the creation of those stereotypes.
It was a life loaded with issues around unsteady work, alcohol abuse, abuses under every heading, police visits, child apprehension, foster homes and a single mother on welfare. We moved a lot – always new towns, new friends, new crosses to bear.
So, by the time I could think a little for myself, I couldn’t wait to move on. At nearly 16 yrs. I did move – onto a grown-up job and night school to get a better job, all in the name of getting as far away as possible from my childhood hurts.
Several years later my life had taken shape in a measure of success and definitely I thought I’d finally escaped being a poor and dirty little Indian. It seemed like I’d escaped the legacy of that drama. As it turned out, despite education and job titles, that wasn’t exactly the case. The various abuses never really ended regardless of the dressing I put up around them. I became even more desperate for a sense of value, meaning and peace.
It was a bit incredible and maybe even miraculous from where the answers to my prayerful pleading would begin – searching the internet for a history project.
While I was doing that search, I stumbled across some family tidbits in the history records. It was astounding to me to see names I knew connected to others I’d never known about. Inexplicably I began to hear the call of my grandmothers in them and I quickly became obsessed with genealogy. Something was being filled in me that I’d been completely unconscious about missing. I found the past. I continued in my search for years, able to trace my family back to the 1700s.
The uncovered voices of my ancestors undid the pain of my childhood humiliations. Unlike the shame-based history the old input and my fearful imagination had originally filled in for me, I learned that we came from fiercely able, independent, inspiring Peoples. I learned, in addition to Cree and Metis, my people were also Mohawk, among other nations.
I learned my ancestors were skillful and adept providers who worked the land, and they were warriors – from the war of 1812, to the Louis Riel uprising, to World War 2 and the Korean War. They were explorers and guides for famous European explorers; they were leaders and treaty signors.
They were exactly what one might dream their forbearers are. It was breathtaking discovery for me, but I later realized that, as wonderful as it was to feel the pride of their accomplishments, they didn’t need to be all that for me to feel found.
It would have been just as healing simply to find where I came from; to learn who my people were as a people, not as the butt of the jokes so common then on the western prairies. Not as the people we learned about in school who were so low that even as kids, when we played cowboys and Indians, none of us wanted to be the Indians.
Fast forward some decades to when my son and I were going to a western-themed party. We got all geared up in our cowboy boots and hats, jeans and checked shirts. When we got home, my son was a little miffed. His history lessons have been quite different from mine. He wanted to know why we hadn’t instead dressed up as Indigenous. It was a good question, but I couldn’t find a good answer.
Although I’d identified as my Metis and First Nations ancestry for several years by then, I began to feel I was falling too short on the allegiance that my grandmothers deserved. Especially with the amount of public misinformation about the Indigenous still the norm in general.
However, despite the longing, I still had one foot out the door, just in case. Old fears take a very long time to heal, if they ever do. When I finally decided to stand up and be counted, I applied for a Metis citizenship card.
I’d like to set the record straight about how one goes about claiming that card. Many comments in those newspaper and social media arenas revolve around thoughts like “well, pretty much everyone in Canada can claim some kind of Indigenous status now”. No, they can’t. You can’t just make a call and say, “Hello Government, I’m part-native, send me a card, thanks, and can I get free gas now like that Beiber kid”?
The application process took several months. Actually, it took years counting the time it took to accumulate the various required records. I had to provide a genealogical history of 5 immediate generations of Indigenous ancestry with proof that included birth, baptismal, and marriage certificates. It included scrip records, Hudson Bay Company work records, and other various historical records. At a minimum, I had to link my direct ancestors to records known in western Canada at approximately 1860. Then all of this had to be verified by the society historians.
So that’s what I did, and now when I look into my mother’s eyes, I proudly see my history for thousands of years. When my son looks in mine, he will see his own. I turned away from that all those years ago when I thought I was meant to disown my heritage.
We talk a lot about how much the entire continent needs the true education on its own history, and that is absolute fact, but that’s just as true for many, if not most, of the Indigenous too. We had our history taken from us long before we were even born and we know how terribly that changed us.
I can only feel sadness for that walk in the wilderness now, mine and all my relations of the last 5 generations who actually had our culture taken and even made illegal. I know it doesn’t do any good to wonder about things that might have been, but sometimes I do. I still have far too much to learn about them, and our ways.
On the day I received my official stamped Metis card, I stared at it and cried. It was real, it was done, I’d stood up. I really didn’t know then or even now, what difference in my life this official recognition will make. I only know how I feel in those old wounded places in my heart. I feel my grandmothers surrounding me now. My grandmothers called for PiPiSiw and I’ve come home.
(All My Relations)
I want to add a little thank you so, so much to the people who have emailed me to tell me how glad they are for any of us able to speak out. You are a huge part of what makes these efforts meaningful. You are the people who allow my heart to feel full and worthwhile.
With great gratitude to Dick Garneau, whose years of work compiling centuries of First Nations & Metis journal entries led me to more family discoveries than I ever dreamed I’d find. Hiy hiy, Dick. Thank you for your amazing work and generosity. May many others be as blessed as my family was with his work. http://metis-history.info
Artwork credit, with permission: Grandmother’s Prayers:
Simone Mcleod, http://www.fisherstarcreations.com/simonemcleod-acrylics Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anishinaabepaintersimonemcleod/info/?tab=page_info