Growing up, I knew I was mixed. I knew my mother and my father came from different backgrounds; my mother looked different than my father. She is Native and my dad is white. I’ve always known this, but never understood it growing up. Discerning, when you’re a child, why your mother looks different than you… or why you look like your mother but have your father’s skin never really crossed my mind, until other people started to categorize me. It wasn’t until outsiders, outside of my nuclear world, started to regulate the spaces I was supposed to hold in society. This happens at small level: in school all the Native kids were taken out of class in order to attend a ‘cultural’ class. Usually taught by a white person who taught us how to make pipe cleaner dreamcatchers and tell us about lacrosse and pemmican. But this was my first introduction on what it meant, outside of my world, what it meant to be Aboriginal. To the non-Native kids in my class, we were ‘special’ and segregated because we were being taken out of the ‘normal’ classes in order to do ‘special Indian’ things. Then, my non-Native friends would ask me why I got to go, I didn’t look Native. This is probably a good time to acknowledge the privilege I hold as a white-passing person, and the complexities it holds. Because I got my father’s genetics: light skin, light hair, I am allowed to float through society easier than people who are ‘visible’, darker, who society identifies as “different” than the dominate. I do not intend, nor do I ever wish to, downplay the privilege my appearance gives me within society.
The point of my early example of my elementary school experiences is to make it clear that when you’re Native, or when you’re not a part of the dominate society either ethnically or racially, you always walk in a different world… and other people are not hesitant to draw attention to that. A young me, knowing intrinsically that my family was different than the other kids (my parents were divorced, one parent is brown one parent is white, etc.) was one thing. I understood this, but they were my family and I didn’t understand the implications this held for me; I was Rob and Sharon’s child, but I was an autonomous unit who was not a part of this larger societal system of identification. But this innocence gets shattered at an early age, because it’s ingrained in our society to draw attention to things that are not a part of the the status quo. So, why were these Native kids taken out of class, and why was I included? With the constant inquiries from the other kids, I began to develop a consciousness of my identity. At this age, it was confusion… and it still is.
My mother was always very vocal that we were Metis, while we were growing up. My kokum is a leader in our community, and is now a respected Elder. She was president of our community’s Metis society for sixteen years, and helped create it. Being Metis wasn’t something that had to be developed in my life, it was just something that was established when I was born. And I was aware of this… I knew who we were, and are, but I was never aware of what this meant. Navigating this world, as a Metis person is complex, and with my short time on this Earth, I’ve encountered some questions that I am still trying to answer… and probably never will answer. Navigating your identity in a society that (a) doesn’t respect it and (b) doesn’t understand it is confounding.
I have been asked a countless number of times of why I don’t just “be white” because I “look white”… and I have began to interpret it on a number of levels. On the surface, I always feel like the asker is asking me: but why can’t you be normal? because in our society, white is what is considered normal. On a deeper level, I feel like the asker is asking me: why can’t you simplify your identity so I can make sense of it, within my narrow world view and understood categories of people. When I tell people that (a) I’m not even sure what this means and (b) I’m Metis… it always leads into the statement that: “Metis people are not REALLY Native anyway.” I’ve got this from both non-Native people and Native people… and every time someone says this, I have to fight back the urge from punching them. To tell me this, to tell me that Metis people are not real Native people, is to deny the horrors of my kokum in Residential School, it’s to deny the fact that Canada tried to systematically exterminate us… it’s to deny our history. But, this also feeds into internalized issues of… “am I enough”? Am I Native enough to fit in with my Native friends, am I white enough to fit in with my white friends? How do I keep my identity, which at the very core ensures that I carry the history of my people on my shoulders, quiet while I pretend that I can keep silent about who I am, so people will stop asking questions? I wont pretend that having the ability to be quiet, and hide my identity isn’t a privilege. It means that I have this option, it means that in society I can “hide”… and a lot of Metis do, and I don’t blame them. Being ashamed of being Metis was engrained into our being, from the hanging of Riel to the halfbreed Scrip… we were told that being Metis is something that we should never be proud of.
When ever I encounter a conversation with another Native person about how Metis people are whitewashed or just white people pretending to be Native… I always think of Marilyn Dumont’s poem: “Leather and Naugahyde”. In her poem, she tells a story of this scene of her having coffee with a treaty guy, and he asks her, where she is from. When you’re Native, there’s a lot of implications behind this… it’s not like asking someone, hey, where’re you from Bob? Halifax or Toronto? it’s a way of telling who this person is, your status, your Nation, your community. It’s not a negative thing, but when you’re Metis the answer always comes out different… Dumont describes it like an apology… she tells his man she is Metis like it’s an apology. I’ve done this too… tell people I’m Metis like I’m apologizing for something I don’t quite understand: sorry I exist. I still do this at times, I say I’m Metis like it has this implied shame behind it… like there’s something I should apologize for. On a deeper level I guess I’m apologizing for being a halfbreed… I’m apologizing for not being enough of something. Being Metis… to some people is a joke. I’ll take some laughs over it, but at the very core… in the back of my mind… I’m wondering… why am I laughing? Mostly it’s because I’m uncomfortable and it’s an automatic reaction of mine. But I’m laughing along, because I have no other idea what to do in the situation. Sure, there are some legitimate jokes, but context is everything and sometimes context doesn’t matter when you have a history of an alcoholic Prime Minister slaughtering your people in order to try and build a railway across Canada. I never blame other Native people for questions or reactions… because we’ve been regulated, categorized and legislated so much… that I get it, on a level I can’t even articulate… I get it.
Sometimes I can’t discern between my own internalized colonial thought processes about what my identity is, and what it really is… and when these moments happen… I take a moment. I close my eyes, and I think of my kokum sitting at her kitchen table, talking on the phone to someone, in our language. I can’t understand what she’s saying… but somewhere, embedded in her syntax is my being, I know I belong: to her, our people, our language and our history.