Growing Up Ashamed of My Indigenous Identity

By Jesse Thistle

Many Indigenous children in Canada in the 1960s through the ’80s were given up or taken by child services and raised outside of their communities in “white” homes. The trend, often called the sixties scoop, hasn’t ended and still continues today under the guise of Children Aid Services (CAS). Some sixties scoop children ended up in foster homes, others with “white” families, and some, like me and my brothers, ended up with grandparents or extended family. Because of the dislocation from parents and community, many Indigenous kids became “whitewashed,” losing their Indigenous identities despite their outward brown skin. Such is the power of colonialism. There were, however, some kids who held on to their Indigenous culture and identity despite relocation into new families. The case of my two brothers and me, three Saskatchewan Metis-Cree raised in Toronto by our Scottish-Metis grandparents, illustrates both groups—those who lost their identity and those who kept it; me the former, and my brothers the latter.

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Jesse and his brothers

A Brief Introductory History of My People: Lii Michif

My name is Jesse Thistle and I am a Metis-Cree from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. My Metis and Cree ancestors were the bison hunters of the Great Plains. We were the middlemen of the North American fur trade for two hundred and fifty years, trading with our maternal First Nations relatives on the rivers and plains, and our European fathers who manned the fur trade forts. Metis people are a mixture of First Nations and Europeans, who after centuries of intermixing, formed a new people, lii Michif (the Metis).

My Metis-Cree ancestors fought against Canada alongside Louis Riel in the Red Resistance of 1869 and the Battle of Batoche of 1885. In fact, cousin Louis is related to my great-grandmother Marianne Morrissette, nee Ledoux—she was his cook at Batoche. The 1869 and 1885 conflicts happened largely because Canada expanded into Rupertsland after purchasing it from London and the Hudson’s Bay Company without any consultation from Metis and First Nations peoples who called Rupertsland home. Upset that our lands were sold without our permission, we rose up and won the Red River Resistance and secured the province of Manitoba as our homeland in 1870. By 1873, however, through a succession of broken promises, coupled with massive waves of European and Ontarian settlers, forty thousand acres around Winnipeg had been taken by the new settlers, a displacement that pushed many landless Metis into Saskatchewan. At Batoche, Saskatchewan, in 1885, we Metis would again rise to take up arms to defend our lands against the ever-expanding nation-state of Canada. Alas, we were not successful at Batoche and suffered a crushing defeat on May 9-12, 1885.

The Battle of Batoche scattered our kin groups, collapsed our economy, took away our sovereignty and land, and traumatized my people writ large. After the battle, Metis ran from Canadian authorities for many decades; some hid in nearby reserves, others changed their names and denied their heritage, many fled to the US, and some came to live on public strips of land along road sides called Road Allowances. For a century after the battle we lived like this—always on the move, always careful of the RCMP and Canada, and always dealing with our unaddressed post-traumatic stress disorder, which, over time, was passed down through the generations.

My family lived in the Road Allowance of Park Valley, Saskatchewan, where we were eventually forgotten by provincial and federal Canadian governments. By the time I was born in 1976 my Road Allowance community of Erin Ferry, a satellite community of Park Valley, had more or less dissolved, destroyed by a century of unaddressed trauma. The end of Maria Campbell’s book Half-Breed describes the eroding effects alcoholism and neglect had on our people. By the late 1970s, a whole generation of my Metis-Cree cousins and kin, along with my brothers and me, were let go into adoption. Our family crushed under the weight of unresolved historic trauma.

The below story speaks to the loss of identity that happened with me and my brothers when we were in our teens in Toronto. The line of trauma that stretched back to Batoche expressed itself in my teen years as denial of my culture and heritage.    

***

I was ashamed of my older brother. I remember that much. High school wasn’t a time when I was very empathetic or understanding of anyone but myself. In fact I was downright mean and I didn’t understand my brother’s quest to recapture his Indigenous identity so I was ashamed of him and made fun of him.

“There he goes with his feather and that shit he keeps burning and waving everywhere [smudging],” I said to my buddy Leeroy, trying to act cool.

“What is it?” Leeroy inquired.

“I don’t know some Indian herbs or something.”

I flicked my cigarette and watched it ricochet off the ground, sending burning ash into the air. What was it? I pondered in my head.

“Who the hell knows, as long as Tonto ain’t waving it at me,” I said aloud like the ignorant teenager I was.

“He’s gone Indian.” I rolled my eyes and popped my jean jacket collar.

Leeroy laughed and agreed that my brother looked ridiculous. I laughed too, but in some way felt injured and deeply ashamed of my heritage.

smudge

***

I was surprised to see my brother come out of the school side-door. It was class time and I was skipping class like I always did and he was such a goody-two-shoes. I expected him to be in class like he always was.

“Hey, bro!” I yelled from the smoking pit. “Get to class, you brown-noser!”

My stoner friends and I giggled as I took another pull of the hash joint. When my toke was finished, I looked up for a response but received nothing.

“He looks like he’s crying,” Sarah said. “Why is he crying?”

“What? No, Jesse’s bro don’t cry. He’s a beast.”

Leeroy was right, my brother was a beast. He was 240 lbs in 11th grade and had shattered the long standing bench-press and leg-press records at Central Peel High. He was also one of the biggest and fastest rugby players in Peel District and struck fear in the hearts of many of those he played against. He could also fight like the devil himself; as tough as nails and always ready to defend himself.

“No, seriously, Jesse. He’s crying.”

Just as Sarah finished saying that I saw Mrs. McNab, the economics teacher, burst out the side doors. She ran up and tried to grab my brother from behind but he collapsed on the ground before she could reach him.

I had never seen my brother so vulnerable before. He just fell to the ground and wept. I dropped my empty book bag and ran to his side.

“What’s wrong, yo? What’s wrong?” I asked with concern.

When he looked up I saw his eyes were different than they normally were. They were wide and red; it looked like he had been crying deeply for years.

“I… I …” he mustered, unable to catch his breath. “You… you…”

“Back up,” Mrs. McNab said with the force of a mother bear. “Something happened in class and he needs air.”

I was confused. Had someone died? Had someone said something hurtful to him? Had someone done this to him? What?

“I saw, I saw you,” he said. “I saw you in the future, homeless. It was horrible. I had a vision and…n-n-no….”

A scrum of teachers came out of nowhere and pushed me aside before he could finish his thought. They took him and sat him down and kept anyone from seeing or communicating with him until the ambulance came — including me. Still stoned, I soon lost interest in my brother and turned my back, then drifted to my friends in the smoking pit.

“What the hell happened?” Leeroy inquired.

“I don’t know. He said something about a vision or something, like he’s a ‘mystic Indian’ or something. I don’t know.”

Leeroy and the gang snickered and talked about the feathers we saw my brother with earlier that week. They also commented how I was ‘alright’ ’cause I wasn’t into that kind of ‘Indian shit’ and that I wasn’t like him. I laughed along with them but in the back of my heart I hurt for my brother.

***

My middle brother was a creative guy back in high school, he still is. He drew dragons and elves and played Dungeons and Dragons with his nerd friends. I made fun of him and them every chance I could and always teased him in public about his weight. Sometimes, though, in secret, I played D and D with him and his friends and I always had a blast! They were nice and quick to forgive. But when my cool friends came around, I was a real dick to them and my brother.

One day he decided to make a bone choke-chain out of chicken bones and wooden coloured beads. My brother, as long as I can remember, had always been proud of being ‘Native’ and he always found creative ways to express it.

“Look,” he said with a big smile. “It’s beautiful. I just love it.”

The bone necklace was kind of cool, it hung around his neck and made him look strong and proud. The two things I always wanted, but couldn’t find the inner strength to be.

“It’s last night’s dinner,” I retorted in a deadpan way, trying to hurt him.

“Why do you always do that, Jesse? Why do you shit on our heritage like that?”

My brother’s question was sincere and honest. Just weeks before I had stolen his tobacco and smoked it, not caring what ceremonial “Indian” uses he had for it. All I cared about was that it was tobacco and that I needed to get rid of my nicotine craving. Heritage be damned, I just wanted a smoke.

“Because it looks awful,” I said. “And why do you and Josh play Indians? Fuck, we’re from Toronto and never practiced that stuff. It’s embarrassing.”

I could see I injured him. He quietly asked me to leave his bedroom and shut the door as I left.

The next day he wore his choker to school, proud of who he was. I admired him for his strength and was jealous he could be himself.

choker

***

“Dude,” Aaron the neighbor across the street said to me as I returned from a night out drinking. “Your brother freaked out last night.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, “How?”

“Well,” Aaron said, “he came running out of the house yelling there was a giant crow chasing him. He looked hysterical and the ambulance had to be called. It was crazy. I hope he is OK.”

I could see by the look on Aaron’s face that he was very concerned for my brother, that something really strange had happened. I rushed into the house to see my brother and get the full story.

When I asked him what had happened he explained that a big monstrous sized crow flew into the house through his bedroom window and was flapping around and that he got scared and fled the house. He said it was like a vision and that the crow was communicating with him. Since youth my middle brother had always claimed to have ‘mystic’ powers and I just chalked up his ‘vision’ to another unsubstantiated ‘mystical Indian’ claim, another magical figment of his imagination.

Then I dismissed him as crazy.

I could see his eyes become sad as I discounted something that was obviously so traumatic for him. I had turned my back on my brothers yet again

Crow.jpg

***

A lot of people now see me as someone who has really connected to my Indigenous identity. Which is true, but it wasn’t always the case. Years before I found my courage and way to university, while I was growing up, I denied my heritage and discounted its importance. I know now that my denial was a product of us boys being raised in Toronto by our paternal grandparents who never celebrated our Indigeneity. My brothers, however, did not forget their roots. They always knew who they were, where they had come from, and had always tried to reach me and make me see the value in our Indigenous heritage. Above are four incidences that have stuck with me. They are incidences that have haunted me for well over twenty years where my brothers had the courage to be themselves while I was in denial. I recently got my older brother his Metis citizenship and I am doing my other brother’s now, so it might seem today like I am helping them recover their Indigenous heritage and history. But, just to set the record straight, that is not the case. The reality is reversed. It was they who gave me my heritage long, long ago. I just had to value it like they have always done, as they were never ashamed.

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