Up to a year ago, I didn't know where my father was born. I didn’t know if his ancestors were Algonquian or Mi’kmaq. I had no clue there were Indigenous nations other than these two, or how to spell their names. I should’ve known, but I did not, and it wasn’t because my father had died or went missing. It’s because he never told me.
I'm a Quebecer. I'm a Quebecer and I have Indigenous roots. For a long time it was the answer I would give anyone asking me about my origins. I answered with certainty, proud of that bit of Indigenous mystery I thought I carried.
Then came a day when I looked at my dad attentively. I stared at his hair so black it was almost blue, at his imposing stature and his Indigenous birthmark. My father was the brown-skinned man who looked like a tribal chief, but he also was the owner of three-story house, the neighbor with the big shed and the father of a reconstructed, nuclear family. There was simply no trace in his life of the Indigenous identity I claimed was mine. That day, I asked him from what nation our Indigenous ancestors were. “I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’d say Abenaki,” he said before asking me to bring my sister to the bathroom. Evidently the subject was closed, and Rose had to urinate.
I learn from my mother that she picked up on the information the very day she gave birth to me. The nurse pointed at the small blue spot sitting over my right butt cheek and shouted, “a little native!”
This birthmark is a typically Asian genetic heritage, reminiscence of the first occupants of America who presumably came through the Bering Strait, becoming our First Nations. But despite my indubitable wonderment at the machinery of human DNA, this theoretical explanation really shed no light on the meaning of Indigenous culture in modern-day societies.
What Does Being Indigenous Mean, in 2017?
So I went north to meet with Kevin T. Landry, a producer at ATPN, a TV channel produced by and for Indigenous people.
“This is a question I cannot seem to find a definitive answer to,” Kevin tells me. Although proud of his Mi’kmaq roots, he feels reluctant to describe himself as Indigenous. “I respect Indigenous culture a lot,” he said. “But my contact with it has always been through my work, through screens and computers. To me, it is more about cultural belonging than bloodline.” Ivanie Aubin-Malo is a dancer from the Malecite people. “The thing is, Indigenous people are very instinctive, very fluid,” she said to me, moving her hands like waves. “Historically, we’ve never had to establish fixed rules in order to define our identity. It seems a little counterintuitive.” The 24-year-old shares the same percentage of Indigenous blood as Kevin and me. She takes classes of Wolastoqwey Latuwawekon, the Malecite language, and travels through the Indigenous reserves of Canada to dance in Pow Wows, sorts of festive cultural gatherings.
She affirms herself proudly as Indigenous.
“To me, being Indigenous is to respect the land you live on, your community, and its past,” she said. “To be Indigenous, really, you have to be welcomed.”
Ivanie, Kevin and I had one Indigenous great-grandparent. None of us lived on reservations. Yet only Ivanie seemed to be able to affirm herself as Indigenous, as being welcomed.
The Ones Who Were Not Welcomed
Kevin had learned at 26 that within him ran Indigenous blood. It happened accidentally: one day, his uncle asked him if he had “taken his card.” The card Kevin’s uncle was referring to is the one issued by the Alliance Autochtone du Québec. It testifies that you are Indigenous even though you live outside of recognized Indigenous reserves. “If you want to buy a car, you can do it in a reserve and you’ll skip the taxes,” said Kevin’s uncle. “If you want to go back to school, you’ll get price cuts and funding,” he added, although in the wrong.
“It was my first experience of discomfort vis-à-vis my Indigenous ties,” Kevin said about the encounter. “As if I was an imposter, really.” Like my own father, Kevin’s uncle did not seem to have ever felt the need to dance in a Pow wow, participate in the collective, or simply educate himself on the various aspects of Indigenous culture.
Heritage, Shame and Actualization
I paid a visit to my father’s mother, Martha. Her own father was the source of our Indigenous ancestry. I asked her about her youth and her father’s cultural legacy. Yet my grandmother stayed shut, avoiding my questions and using her old age as an excuse not to remember. My curiosity was met with palpable discomfort.
I blamed my family for never educating me about my Indigenous past. Observe, listen, remember and share are the four pillars of Indigenous oral education. Yet, numerous people I had met with had told me that they had never been told their families’ histories or transmitted their Indigenous cultural heritage.
Huguette Lamoureux, a 65 years-old social worker at La Pommeraie Center for Health and Social Services, tells me that many used to hide their Indigenous descent. “My own mother hid it from me for years because she was ashamed,” Huguette said. “Younger, my mom had been called a ‘savage’ more than once, and for her that is what being Aboriginal meant.”
“The thing is that Aboriginal culture takes such strong roots in community that a mere marriage outside its boundaries can jeopardize the transmission of cultural heritage,” Ivanie said. Add to that a whole generation of children who were taken from their families by the Government of Canadian, between 1880 and 1996, to be placed in boarding schools where the transmission of their heritage was completely overshadowed. And to that, add the shame our grandparents and great-grandparents felt vis-à-vis their roots and the racist clichés associated with them.
Today, I understand that this issue is bigger than my father’s lifestyle. It is a societal and historical matter. It will take open-mindedness, resilience and, most-of-all, humility, to be able to transmit, actualize and honor Indigenous culture in Quebec, and everywhere in Canada.
Today, being Indigenous is cool. It is often claimed with pride, sometimes considered with envy. You’re part of an almost invisible minority, you’ve got descendants from before the settlers, martyrs as ancestors, a blue birthmark and black hair just like Pocahontas’s; it’s cool. But many of us have forgotten: being Indigenous is not really about that.
Being Indigenous is about acknowledging the past. It is feeling broken by it, in a way, and making it rise again somewhere new. It is carrying with you, proudly, the marks of your culture. Only this way, you can start giving back to your community. But to do so, you need tangible gestures; you need to have had contacts with that community and what its culture has become. I realized that many around me claimed, just as I did, to be Indigenous without the slightest idea of what it really meant. And that, that is called cultural appropriation. Today, I know about the Mi’kmaqs, the Malecites, the Crees and the Abenakis, and I know there are seven other recognized Indigenous peoples in Quebec. I went north, to the Abenaki territory, and I observed in silence. Today I know that Indigenous identity is an elusive concept based on a shared past and the cooperation of a community. Finally, I know there was a cultural break. There was, and still is, a break in transmission of Indigenous culture. I am not truly Indigenous, not yet, but today I have to be honest: it would have been an honor, and I am actively working on it.
I was a Canadian caught in Mexico's worst earthquake. All my life I had taken the stillness of the earth for granted, and now I was paying for it.
Mexico not in shock
Published in Huffington Post Canada, 2017
On the night of Sept. 8, 2017, Gabril Angel Mora, 25, was in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, speaking on the phone with a friend elsewhere in Mexico. Around 11:45 p.m., her phone signal suddenly went out. So did electricity.
"I knew what was happening," she told me the next morning. "I'm from Mexico City. Earthquakes happen all the time."
Obviously, we had lived different experiences.
Contrary to Gabril, this was my first rodeo. I'm a 24-year-old from Montreal — natural disasters are not something I commonly experience. By 10:30 that night I was sound asleep. Little did I know that an hour later, I would wake up, half-crawling onto the ground, thinking aliens were finally taking over Earth.
Within milliseconds, I was on my feet. The ground was shaking heavily, but I managed to reach the closest door frame and crouch under it. First mistake. According to a 2016 Insurance Canada survey, many Quebecers would react just like I did. I later learned that getting down on the ground and hiding under something solid is the smarter, safer thing to do. From my not-so-safe refuge, I could hear objects slide from the walls and break on the floor.
Bright blue lights illuminated the sky. They were bluer than usual lightning, and took the form of large, oval-shaped apparitions. When a red one stroke, the thought of aliens crossed my mind once again. At that point, the seism had stopped, but I knew another quake was likely to happen. I looked at the poorly designed house I was standing under and decided not to stay in there.
Outside, street dogs were frightened, barking continuously and running all over town to seek shelter. But that was all.
After a disaster of that magnitude, one would expect babies crying, people screaming over the phone, or even just citizens worrying for their families or preoccupied with the state of their houses. Instead, a few people, surprisingly calm, were standing in the street in small groups. Next to me, Gabril Mora was trying to get a signal.
"Are you OK? " she asked me in Spanish. She didn't seem scared. Instead, her expression reflected a sort of excitement. We started talking. I asked her about the lights. Whereas I couldn't get the apparitions out of my head, she had completely forgotten about them.
"Maybe some electric poles," she said tranquilly. Although I knew it wasn't probable that electric poles had been the cause of such a phenomenon, Gabril's pragmatic thinking reassured me.
She handed me her phone so I could call my mom. Still obsessing over my "alien" lights, I asked her to search about the phenomenon. According to her sources, the coloured lights are rare occurrences, and are the result of rocks releasing energy because of the moving tectonic plates. My first thought, too.
When I hung up the phone it was past 2 in the morning. You'd think by then the worst part was over, and for most people, it probably was. Indeed, once inside I could overhear laughs coming from the street. People were blowing off some steam.
Lying down in bed, I kept hallucinating the ground was still shaking under me. Only some of these feelings were really hallucinations: aftershocks earthquakes are a real phenomenon. In the 24 hours following the Sept. 8 quake, over 260 aftershocks were registered.
I finally fell asleep, but for days I would get sudden panic attacks, thinking the ground was moving. I woke up two hours later and quickly left the house.
Further down the street, volunteers were holding shovels, casually smashing debris. A wall of the superb Na Bolom Museum had fallen onto the street, taking electric poles with it. People were passing by. No one seemed to care.
An hour later, I'm in a coffee shop with Gabril. She nonchalantly tells me her friend from Juchitan was less lucky than we were: her house had been severely damaged. Meanwhile, the West Coast was facing tsunami warnings.
During our conversation, loud sirens would go off in the city. They announced aftershocks, but the locals did not seem to care about them. In fact, every shop in the city was open as usual and the markets were full despite the fact that three people had been reported dead in the very city we were standing in, and over 50 throughout the country.
Rubble surrounding a church in Zinacantán, a small village near San Cristobal de las Casas.
Later that afternoon, standing in a collectivo bus, I started talking with the driver. Gerardo told me that more than three people actually died during the earthquake. An old lady had a heart attack. His distant neighbour fell on a rock. A child went missing. "But they don't count those ones," he says with a neutral tone.
Your neighbour is dead? A child went missing? Why were people so alright with all of this? For a second, I had forgotten that for many here, earthquakes, natural disasters and other tragedies are just part of the daily life.
"Earthquakes happen all the time," Gabril had told me. Well, no, they don't. Not everywhere, yet. And I realized: it wasn't people's reactions that were weird. It was methat was unprepared for this.
No one here had ever thought aliens had come, because they were used to such traumatizing events. None of it surprised them anymore. I, on the other hand, had never been prepared to face the eventuality of nature bringing destruction and death around me. All my life, I had taken the stillness of the earth for granted, and now I was paying for it. With anxiety and doubt.
I wasn't prepared, and I should've been. Because assuming many of us don't have to think about natural disasters because we live in Canada, or because nothing like that has ever touched anyone we know, is naïve. After all, Irma is ravaging the East Coast and threatening Canada with floods as I am writing this.
As Canadian insurers are preparing for a future saturated with flood damage, and a statewide fire disaster is declared in British Columbia, maybe we should start getting mentally ready for it all to become part of our reality, too. Whereas I had always presumed nothing would ever happen to me, Mexicans assume it will; they're just waiting so they can deal with whatever life will bring and get along with their lives. And there's a word for that: resilience.
Published in Huffington Post Canada, September2017, https://bit.ly/2QMXjRa