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.