Growing up disconnected looked different for me than so-called ‘pretendians’

Discussing identity can be confusing and even shameful — and that’s exactly how Canada wants it
a little girl sits on her father's shoulders
My dad and I, when I was the same age as my daughter. Photo submitted by Anna McKenzie

One of my earliest memories is being gifted with a fine-ink drawing of a chief by a non-Indigenous family member for Christmas. I was probably around five years old, and it was clearly a very expensive gift. As my cousins ran around the Christmas tree with their new toys and gadgets, I sat there stunned by this enormous painting. I recall tempering my disappointment, feeling envious of my cousins’ fancy new toys. I had nothing to play with. The painting hung in my bedroom for years, and I could only envision the chief in a different time, because other than my dad and his family who were distant, I didn’t know anyone else who was Indian. 

I was the only Indigenous child in my class, and possibly in the entire elementary school I attended, despite being minutes away from the Tsuut’ina Nation. I experienced an almost constant curiosity about my identity and my brown skin. There were many questions by children and their parents that I didn’t know the answers to. In Grade 6, I had a teacher hold me in during recess to quiz me verbally after I did poorly on a test. She asked me how old I was, and what my “heritage” was. I told her I was Native, and she nodded her head knowingly as if it all made sense. She muttered under her breath, “that explains why you’re behind.” 

That was my first interaction with shame for being Indian. Up until that moment, I often felt like I was being “congratulated.” Like surviving years of brutal colonial tactics was something to be celebrated. Later that year, a classmate stopped sitting with me at lunch because her parents told her I was Native. Girls on the bus began to throw pennies at me. I changed schools, and that was the moment where I lost interest in school altogether.

My childhood was peppered with interactions like this, which cultivated a lot of shame. I grew up in “Calgary” with my non-Indigenous side of the family. My mother is a first generation Canadian, and her parents immigrated from England. She married my father in 1985 — the same year that the Indian Act laws changed, so if a white woman married an Indigenous man, she would gain his “status.” If an Indigenous woman married a man without status, she would lose her status and claims to her respective community. If my dad were to have had his status at the time, my mother could have applied to be a status Indian. 

As I grew into adolescence, my Indigeneity became a party joke. Friends would ask me to buy them cheap gas, tipsy white boys would call me the slur “squaw,” and offer to buy me Lysol in lieu of beer on route to a house party, and “friends” bought me cheap headdresses, bows and arrows from the dollar store as a joke. Men and women alike gazed and couldn’t help but remark on my “exotic” features. I spent a lot of time dodging inappropriate questions. “So you don’t pay taxes?” “So you get to go to school for free?” “Have you ever slept in a teepee”? I recall being curious about all of this supposed free money I was going to be given for being an Indian. I calculated how much was owed to me in “treaty money” at a young age, assuming there would be inflation. There wasn’t, and there isn’t to this day. I can, however, choose to collect my five dollars (in person only) from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

These are my ancestors. From my dad’s knowledge, my great grandmother is on the left, my great aunt is in the middle, and my great-great grandmother is to the far right. Photo submitted by Anna McKenzie

In those moments of self-exploration and attempts to understand my own Indigeneity, I still felt like that same little girl with the drawing of the chief: confused, embarrassed, and unable to say anything because I simply didn’t know what to say. It breaks my heart to envision a confused Cree girl, unable to grasp her own identity, unaware of the enormity of trauma that was rooted into her very bones. There were times I yearned to not be a visibly Indigenous, wishing I had my mothers fair skin and blue eyes. I thought of my Dad — how the nuns at the “school” he attended told him that his skin was brown because “Natives don’t defecate as much so it goes into their skin.” I have Cree syllabics tattooed on my back, and I was often teased that it looked as though they said “poo poo.” I wanted so desperately to be rid of the shame. 

I spent my twenties learning how to respond to the constant questioning of my identity. I didn’t finish high school for a lot of reasons, but I managed to complete a bridge program for Indigenous students at the University of Calgary. I transferred to the University of British Columbia to receive an undergraduate degree in First Nations and Indigenous Studies. I befriended many other Indigenous people, as we converged to engage with our respective histories and present day realities. During this time of reconnection, I learned about the importance of kinship and accountability. I held myself accountable as a guest on unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ people by working with urban Indigenous youth involved in the child welfare system. I also made lifelong friendships with other Indigenous students reconnecting with their identities. 

Serving the next generation is my purpose, and it keeps me accountable to the people I come from. 

Although I didn’t grow up on the homelands of the Opaskwayak Cree, I did grow up Indian. I grew up in the aftermath of a genocide, and that is a burden I have shouldered my entire life. I didn’t have access to people who could teach me to dance, or speak the language, or to go out on the trapline. Ours was flooded by Manitoba Hydro long before I was born. But I was born with brown skin, and a long line of intergenerational trauma. 

No amount of money or praise for being Indigenous could prepare me for the horrors I would learn about my family later in life. It wasn’t until I was a mother that the truth started seeping into the life I had worked hard to create for myself. My dad must have experienced the same “seeping” as a young professional working as a geologist in “Calgary.” The full truth of the genocide my father survived surfaced only after the world learned of what happened to Indigenous children in residential and day “schools” in 2021. The family secret was out now. 

In what I know now to be a first step in embracing our Cree identity, my dad and I got matching tattoos when I was 15.

Pretendians will never understand that pain. The pain of hearing stories of what happened to your parents and grandparents, and the pain of being born into a world where your predecessors lost everything. 

If an investigation were to be carefully calculated about me, much like it was on Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, you would learn that my grandparents effectively hid their seven children in the town of the Pas to avoid the Guy Hill Residential School and the Sixties Scoop. You would learn that my dad continued his hiding into adulthood, while becoming an accomplished hockey player and successful university student. You would learn that I don’t know my language, or teachings, and that I’ve never attended ceremony in my home territory. I have never lived in Opaskwayak. I grew up in “Calgary” in a suburban neighbourhood on the edge of Treaty 7. Everyone in my family circle then was white. All of my friends were white. But being Cree is how I have learned to identify myself, regardless of the relentless shaming.

I am an Opaskwayak Cree woman, like my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother before her. My lack of cultural knowledge doesn’t change this. If I were to have been born with blue eyes and white skin like my mother, this wouldn’t change my lineage either. Being a “ward of the state” under the Indian Act doesn’t equate to how I see myself as a Cree woman. Status or not, this would not change where I come from. Sadly, my status is the only thing I have that officially tethers me to a community I have never lived in, and as it is now, I cannot pass this along to my own daughter. She will have to choose which community to register under, because her father is Snuneymuxw. Like myself, and many others, our identities will be split according to federal policy and blood quantum bullshit.

I have also learned that being a Cree woman, or to claim Indigeneity, is to also be claimed by your community. I felt this when I spoke to a panel of Elders from Opaskwayak when they were deciding about sponsoring my post-secondary education. I felt this when I put down tobacco in the river on our reserve after I lost my grandmother. I felt this when I went to Opaskwayak this summer for the first time in eleven years to attend the Indigenous Days celebration. 

My time at the University of Victoria’s Indigenous Law program illuminated to me that there are thousands of Indigenous legal orders that existed precontact and had various laws of adoption and membership. To be a Cree woman is to be in community and to be of service. It is to lift up others, namely the most important people in our respective communities: children, youth, women and Elders. Indigenous identity is a difficult and murky subject to traverse and discuss, but my thoughts can be distilled into one question: Who claims you? In the wake of a recent investigative article questioning the identity of a prominent Cree scholar, former judge and B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, I posed the same question: Who claims Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond?

I have felt a lot of confusion during this time, as I have looked up to Mary Ellen as a champion in the child welfare space for the entirety of my career. I feel a sense of duty to speak out, alongside her family members, and the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, who have claimed her — but it’s also not for me to say.

In alignment with the resurgence of Indigenous legal orders, this is a matter for the communities to decide. This is up to the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and the Norway House Nation, both which Mary Ellen says she has ties to. I don’t agree with the predatory journalism used to uncover the details of Mary Ellen’s past, but I do believe in accountability. 

The ultimate decision, though, isn’t mine to make. 

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