I recently came across a video where individuals tried to pick out who was white from a lineup. This brought up some inspiration for me to write about how I came to understand my Indigenous identity. In this first part, I talk about my childhood and adolescent identity experiences.
This is the video that inspired my post today so feel free to watch it if you are curious.
In early childhood, I knew I was different from other ‘white’ people because my mother and my grandmother looked different. Although I did not understand exactly what that meant, I was able to tell there was a difference.
I remember having the vaguest idea that I was “Indian” because of what my parents talked about around me. However, everyone outside of my family would look at my mother and guess almost any other ethnicity besides Indigenous.
This led to a very interesting incident when I was in grade one. Each week my first-grade teacher would pick a student from our class to be the “Student of the Week”. As a part of this she would ask us a few questions and then create a poster with our photo and display it on the wall of the class for the week that we were chosen.
One of the questions that she asked everyone was “What is one interesting fact about you?”. When it finally came to be my turn she asked me the question and my answer was “I am part Indian”. Of course, as a young child, I didn’t know that the word “Indian” referred to any other ethnicity besides Aboriginal, and I had no idea that many people considered that the word “Indian” to be derogatory.
At the end of the week I got to take my poster home and excitedly I showed it to my mother. She became a little bit upset however because under the “Interesting Fact” section my teacher had written, “Hali is part East Indian”. The teacher totally wrote this based on my answer to her question, but I’ve always wondered if she included her perception of my mother’s appearance in this judgement of my ethnicity.
Anyway, my mother was a little bit upset and immediately began to explain to me which kind of Indian I really was. From then on, I didn’t really have any encounters with race issues because it just didn’t come up. I think this was because everyone just assumes I am totally white, and also because little kids care less about race than teenagers or adults do.
Early High School Identity
I started to struggle with my ethnicity again when it came to high school. I went to a school with a very high immigrant population and a large Asian-Canadian population. And because teenagers are assholes racist jokes are often the norm. In every situation where race would come up, I would be grouped together with the “white kids” despite having Aboriginal ancestry.
I can remember having some internal problems with this whenever I was grouped with the “white kids”. Not that being white was bad, but just that it denied a significant part of my family, my experiences and my history. In one specific incident I remember sitting in the library with a group of my friends and somehow the topic of ethnicity came up. I said something along the lines of “I’m not totally white. I’m white on the outside but on the inside, I’m red” referring to my Indigenous heritage. However, there were almost 0 other Indigenous kids in my high school and so the person I was talking to had no idea that “Red” often was used to refer to Native people. She kind of gave me a funny look and said something like “Oh funny Hali. Everyone is red on the inside.” She assumed I was trying to use that common colour-dismissive figure of speech that no matter what ethnicity someone is “everyone bleeds red”. But that wasn’t what I was getting at all, and I replied “No. What I mean is that my family is Native”. I don’t remember what was said after that besides the topic of conversation changing very quickly.
I hate to admit it but sometimes in school, I would purposefully hide my ethnicity, or not remind people of it, in order to escape the shame that came from being Aboriginal. This was especially the case in social studies classes. In the few cases that I did identify myself, other students became very annoying. All of a sudden they would point to every photo of an Indigenous person in a textbook and ask “Is that your grandpa?” or say “Hey look, Hali, it’s your mom!”.
Teachers weren’t really much better. I remember specifically one class where I worked up the courage to raise my hand and talk about something that identified me as Indigenous. I do not remember what the context was, or even what I said when I raised up my hand. However, I do remember that after that it seemed like my teacher skimmed past any of the sections in the textbook that talked about Indigenous people. I do admit that the sections of the textbook that talked about Aboriginal history were small in the first place so it might be that she just had nothing to say. It also seemed that every time she would say anything about Indigenous peoples she would turn to me for reassurance or to see my reaction. However, at that point, I probably knew even less about Aboriginal history than she did.
Keep in mind, through all of this I had no “Indian Status” and no membership to a Metis community. Therefore any inclination that I was Aboriginal stemmed from my connection to my family and my understanding of our history. In the next part, I’ll talk about how my quest for official recognition impacted my identity and racism and identity issues I’ve faced in adulthood.