Something happened to me a week ago that forever changed me and has finally tipped the scales in my life-long quest to find somewhere to belong. I have always lived this rootless, cultureless existence. I never could quite bring myself to choose an identity, for I had many to choose from. I felt as though I had no right to at all. I am French, Cree, German, Norwegian, Scottish & Irish, and this is just the mix of "blood" I am sure of.
Growing up, I had no idea at all that I was part Native….not until I was 15 and my parents told me that I had to make an appointment to get a status card. I was so sheltered as a child…I had no idea what a reserve was, and I certainly did not know that there were still chiefs around…I thought that was all a hundred years ago! Now, don’t go judging me until you have heard why: My father grew up on a settlement and his first language was Cree. When he began school one of the first things he learned was that he was "evil" because he was left-handed. He was spanked by the nuns if he spoke his language and he was treated badly by the other kids at school. When my siblings and I were born, he vowed never to teach us our language or our culture because he did not want to see us suffer as he had. He believed he was protecting us. I knew my dad spoke Cree, but since I could not understand him, it made me feel separated from him…and from those other people he spoke to in that language.
So I grew up with this longing in me, this empty space that was never filled. I remember certain special days at school, like "show & tell", remember that? My classmates would bring in some sort of cultural artifact or whatever, and I would wonder what it was like to belong to a group…to celebrate certain days of the year with people who were just like me. People who took part in rituals, festivals, and celebrated their heritage. People who could count certain traits as their own, laugh about the things they had in common, and felt secure knowing they belonged to a group of people who shared the same history. I did not have that. I felt like I belonged and had a place in the church, I knew that, but it was not the same.
So, if I did not identify with any certain group at all, then you can imagine how little I understood about racism. I knew it existed…I just did not know it is existed in the town I lived in. I remember thinking when I was a child that it was stupid to hate someone who could not help being what race they were. I did not apply this to myself as I had no frame of reference for it, that is, I did not have anyone mistreating me outwardly over my race. As I grew up, I began noticing it more and more, all around me…and it angered me, but I still did not identify with it as I still felt like I did not belong anywhere. It was strange, because I could be around people of all races, and since not many people could place what nationality I was, I became privy to all sorts of racist comments from people who thought that their "secret" was safe with me!
My children are undoubtedly Native, and they have had it pretty rough. When we moved to Foremost all the kids were convinced they were Mexican, and at first would not believe my kids when they insisted that they were Native, but only because they were not wearing moccasins or deer skin clothing…hmmm. Even their teachers would call on them when they were learning about Native peope in school, singling them out in front of the class to answer on behalf of their ancestors!! I just could not believe that this ignorance was still this prevalent in parts of modern day society. The absolute worst part of it was that my son, for the first two years we were here, was referred to as "the little brown boy" because he was the only kid in town who was dark skinned. This, of course, was not mentioned to our faces. So I have had a lot of experience in empathy regarding this issue, but no firsthand experience, until now that is.
It all began last week at my optometrist appointment in Lethbridge at the Wal-Mart. I was running late, and I apologized for it when I arrived. I quickly filled out the form and left my status card on top of it. When I was called into the exam room the doctor handed it back to me and sarcastically said "here is your STATUS card"…I was a little apprehensive after that, but I put it down to his being annoyed that I was 10min late. He then began with the exam. He was short and impatient with me throughout the exam and would not smile or even explain what was going on when I asked. All he said to me was that I put him behind and therefore he had no time to explain anything to me. Then he complained that it was now Friday and Indian Affairs would not be open until Monday, so he had to wait for approval for my exam. I was becoming quite exasperated by that point so I offered to just pay for it myself, or else just leave and get another exam later on. He told me that was not necessary and we continued in strained silence. When it was over with he told me that there were some changes to my prescription and I asked him "what kind of changes?" He did not answer my question, and again went off about Indian Affairs not being open. So I asked him if that had anything to do with his tellling me what changes there were to my prescription? He said "no, but you should have told the receptionist you were status" I was confused at that point and I asked him, "so what does that have to do with the changes? Can you tell me what they were?" Then he impatiently grabbed the sheet and pointed at the numbers and told me only the difference in numbers, much like I was too retarded or not worth explaining it to.
So I left the exam room without another word and made my way to the receptionist who was getting my daughter’s glasses ready. I told her what happened. She just looked at me with sad eyes and said she could not believe that….but what got me was her expression, for she KNEW what was going on. That did it for me, and to my horror, I started crying right there! What’s worse is I couldn’t stop!! Me, who never cries, even when I should! I was so mortified that I just paid for my exam, even though I didn’t have to…I never wanted another reason to ever go back there! I left in search of Shane (who was shopping somewhere in the store) and I still could not stop crying…I felt so helpless, so beat down. When I found Shane, I told him through my tears what happened and he was shocked. He was really upset and comforted me as I wandered around the Christmas section crying and just trying to rationalize what happened. It`s funny, after it was all over with, there was nothing I could really point out that he did so wrong, but when I was there, experiencing it, I knew EXACTLY what was going on and why.
I still cannot understand what motivates people to act with such hatred, such malice over something as uncontrollabe as the colour of your skin! WHAT DOES IT MATTER? Think about it..do people ever punish their pet cat for being a cat? Do people ever sit there and look at that cat with contempt because it does not look like a dog? Or act like a dog? Can a cat help being a cat? NO, of course not! This line of reasoning sounds ludicrous right? So why do this to other people, who are much more important than cats? People make so many unconvincing excuses and arguments about why they are labelling, misjudging, or stereotyping other races. Throughout many times in my life I have had either strangers (and some acquaintances) stare at me intensely and ask, "what are you" to which I have learned the best reply is "Human", and just pretend I had no idea what they were trying to ask me. Maybe we should all just be resigned to the fact that we are ALL fallible, fragile, red blooded humans!! We all live, and we all die…we all experience joy and pain, is that not enough? So, in conclusion, I will state once and for all, on the record, that I am part of the human race…for this is where I belong.