I am The Silence Between Two Rivers.
In this social moment, especially if one is Indigenous in Canada, exactitude of identity has become a thing. Mind you, it’s always been a thing, in many places, for reasons that have to do with very practical human matters of intermarriage and the potential health of offspring.
However, it’s also a time of great global mixing of the genes; a very healthy thing taken in a big picture context, but you have to step way back, sometimes, to see it. It’s been attended by a lot of pain and a lot of social upheaval, injustices large and small that fill books and books of our history, even though we’re just beginning to reclaim that history from the maw of the beast, Amnesia. That’s the beast that enables educated Euro-Canadians to walk around knowing nothing, or worse than nothing (bald lies and bizarre falsehoods) about Indigenous people who are, after all, related.
Me, I have been blessed. My parents never hid who we are as a family, though I grew up in a time when neighbours and relatives were hiding, bleaching, pretending to be French or some other likely European stock that, while not high-class, was at least held to be admissible. My mom was born here, to Polish-Canadian parents who immigrated in 1928, with 4 of their 10 children. My dad was born here, too, to an Anishinaabe mom and a Mi’gmaq dad, on grandma’s reserve, Garden River, in north Ontario. When Grandpa died, Dad was tiny. Grandma remarried, and lost her status, and because of the way Canada counted Indians in those days, Dad became Non-Status. Nonetheless, he was raised in Ojibwe culture.
I grew up mostly in northern Alberta. Anishinaabek were thin on the ground. We were pretty much it. We identified, though. In accord with Polish custom, I belong to my dad’s people. I never pretended otherwise. However, as I learned more about the traditions broken by the ‘Christian’ church schools in our communities, I came to see that there was a long historic reason why Indigenous colleagues and acquaintances questioned my authenticity. In Anishinaabek tradition, I belong to my mom’s people. I’m Polish.
According to the government of Canada, though, via the Treaty processes that underly the existence of this country, I also belong to Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation. Our entire family enrolled in the 1980s, thanks to Mi’gmaq Knowledge Keeper Gilbert Sewell finding for us the missing paperwork that proved Grandpa’s legitimacy, and my father’s heritage. It was no secret among the people he grew up with; it was just the government classifying and grading him as different.
I like to think that all this classifying and reclassifying has given me a gift. I can see that human categories are made up as much of political expedience and a will to power-over as they are to any noble, or even practical, issues.
I understand: there are impostors who seek to claim identities not their own, for the purposes of fame and money. These concern me less than reactionaries who don’t examine fully why we allow such categories of identity to persist as a means of authentication of a person. What matters more? Your pedigree, or your actions?
I call myself the Silence Between Two Rivers because I inherit two large streams of humanity. The stories of our interconnections are not well told, for the most part. And the pressure to choose one side or another of my identity is real. And tedious. And not nearly as interesting to me as the territory in between. If I can find some silence there, I always find some bedrock insights into humanity, into the miracle of being alive at all, and into the potential, ever roiling, ever unrolling, of living up to the gift of life. And what I do, I hope, is honour that in all the ways I can find. Imperfectly, to be sure, but always reaching. I’m a writer, for whatever use that may be in this world of wonders.
Miigwech, Welalin, Dziekuje, thanks for reading. Be well, friend, whatever heritage known or unknown brought you to this planet.