Today I turned 24.
In my life this far I have struggled with identity.
With being Haida.
With being mixed.
With ignorant individuals, racism and hate.
This blog is not easy to write. But today, I feel like it is necessary. This story is personal, to me, to my family and to my Nation. So please respect it enough to let me share my truth, my journey and hopefully to make you evaluate your own beliefs.
Lazy, stupid, chug, squaw, Indian, apple, addicted, used, “they get everything for free”, “get over it”, “it’s not my fault”, “get a job”, useless, ugly, drunken Indian, “that’s in the past”
I thought about listing our facts for you to read about past and current injustices against Aboriginal peoples.
Instead I am going to share my story and the story of my family.
This is hard and this is personal.
I hope you respect me enough to keep any rude or unnecessary comments to yourself.
Racism has effected me everyday of my life.
I was born into a lifelong struggle against it and it is something that I struggle to come to terms with.
I will not accept it, I will fight against it, but it isn’t easy.
My mom is white and she is my number one ally in fighting racism.
As a kid growing up in Vancouver she always made sure I came home to Haida Gwaii and that I felt pride in where I came from.
I think she knew that I would discover it soon, that difference, that hate, that intolerance.
It was too soon. By the age of 5 I knew I was different.
I remember noticing stares and people looking at me strangely.
By the age of 12 I knew the words Indian and Squaw. I stopped going to Aboriginal circle in Elementary school. I denied my race. Because of my mixed blood I could pass for other races.
People thought I was Spanish or Italian and I didn’t correct them.
High-school came and the racism I experienced intensified. When people asked if I was First Nations I would respond with yes but and list out everything else I was (I’m British, Irish, a little bit of Spanish, etc).
In my first high school social studies class, I sat uncomfortably in my seat as I listened to my teacher talk about “Indians”. The first time she said that word I thought she was referring to actual Indians, from India. As she went on I realized she was talking about me. My textbook also had that word printed inside of its pages. I went home that day and as I told my mom about my first high school social studies class I was crying.
I remember the look on her face clearly. I knew that she wanted to go give that teacher a piece of her mind.
I urged her not to, that it was ok.
She sat me down and she explained to me that it was never ok, by saying it was ok, by not complaining or speaking up I was allowing institutionalized racism to persist. That those kids sitting in class with me would come to believe that calling Aboriginal people “Indian” was acceptable. She asked me if I would ever call a black person the N word? I said, no of course not, that’s racist. She said, exactly.
My mom phoned the school and made me an appointment to see the councillor to discuss how we could deal with this issue. I stood outside of the office feeling like I was going to hurl. I sat down and as I explained what had happened. I was so anxious and upset that I was crying. The councillor was shocked that my teacher had said that -but despite her best efforts nothing really changed. I went back to class and the teacher pulled me aside, I was mortified. She apologized and said that she “didn’t know that Indian was a “bad word”. I couldn’t respond, I nodded my head and sat down. That first class she tried to not say it, but it didn’t last long and throughout the year she referred to me as an Indian.
That was my first real experience with racism.
It was the end of my pride and the beginning of a terrible high school experience.
That same year I heard from my older brother about his experiences. He went to a different high school. He is a big guy which has for the most part protected him from physical violence because of his race, but it has also made him a target to police. Anytime someone called him a “chug” he would hit them, obviously not the best response. I won’t go into great detail about his run-in’s with police. But I will say that they name-called him, arrested him for walking down the street and targeted him because of his appearance and race.
For the first summer of my life I didn’t go home, I was 16 and my family took their annual trip to Haida Gwaii while I decided to stay in Vancouver.
The next summer I came up after graduating high school. I began hanging out with some people from Charlotte. I liked them, until a couple of evenings out when they let their true colours show.
I knew that there was something underlying their pleasantries because they didn’t ever come to Skidegate (the reservation) and actually some of them weren’t allowed on the rez. I was having a great time and talking to someone who I had respected. He had said a couple of things that irked me but nothing as bad as that night. With some liquid courage he began to tell me that “natives get everything for free” he called us “indians” and talked about how much we (he wasn’t referring to me) drink, are addicted and how his money goes to fund our habits. I was so disgusted I couldn’t reply. I knew he was friends with many of my friends who are Haida and I wondered if they knew that he thought this way.
I was so mad I asked him to stop talking and he said why?
I didn’t have the strength then to tell him how wrong he was, or even to call him out for being racist.
The next summer changed my life, I went to Sgaang Gwaay, the Southern most village site in Gwaii Haanas. That trip changed my life and inspired me to fight back against racism.
I wrote this spoken word piece about the influence that trip had on my life:
Unfortunately, another undercover racist revealed themselves to me. Someone who my family had trusted and cared about. This time my friend and I sat crying as we listened to a person we had trusted call us useless, that we got everything for free, etc.
This time, we were saved.
My mom was there. And she slammed this person with knowledge. My mother is what I call an “ally” someone who is in a place of privilege as a non-aboriginal person and uses that privilege to stand up for us. She does not stay silent and I am so grateful for people like her who realize that they have the power to challenge peoples opinions.
A couple of years later, I found myself sitting in a college classroom listening to people speak about Aboriginal peoples as one.
Again I grew frustrated.
Pan-indianism. Referring to us all as one nation. Although “Aboriginal, First Peoples, Native, etc” are all politically correct these terms still leads Canadians to believe that we are all one Nation. Instead of distinct peoples who look different, have or had different languages, customs, beliefs, diets, etc.
Studying Criminology and Social Work I found myself becoming incredibly motivated to be a part of challenging misconceptions, improving the lives of Aboriginal peoples and finding solutions to the problems within our communities. I also began to make connections and to see other people make connections. I saw people begin to understand why First Nations peoples are overrepresented in the justice system. I also sat and listened to ignorant and racist comments. I would usually remain silent. I am lucky in that I am able to blend in to a classroom. By blending in I am able to listen to debates about First Nations peoples, incarceration rates, ignorant comments and racist terms. Thankfully I was a in a very progressive program in post-secondary and my professors would usually explain things very well.
There were a couple of times where I got so mad I left class early.
I refused to sit there and listen to someone talk about me or my people in such a terrible manner.
Those individuals should have been stopped and asked to leave or told they were wrong.
Instead I walked out of that class.
In the middle of writing this blog an old friend of mine wrote about a similar incident.
During her philosophy class her professor used a racist term. She explained to him that said term was racist towards Aboriginal women and she found it offensive. My friend is a lot braver than I am she stood up for herself and argued with him. Unfortunately her professor wasn’t much of an educator and he did not listen when she said she was offended. He told her that the term was not racist or offensive in anyway. I am very proud of her for standing up for herself and I hope she launches a formal complaint against him. Most post-secondary institutions have a zero-tolerancy rule for discrimination based on race, sex, heritage, etc. I feel as First Nations people we are often too scared or belittled to launch complaints, to fight back. Unfortunately, she was so rattled by the incident that she left school before attending the rest of her classes.
In my second year of post-secondary I was sitting in class while a discussion was taking place between my classmates about Aboriginal peoples in Canada. One student stated that ” most Natives I know barely graduate high school”. I put my hand up this time. I had listened to this person say such comments before and I was tired. I was tired of everyone sitting silently. I was tired of being offended. I explained to the class why First Nations people are less likely to graduate and to succeed academically. I explained to her that the term Native describes a broad array of people all over the world. I grew angrier as I spoke. My voice did not waver and I could feel them staring at me, finally putting two and two together.
Throughout my time in College I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed academically. This pressure was because of the racist and ignorant views of Canadians surrounding Aboriginal peoples. I had spent my childhood and high school calling myself stupid, being called stupid and told that I would never succeed. I had to prove them wrong, I still feel like I do.
I am a very stubborn individual and those comments fueled me to do the best that I could.
I wanted to fight back. I want to fight back.
I know another individual who was thrown in the back of a paddy wagon by police for standing on the road. They racially taunted him and his friends, maced him, and left him in a ditch.
We had the chief of one of the police departments come in to talk to our class. He presented a lot of information and I asked him some questions about racial targeting. He was so uncomfortable there was visible sweat dripping down from the top of his bald head. He told me that cops do not have quotas and he denied racial targeting. I argued. Alone. The week before that class we had a group discussion about the points we all wanted to make as a class. Racial targeting was one of them. When it came down to the day, I was the only one to speak up. Nobody backed me. There is proof that police in Canada target Aboriginals the same way they target African Americans in the States. All of the statistics are comparable and sad. A lot of the reasons for incarceration are multi-layered and generally they stem from abuse at the hands of the Canadian Government.
Another pivotal moment in my fight against racism occurred last summer.
I was driving up to Haida Gwaii with my mom for our annual visit. We stopped at a rest-stop. I went into the outhouse and there it was, written to look like blood, “Save a Moose, kill and Indian”. That has stuck with me ever since, I wrote a poem about it, still unfinished.
I was so angry, I am still angry.
The Haida Culture is matrilineal and my mom is non-native, this means that I did not have a clan until I was adopted. Because of this I have struggled with belonging. I still struggle with belonging. Our cultures have adapted to the times. Generally when kids are born to non-Haida moms they are adopted into a clan at birth or as toddlers. Unfortunately my brother and I weren’t adopted until last year.
The more self-reflection that I do the more I realize how much this has impacted me. I never had a clan or regalia to represent at potlatches. Now that I do, I still feel disconnected. Perhaps this is my fault, I haven’t put myself out there to be included. At our adoption my mom cried, my brother cried, I cried, it was a turning point for all of us.
It was a start. I just have to work on belonging.
I moved home in March. I did this for a lot of reasons, I love this place, I love Haida Gwaii.
I wanted to be here, I needed to be here.
My future is here and I know that, I have known that for as long as I can remember.
Haida Gwaii is my home.
It wasn’t easy. I don’t have a big family left here, just my Uncle and some cousins. I do have wonderful friends that have become family and I am very grateful for them. Regardless it is and has been a struggle for me to feel like I belong. To find my place and role in this community.
I have been told over the years that I don’t belong here, because I was born and raised in the city. I have been stared at in my own community. I have had people ask- are you Haida? Who’s kid are you?
People here judge you based on your family. Another strange and new concept.
I am stronger than all of those statements.
I know that I belong here. I know that I am Haida.
Last summer I sat my sister-in- law down and we had a hard conversation. She is a beautiful person and a committed mom. My brother and his family came to visit Haida Gwaii and to witness our adoption. My brother married a wonderful woman, who happens to be non-Haida. Because of the governments rules on “status” and “non-status” Aboriginals my brothers kids are non-status. They live far away from Haida Gwaii in Toronto. I explained to my sister-in-law in a tear filled discussion my struggle with identity and racism. I explained to her that I didn’t want that for the kids.
I want them to live in a world where they feel proud and accepted for their roots.
The Haida Nation’s constitution states that anyone with one drop of Haida blood in them is Haida. I told her that those kids need to form a connection to Haida Gwaii and Haida culture so that they can defend themselves against racism and ignorance. I loved watching them play on the beaches here and to listen to them ask questions about carving and art. I told her that I want them to grow up in a world where racism isn’t something they have to face. However, I know they will have to face it. Somewhere and somehow. Maybe it won’t be directed at them but they will hear it, they will hear the comments.
I got a job at the Haida Heritage Centre when I moved home. I only conducted a couple of tours because I felt completely out of place teaching people about Haida Culture. There were some visitors that came into the centre and made ignorant comments. One incident involved a particularly vocal non-Haida local who felt that an event held in a cultural centre owned by the Haida peoples was the proper place to state his true opinions about us. They weren’t nice comments and left people incredibly uncomfortable. I wish in that instant someone in a place of privilege had stood up and challenged that individual.
I know my mom would have.
To allow injustice to happen, to be a bystander, is a terrible feeling.
I was on the sky train once when something terrible happened.
Two students were talking to each other in mixed Chinese and English. A white man told them they lived in Canada now and to speak English. They ignored him and kept talking. He called them racist terms and got up in their face. Finally everyone sitting around the area told him to stop. That he was wrong. We began defending them. We all got off at the final stop and alerted the sky train police, we filed a complaint and identified the man abusing them. I don’t know what happened after that. But it felt better than sitting idly by watching someone else experience racism.
That day I was an ally.
Racism is something I felt everyday in the city.
I feel it here too, in different ways.
When I do feel it here, it is even more shocking and painful.
When I am told by Haida’s that because I am 1/4 Haida I don’t belong, or because my mom is white and our culture is matrilineal I am not really Haida. I feel a different kind of pain. This kind of racism within our communities is less overt but it exists and it hurts.
It is terrible and wrong.
I had to write this blog.
I don’t know why I had to share all of this personal information with the world.
I guess I felt it was necessary.
It is personal for a blog that I write for the Haida Heritage Centre. However, I feel it is incredibly important that our Heritage Centre develop and adopt a policy on dealing with racism. I hope that we will. I believe the Haida Heritage Centre has the potential to teach ignorant people.
To illustrate a terrible past and connect it to a bright future.
My struggle towards identity is a lifelong one. I urge you to evaluate your privileges and your oppressions. If you were born privileged I urge you to become an ally against oppression.
We all have power.
And many strong voices can silence one loud one.
There are more of us than them.
At-least I hope there are.
I hope that my niece and nephews will never have to experience racism, but I know they will. I told my sister in law to continue to raise them to be strong, proud people, who will not allow themselves to be disrespected. Her and my brother are doing an incredible job.
If my mother hadn’t stood by my side, stood up for me and gone to bat for me against racism,
I don’t know where I would be.
I wouldn’t be sitting in my office on Haida Gwaii writing a blog about racism.
Mom, thank-you for raising me to be proud of who I am. For teaching me about Haida Gwaii and Haida culture. For standing up for me and for fighting racism. You are a powerful woman and you inspire me to fight back everyday.
Thank-you all for reading.
If you are Haida I hope that you stand strong in who you are and fight back against racism.
If you’re not Haida I hope that you become an ally the next time you hear someone say something racist.
We all have the power to make a difference.
Blog written by Michaela McGuire, Photographer, Project Officer at GNC & HHC & new-ish Skidegate resident.