“Congratulations! You must be very proud of your daughter.”
“We’re all so excited to see what you’ll do next!”
“Good luck! We know you’ll do well!”
Sonkwehón:we kenh? (Are you Indian?)
Not to toot my own horn, but I heard this praise quite often while growing up. I’ll admit that I liked being the best at things.
When I was younger, this usually revolved around school. It was easy. The bar was low both in elementary on the Reserve and in secondary school in the neighbouring city. Why wasn’t I ever pushed more? The classes were enormous, and there were so many students who needed more help than I did. So, understandably, my educational enrichment was a low priority. Teachers would hand me an advanced study booklet and shoo me to a corner while they struggled to support the others.
There was an endless list of children who needed more than the teachers could give. Some were neglected at home, and some were just unmedicated; it’s apparently not very Indian to treat your child for bipolar disorder or ADHD. In a nutshell, these kids just didn’t have the resources outside of school to succeed. Often, we clearly lacked resources in school too. I recall, now to my horror, a year when my teacher fabricated our final grades for science based on a single, poorly laid out experiment. Another year, a different teacher invented our music grades because we didn’t have any instruments; let alone a real music teacher. I could offer examples for days, but the point is we all started more than a bit behind. We all carried the unique weight shouldered by Aboriginal people in Canada, who tend to live swept under a heavy rug.
So growing up, I wasn’t confronted with many scholastic demands. I liked learning, which made homework more exciting than watching the fuzzy channels our TV struggled to summon with its bent antennas. I longingly yearned for university to come. Then, they said, I would really catch my stride and most importantly… Graduate! Cue the fireworks. At the time, I never really thought about what might come after the diploma.
But I knew I’d do well.
Or I hoped.
I desperately wanted to continue being the best. Continue getting straight A’s, gold stars, and praise. But always lurking in the shadows was an ashen thought I was too afraid to consider: I can’t really do it, I don’t deserve these accolades, and my small-town brain just isn’t good enough to keep up. This omnipresent fear meant that every step I took was outwardly purposeful, but inwardly tentative. And every time my foot hit the ground, I was momentarily relieved to be alive; like an inexperienced tight-rope walker who had agreed to cross the Grand Canyon without a net.
Here’s the truth: I didn’t really know what I was doing. I awkwardly stumbled through university in a constant state of low-level panic. I followed the vade mecum that is Google and hoped for success, all the while fighting against a suffocating pressure that both wanted to pull me under and put me on a pedestal. It was an uphill battle. But what trumped everything else was my dogged determination to refute the statistics that said I wouldn’t graduate; that said I’d get pregnant and burn out and stay on the Reserve. I pushed against the non-Indigenous guidance counsellors who suggested I “find a new dream”, because other students like me (read: Native) did better in technical college programs. We’re just more, hands-on learners, you know? And finally, I pushed especially hard against anyone who told me that I was doing really well. For an Indian.
Combined, my frustration and insecurities led me to dissociate further and further from my heritage. I dyed my hair and wore coloured contacts. I became ashamed of where I came from, and embarrassed by others’ stereotypes of Natives: Dirty, angry, slow-learning people who cash in welfare cheques with one hand and reach out for more with the other… and still complain about it all.
I think it was this toxic mélange of emotions that initially kept me on track. It kept me focused on my goal of getting out, never looking back, and not just being good for an Indian. In time, it also led to a slew of fiery pitfalls.
But you saw that coming, didn’t you?
Kana'tarakenrí:ta (Fried Bread)
To say that I fell flat on my face the first month of university is unfortunately an understatement.
I crashed, burned, smoldered, and went ablaze again. And again. And again.
Every step was a misstep. I was slapped with poor, failing grades for the first time in my life and I didn’t know how to handle them. My carefully constructed spite and denial exploded, and I careened head-first into a sinking trench of depression. If you’ve never confronted depression, my reflections may leave you cold. But they continue to inspire a visceral reaction in me, even though some years have now passed.
The transition from living Nowhere to Somewhere was much more of a screaming disaster than I had anticipated. I simply wasn’t prepared for university; academically or otherwise. I didn’t know how to study or strategize, I was terrible at math, I didn’t know how to cope with my growing depression, and the surprising cultural differences were a shock. It was painful to contrast my life against those of my peers. The majority had attended wealthy private schools and gone to science summer camps, and their parents were university alumni. It was clear that we hadn’t all been born equal, and what I lacked came to haunt me almost immediately.
“It isn’t fair”, I thought. And the response that always followed was, “that’s what happens when you try to be more than you are. Indians aren’t meant to make it this far.”
I regretted trying, and I really resented the spotlight from the Reserve glaring in my eyes. I knew that back home there were those watching, hungrily waiting for me to fail and come home. When so few people leave, it’s hard not to attract attention. But there were others who genuinely hoped a flimsy hope that I could do it. I hated them too because I couldn’t even protect myself, let alone anyone else, from the disappointment that my life was shaping up to be.
Unwilling to return home, I struggled forward through school and city life, repeating a small phrase from my dad’s story he told about taking classes as an adult with three kids and no money: They can’t make me quit. They can make it hard, and they can fail me, but nobody can make me quit.
One Fall day, halfway through my degree, I was walking from a cancelled class when the Reserve popped into my head. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, and certainly hadn’t visited it more often than was necessary. As I walked, I felt a deep vibration that instantly startled me; an unexpected sound that made my heart jump into my throat.
It was a low thump; comforting and rhythmic. As I walked further, it grew louder.
Finally, after turning a final corner, I stumbled confusedly into the middle of… a pow-wow.
There was a drum group with singers and dancers in regalia. People were milling around with smiles, and I was instantly overcome with a sense of comfort that can only come from being immersed in an Indigenous space. Breathing easier, I wandered further inward.
The swelling cries of the singers were like a warm hug from everyone I had ever loved back home.
It was then, standing in the damp grass, that I felt excited for the first time in months. Eventually, I meandered through the crowd toward the booths that smelled of cooking and frying. I knew someone would be selling it. There had to be at least one. Then I found it. Bannock. I stood in silence with my square of warm bread and absorbed the scene.
Seeing my own culture celebrated in the middle of the university and city’s dizziness, I was stunned. I also considered the fact that I was a part of something more complicated – and amazing - than my own experiences. Perhaps I owed a part of myself - which part I didn't yet know - to those who came before me. And maybe, just maybe, it was ok to be an Indian. Without staying long I left, feeling a quiet ripple in the world I hadn’t noticed before.
Hén, konkwehón:we (Yes, I’m Indian)
After that fateful day of damp autumn wind and powwow singing, my heart began to soften towards my people; and in turn, my own self. In the months and years that followed at university, I searched for support and pieces of home. No longer feeling the need to apologize for where I came from, and no longer fighting the history of my people, a great peace came to me and stayed. Some of my mental fog lifted, and I was finally able to live through days without feeling endless suffocation.
In the final stretch of my degree, everything felt more welcoming. I discovered unexpectedly kind and supportive people working at the university’s Indigenous student office, and met other rural Aboriginal students who were also attempting to navigate the big angry city. Our tightknit community was a surrogate extension of home; of all our homes maybe. It felt like these people were just cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood.
Getting to know the other Aboriginal students, I realized that many of us suffered overlapping struggles. I witnessed unprecedented battles with mental health, depression appearing to be the most common burden. Unfortunately, many of our mental health issues were only being acknowledged and diagnosed for the first time. This seems to be somewhat of a norm for Aboriginal students, and I don’t think it’s acceptable. Far too often, we try to hold on until we can’t anymore and then melt into the earth without a sound.
I don’t quite know why so many of us lacked help when we were young. Were our people not able to accept that there could be problems with our brains, both in hardware and software? Perhaps they weren’t aware of the help they could get? Or perhaps this help was mostly out of reach culturally, geographically and financially? Or, could it be that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were wary of settler’s medicine because of, well, the obvious? Maybe it was all of these things combined...
To remind us all that my story is not unique, consider other Reserves: Ontario hosts the most First Nations communities in Canada at 207. Of these 207, one in four is remote; this, too, is a record for Canada. This means that many Aboriginal settlements don’t have year-round roads, and instead must be accessed by air or ice. A large number still run on gas generators and aren't connected to efficient provincial electrical grids. Most don’t have the regular support of a physician or other medical specialists. Matriculation rates are dismal, too, with some regions celebrating the graduation of just one or two students a year. Unsurprisingly, unemployment rates in these places vastly exceed those of provincial averages, and general community wellbeing lags far behind.
Now let’s get a little more specific: Imagine being unable to find a job because you’ve got no post-secondary education (did poorly in high school, and wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition anyway). Plus, your child has a learning disability that requires weekly visits to a special tutor and pills that aren’t covered by insurance. Pretty bad, right? Let’s imagine a different scenario: The nurses in your remote community are students in training rotations, there’s no regular physician present, and you bring your child in for treatment only to be sent home with Vicks VapoRub. Then, your child dies in the night from an undiagnosed (and entirely treatable) infection. Go ahead and play this out in your mind, but perhaps don’t imagine it too vividly if you want to avoid an uncomfortable knot in your stomach.
I became increasingly aware of these bleak, maddening realities while finishing up university. I also knew that exploring them further would be essential to reconnecting with my Indigenous roots. So, when I was really ready, I sought out opportunities to visit remote communities like Iqaluit, Kawawachikamatch, and several places in between. After these visits, I can affirm wholeheartedly that the only way to truly understand Indigenous communities, struggles and ways of life is to experience and confront them head on. How our policy makers are governing these places from afar, I do not know. But it does explain, in part, the shameful lack of support for Aboriginal people; particularly those in remote communities.
But these are other stories that need to be told in their own right.
And this was my story.
Marcy is originally from a Mohawk reserve in southern Ontario. She's moved around a lot, and has travelled even more. She recently received her BSc from a Quebec university and now lives in Toronto where she is pursuing a second degree in multimedia design.