Chapter 6: Rediscovery
As I progressed through my teen years, living at home became unbearable. My Bubbi was my solace. She always had a kind word for me. She believed in me. She told me that one day I would do great things. I did not believe her; I figured I was headed to jail. My parents liked to tell me that when I grew up I would become a drug addict and prostitute, because that’s what my people do.
I had started acting out, and it seemed plausible. I couldn’t wait to move out. I did when I was 18. I left suddenly. No real plan, no money. My boyfriend helped me and I lived with him and his family for a while. He was a nice Jewish boy and his mother did not approve of me. I just assumed that I would stay in the Jewish community and stopped being interested in First Nations culture. It was ironic, because my non-Native friends would encourage me to get my status but I wanted no part of it. People kept telling me about this film “Dances with Wolves”. They were so intrigued that I was Cree but confused that I knew nothing of my culture. Eventually, I watched the film. And I’ll admit, everything clicked. I was amazed by the beauty of my people, the culture, our strength, struggles and perseverance.
I became a born again Indian something fierce. By this time I had begun modelling. I would go into every audition wearing a choker. I wore braids. This led me to working in films with a native theme, like “Squanto”. It was my reintroduction into the Native community. I told my new friends that I had been adopted out. They were so welcoming and mentioned that they knew of children like me, adopted out of the community never to be seen again. One of the cultural Elders on this film gave me my spirit name: Nakuset. It comes from the Mi’Kmaq language and means the Sun. I have used it ever since. At about the age of 21, I went to the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal to apply for my Indian Status. I wanted to go to school and tap into my treaty rights to fund my education.
“What is your mother’s name? Your father’s? “ they asked. “Which community are you from?” “I don’t know” I replied. “All I know is that I am Cree and was born in Manitoba”.
Interestingly, at this time, my adopted parents asked to meet me. I hadn’t really stayed in touch with them. They explained that they were proud of me for surviving on my own and they now wanted to give me money on a monthly basis. I was very surprised.
“Can you just sign these papers first?” they asked.
They handed me legal papers from Manitoba. I asked why I had to sign them. They explained that as a child of the state, I had to sign them in order for my funds to be released. I didn’t understand. They told me that I would have to meet with their lawyers next week. Then my father said, “Don’t think this will help you find your real family.” I thought that statement was really strange.
The meeting with his lawyer was equally odd. There were many papers. When I asked a question you could hear a pin drop. My father answered them. I still didn’t understand but felt stupid to persist. The lawyer said that after this signing he wanted nothing more to do with this case. It was so weird. Then my aunt called me and told me to be careful. “Read every document before signing it,” she said. I was so confused and asked to meet with her. She went over the paper work.
“This paper says that it is a trust fund. It’s from John Murray. Do you know who he is?” she asked. “The list of beneficiaries, do you know how they are?” After many leading questions (my aunt was afraid to tell me the truth, because she knew that my parents would ostracize her) I discovered that this was my real family.
John Murray had left me money, prior to my adoption and I had just signed it over to my parents. I looked down the list and saw the name Sonya Murray… My sister.
Chapter 7: Metamorphosis
Have you ever seen the film "The Color Purple"? I saw it in the theatres when I was a teen. In one pivotal scene, the main character Celie is forcibly separated from her sister. The scene is incredibly upsetting and I remember sitting in the dark and crying so hard. It tore me apart, but I didn't understand in the moment why I was so affected. Now I know, it was a body memory. Sonya Murray, my sister and my protector.
During our first conversation following our reunion she told me on the phone, "I took a lot of beatings for you".
"Uh...thank you," I replied awkwardly.
I had received my personal case study from a social worker after I turned 18. All the interventions the social workers had conducted were documented and listed. It described signs of horrific abuse and there were many of these over a two-year period, beginning when I was three. I had no memory of the abuse and therefore couldn't really absorb it but I knew Sonya was telling the truth.
At our first meeting I showed Sonya that document. I assumed that she would read it and relate to it purely as a paper trail of our past. Instead, she crumpled to the floor, tears streaming down her face. I was alarmed. "Sonya look, I'm okay, I'm fine!" I said, trying to convince her that all the abuse from yesteryears had left no physical scars.
I will always feel close to my sister, always respect her, look up to her, love her and feel protective of her. Unconditionally.
So, after all has been said and done how has this journey of adoption and assimilation impacted me? It’s made me stubborn. It’s made me want to prove that my adoptive parents were wrong about me and my people. It’s made me want to fight and struggle to ensure that others won’t have to experience similar turmoil.
Still, I was able to accomplish many things. I managed to get my post-secondary education. I have a B.A. in Human Relations from Concordia University, so now I should be able to get along with my parents right?
While in university I became President of the Advocacy For Native Adoptees, a non-profit initiative to support other Native adoptees and since 1999 I’ve been working at the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal (NWSM). In 2004 I became the Executive Director! It is such an honour and the best job ever!
In 2008 I became co-chair of the Montreal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network and the work I’ve achieved through this initiative is a direct result of my adoption experience. We work with Youth Protection and voice our concerns about Aboriginal children in care. We have also published a Cultural Manual for Foster and Adoptive parents of Aboriginal Children, a tool my adoptive parents definitely could have used. We’ve also signed a Collaboration Agreement with Youth Protection which ensures that before an Aboriginal child is placed in care, their social worker must first refer them and their mother to the NWSM. At the shelter, we use our culturally appropriate services to help strengthen the family and keep them together.
I also created, produced and currently host a television show called "Indigenous Power". The objective of this show is to portray Aboriginal people in a positive light, highlighting our strengths and leadership within the urban Aboriginal community. Long story short, I became an Accomplishment Junkie.
And my personal life?
After over a decade of marriage to another Cree, I am now a single mom of three wonderfully spirited boys. I gave them all Cree names and they will always know their heritage.
I was initially afraid to become a mother, after having had such poor role models but my Bubbi always assured me that I would be more than capable. I'm now a hover mom, and see a lot of my Bubbi in the way I bring up my boys. I’m probably too permissive, as my parents were overly authoritative, but I tell them every day, more than once, that I love them.
My final words for readers:
Find your passions and strive relentlessly towards your goals. By the age of 10 I knew that I wanted to work in the helping field. Even when others tried to talk me out of it, I persevered. Also, seek out a mentor. I could never have achieved my goals without the help and support of my guides.
And finally, don’t give up. Ever.
Nakuset, the Executive Director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montréal, is a Cree from Lac la Ronge, Saskatchewan. She has three beautiful boys: Kistin, Mahkisis and Mahihkan. Nakuset was adopted by a Jewish family in Montréal and draws on her adoptee experience for insight into her work advocating for Aboriginal children in care. She is also the Co-President of the Montréal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network. Some of her recent accomplishments include creating, producing and hosting the television series Indigenous Power and being voted Woman of the Year by the Montreal Council of Women. Nakuset is dedicated to improving the lives of urban Indigenous peoples.