Chapter 3: Growing Pains
I still craved my true heritage. I would get so excited whenever the Beachcombers came on because there was a Native guy on it, Jesse.
My parents sent me to a camp called Cherokee. Every unit was given a First Nations name. My bunk was called the Chippewas. We had to sing silly, derogatory songs about the Chippewas, almost caveman like.
I was the only Native kid there. Native, alone and proud. There was a child psychologist/social worker who worked there and I had a number of sessions with him. We played the game Sorry and talked. I guess I was exhibiting behavioural problems...
Despite the cultural complexities, I have good memories of my early childhood from ages 3-9. We lived in Suburbia. The house had an in-ground pool in a double backyard. I took ballet lessons. We travelled to Florida.
In retrospect, I think these years were easier because I was too young to rebel and still believed that if I was good enough, I would be accepted.
The best part of being adopted was my grandmother. She was called Bubbi, which is the Yiddish translation. I had total unconditional love from her. She radiated happiness. There was always a lot of laughter around her. If I am a good person today, it is to her credit. She became my emotional saviour through the tough years to come.
We had something in common. She was a converted Jew, like me. She was aware of how the family could treat those who were not of Jewish blood. Other relatives fell into the same boat, and we all bonded and suffered together. I was adopted by a family that was already plagued with tension. As time passed, I became both the black sheep as well as the scapegoat.
The cultural differences became more apparent when we moved to Westmount, Montreal’s most affluent neighbourhood. My adoptive father had become increasingly successful and wanted us to live amongst the golden gates and fountains.
I was about 10. The houses in Westmount were spectacular and some were colossal mansions. The house my parents chose was particularly huge - five floors. I knew that this wouldn’t be my home as an adult. I was just a visitor.
Eventually, my parents sent all of us to different private schools. I was sent to a very small private school that was located in a large, old house. It was my first introduction to other First Nations youth, Mohawk students. A yellow school bus dropped them off each morning and brought them back to their community at the end of each day.
I was so happy to meet other Native children: thrilled, euphoric, elated, uplifted. I found them strong, tough, attractive and cool. They were from the community of Kahnawake and had a very distinct accent. I quickly immersed myself with my Mohawk classmates and tried to learn as much about them as I could.
I learned their accent and began talking like them. I wanted to be tough like them. My parents were horrified by my new discovery. They offered their point of view, explaining that Native people were not like Jewish People.
Some of their enlightenments included: "When you go to a Jewish home, you will find a table with lots of food on it. When you go to an Indian home, you find drugs and alcohol."
"If you go back to an Indian reservation and they find out that you were raised in Westmount, all the girls will be so jealous that they will beat you up and the boys will rape you."
"Indians are the dregs of society."
This all seemed so ridiculous to me. I was not deterred by their point of view and continued to concentrate on my new friends.
Until one day…
My family and I were driving around in my father's car, a Mercedes Benz. We arrived in a small, unfamiliar town. My brother asked where we were and my father said ""Caughnawaga.""
(Caughnawaga is the mispronunciation of Kahnawake, which was widely accepted back in the day. Also, during this time, the community was not as rich as it currently is today.)
"Look at how these Indians live in their little shacks. Do you know how long it would take for one of them to buy a Mercedes? If they saved all their money, and stopped eating and paying rent, they couldn't afford one during their lifetime."
The car stopped.
"You want to keep telling people that you're an Indian? Then get out. Go live with your people."
I wondered where my new Mohawk friends lived. I considered getting out. Only now some of the locals, curious, started to follow my father’s car so he quickly sped off. My brother and sister looked at me distastefully.
It was my lesson in cultural pride. It was cultural shaming.
There was one girl in the class who was exactly like me. Her name was Judy. She was also Cree from Manitoba and adopted by a Jewish family. We became fast friends. Judy was the only Indian allowed over for play dates. No Mohawks.
Judy found the transition of cross cultural adoption difficult and began acting out. So did I. We both got suspended from school for smoking cigarettes in grade 6. Truthfully, I had already been smoking for a year. I was grounded for a month.
Judy and I had tons of fun together but I only got to spend one year with her. Then her journey took her elsewhere. The story of Judy is that she found out where her birth mother was and hitchhiked the entire way to Manitoba. Upon meeting her birth mother, she was forced into prostitution. She stayed in that profession for many years to come and developed a drug problem. She then had children and was deemed unfit to care for them. I've recently heard that she is no longer in that field and has health issues. I think of Judy often.
Judy's mother was not as oppressive as my parents were. She supported Judy in finding her roots. She was kind to her. I wished I had that...
Chapter 4: The Lies Hurt More Than The Truth
Did I mention that my parents were quite strict? They thrived on control and had unattainable expectations for our family’s image - kind of like keeping up with the Jones’s.
Appearances were everything. They chose my clothes - preppy to excess - which I never really felt comfortable in.
As I got older, I began to develop my own individual style in clothing and music. This became a long, heated power struggle. At school, the sadness I felt at home filtered through everything I did. My unhappiness and confusion bled together. I was insecure in my own skin. Someone noticed.
This individual, we’ll call him Benny, was in high school. I was still in elementary school. He began giving me compliments, grooming me, and I liked the attention. I felt so ugly all the time, and he was telling me something different. And he was Mohawk, which was taboo.
At the end of one school day, I was the last to leave the classroom. As I stepped out of the class he was standing in the vestibule, waiting for me. He closed the door so that I couldn't leave. He asked me to kiss him. I had never kissed a boy and said no. He took my glasses off and put them on top of the lockers.
"When you kiss me, you can have them back", he said.
I tried to reason with him, but he was adamant. All this reasoning took up a lot of time. I had to be back home by 4:00. It was getting very close to that time. I was more afraid of my parents than I was of him, so I conceded.
My first kiss was a complete shock. I had no idea that he was going to give me an open mouth kiss and shove his tongue down my throat. I remember the feeling of our teeth clashing, as I clearly had no idea what I was doing. This was not what it looked like on TV. I lost all the colour in my face and started shaking.
"Can I go now?" I asked.
He seemed amused by my reaction and gave me my glasses back.
I raced home. I was late. My mother asked why and I lied. There was no way I could ever begin to tell her the truth. I would get in so much trouble.
These upsetting encounters continued, and Benny’s demands grew more intimate. I was forced to do and experience things that no 12 year old girl has any business doing.
Now I was always late coming home, and my parents were becoming increasingly impatient with my tardiness. I told no one the truth.
Benny got kicked out of school and I was relieved. But that didn't stop him. He would show up at the end of the school day and wait for me on the school grounds. I remember sitting in the classroom and suddenly feeling his presence. As I turned to look, there he was, staring at me through the window. Sometimes he would wait for me at the metro and physically drag me away.
On one particular day I got off the bus with two of my friends. They witnessed him pull me away and bring me to an underground parking lot. I refused his requests and he became violent. My parents were leaving for Paris that day and I knew they were waiting to say good-bye to me before they left. My mother's parents would be watching us. I didn't like this grandmother (It was my father's mother, my Bubbi, whom I adored). She was simply an older, meaner version of my mother, and my grandfather was submissive to her.
This day’s particular violence made me later than ever.
When I got home, my family had already called my friends and knew that I was last seen with Benny. I didn't know this and lied about my whereabouts. They caught me in the lie and were furious. Livid.
They brought me upstairs into my bedroom. My brother and sister were instructed to stay in their own rooms. My parents and grandparents closed the door. My mother told me to take off my clothes and get on the bed. I obeyed, knowing that this was going to hurt but promising myself not to scream.
My mother took my father's belt and began whipping me. My father and grandmother watched. My grandfather looked out the window. Despite my own promise, I did scream. Then my older brother Mark burst into the room, crying and begging them to stop.
My mother stopped and began crying, along with my brother and father.
I hadn’t shed one tear. I quickly put my clothes on and looked at them, all hugging each other. I thought to myself, "I've just been violently molested and now beaten. And you guys are crying?"
My parents regained their composure and soon left to the airport for their trip to Europe. My grandparents were initially angry with me but softened up during their stay.
When my parents returned, they no longer seemed angry. I was worried about their reaction. They brought back tons of gifts. We all sat around and they handed them all out but there were none for me.
When I asked why, they said I was a bad girl as well as a liar, and I didn't deserve any gifts.
Wow! Those words and the exclusion hurt. It was my grandmother who tried to console me. Even she felt that my parents were harsh.
Chapter 5: Reorientation
After my inexcusable bout of lateness, my parents’ disdain and exclusion rose to new heights.
For example, I was supposed to have a bar mitzvah. I had been taking classes and was thoroughly excited about the big party following the ceremony.
My peers and I were all asked to blow up a baby picture and laminate it so that all our friends could sign it at the party. I had no photo aside from the one my parents had seen in the adoption catalogue, so I used that one.
Unfortunately, my parents finally decided that my bad behaviour was unforgivable and that ""I wasn't a good Jew and didn't deserve to have a bar mitzvah"".
This was just the beginning of a long slew of odd restrictions.
(No matter how many moves I’ve made over the years, I've hung onto this picture. It hangs on my wall to this day.)
My parents clearly wanted to tame my wild ways, and their behaviour modification methods were odd, to say the least.
I used to close my bedroom door, partially for privacy but mostly to shut them out. They asked me to keep it open at all times. I didn’t, so they removed the door by taking it off its hinges.
I began listening to punk music, buying black clothing and collecting posters of my newfound favourite bands, creating a new image that I was much more comfortable with. My brother Mark even contributed by buying me a poster of my favourite singer. It was the first gift I ever received from him and I cherished it.
One day I came home and everything was gone.
My parents had thrown out all my black clothing, music and posters. They’d had enough of my new identity and I was once again forced to conform.
I was devastated about losing Mark's poster. That was worse than anything else. My brother had always been quite cold to me, feeling that I was to blame for upsetting my parents, so the fact that he had actually bought me a gift meant the world to me. I looked up to him. From that moment on, I decided that it is safer to not want anything, and if I did, I never voiced it.
It was also decided that I couldn’t leave the house unless I weighed 105 lbs. This was an uphill challenge, as I was naturally slender and found it hard to survive through family dinners.
Dinner time was often a prime occasion to discuss my shortcomings. I would receive a barrage of insults, even in front of dinner guests. I became used to it.
My tactic was to eat incredibly slowly so that I could eventually finish my meal alone in peace - if I could stomach it.
Whenever my friends asked me to come over I would first have to be weighed by my mother. If I was below 105, and I usually was, I would have to tell my friends that I couldn't leave. I remember my friend SianNia finding this excuse ridiculous and wanting to reason with my mother. I told her it was no use.
During this period I tried incredibly hard to be a “good girl”, but it was no use.
My mother became increasingly verbally abusive when my father wasn't around. Once, I shared my reality with my aunt over the phone. My mother listened in on the conversation and confronted me.
"How can you say these things, these lies?" She cried.
Then my father showed up. He was angry that I had made my mother cry. I was punished, again.
I knew I was losing the fight and fell into despair.
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.