Why I celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day

OPINION: I don’t look the way that many Canadians expect Indigenous people to look. I’ve been able to blend in with white society. Today, I can repay a younger Haley for all those years of hiding
By Haley Lewis - Published on June 21, 2019
Two children on a lake
The author (left) and her younger sister at her family’s property, in Taymouth, New Brunswick, in 1996. (Courtesy of Haley Lewis)

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The last time I visited my community was in May, for a story about an annual landing celebration that honours our people’s arrival on the banks of the Bay of Quinte, 235 years ago. When I arrived, I spoke to one of the council members. I told her why I was there and that I was from the community.

She said, “Welcome home.”

That meant so much to someone like me, who grew up off-reserve, away from culture. I’ve never lived on Tyendinaga territory — the Mohawk community of which I’m a member. I was raised in Taymouth, New Brunswick, a small town northeast of Fredericton, but I’ve also lived in Cape Tormentine, Halifax, Ottawa, Lennoxville, Vancouver, and Toronto.

My father’s side of the family is Mohawk; my mother’s is primarily Scottish. When my sister and I were growing up, my parents didn’t try to hide our Indigeneity from us, but they didn’t celebrate it, either. They told us we were Mohawk and what it meant to be Indigenous in Canada, but the education largely stopped there. Instead, we learned from pop culture — books like The Indian in the Cupboard, movies like Pocahontas. I didn’t realize how rich and traumatic my people’s history was, and my view of what it meant to be Indigenous was definitely rose-tinted.

I think it was hard for my parents. We lived about a 15-hour-drive away from our community’s territory and felt detached from it. Historically, my family, like many Indigenous people across the country, had been forced to hide its Indigeneity from the outside world for fear of mistreatment and because they’d been taught to think that, as Indigenous people, they weren’t worthy — my grandfather wasn’t told he was Indigenous until he was in his late teens.

While my family found it difficult to speak about our Indigeneity, others in my life didn’t have that problem. Classmates often poked fun at me and my sister. I’m white-passing, or white-presenting — which essentially means that, to some, I don’t look stereotypically Indigenous — and, sadly, I learned early on that it helped not to clue others in.

In 2003, we were living at my grandparents’ cottage because my dad was between jobs. At the time, only a little over 1 per cent of New Brunswick’s population identified as a visible minority. My sister and I were in a split Grade 3/4 class, and one of the assignments was to do a presentation on our culture. Knowing that other classmates would discuss their Scottish ancestry, my sister and I chose to explore our Mohawk side. The harassment began almost immediately. Kids said things like, “You’re Indian? Prove it, and scalp me.” When my dad picked us up from school, they targeted him, too. Later that year, my parents decided to homeschool us.

I know that the abuse I faced was minimal compared with what many others deal with and that I’ve been shielded by my ability to blend in with white society. That’s why I celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day: loudly, visibly, proudly. The day is a reminder that, by being unabashedly Indigenous — unabashedly myself — I’m repaying a younger Haley for all those years of hiding.

I’ve spent much of the past few years reflecting on and learning about my Indigenous identity, both in my professional and personal life. I’ve spoken with my parents about what they saw while my sister and I were growing up, about the things they wish they had done differently. My mom says that she was disappointed and disheartened when they had to pull my sister and I out of school but that the school administration’s lack of action left them no choice. She didn’t want to disappoint us, as the school had. I realized only much later how big an impact the experience had on me and how much it led me to suppress my Indigenous side.

I think about my white-passing appearance — and how it’s allowed me to move through the world with relative ease. At the same time, though, it’s important to dispel the misconception that there is a proper way for an Indigenous person to look. We don’t all have dark, unfreckled skin and long black hair. What makes someone Indigenous isn’t a collection of physical characteristics: it’s their culture and heritage and how proud they are of all that.

So, on National Indigenous Peoples Day, as on all other days, I work to own my privilege and to use it to lift up others. I also work to better understand myself despite second-guessing everything I do. While I know I am proud of my Indigeneity, I still feel self-conscious — I still feel as if I have to prove it every day because I grew up off-reserve. While I want to do the best I can, I’m still unsure of what space I fit into, and that journey isn’t close to finished.

Anna Pulley, an author who is Tewa Native American on her mother’s side, provides what is, in my opinion, one of the best descriptions of what it’s like to navigate your culture while being white-passing. In an essay for the Washington Post, she writes, “In my experience, belonging has involved so much more than a blood test. It’s about reciprocity. It’s time spent in communities. It’s shared culture and history and language and food. It’s who raised you, who showed up for you, who broke bread with you, and who held you up when you thought you could no longer go on. It’s claiming a community and having them claim you in return.”

These words take on deeper meaning for me every time I read them. Since I left my parents’ home seven years ago, I’ve felt an increasingly strong pull to my heritage. And I’m not alone — that’s something I talk about a lot with my Indigenous friends. We feel motivated to get involved, want to give back, and have a strong desire to immerse ourselves in culture wherever possible. I’ve joined groups, started going to friendship centres, and begun taking language classes. I speak with elders, attend events, and have even taken up beading. (I chipped my front tooth while making a pair of earrings for my sister; nobody said it would be easy.)

So on this National Indigenous Peoples Day, consider how you can use your own identity to uplift others. Attend Indigenous Peoples Day and summer solstice events in your city; stop by a local powwow; buy some incredible beadwork; overindulge in bannock and strawberries. But, most important, listen.

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