RTIE: Journal Reflections #4: (This is from an assignment/commentary I wrote when taking the UBC/EdX course, Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education).
I was born in 1955, when my dad was the principal and also the secondary school teacher (all subjects, grades 9 to 12, plus P.E. grades 6-7) at Massett on Haida Gwaii, and my mom was the grade 7-8 teacher.
We moved away when I was two years old. I never knew any aboriginal people after that, although our home held gifts we’d received, like argellite poles carved by Captain Brown and cedar root baskets woven by women of Old Massett. My parents didn’t speak much about their time on the Queen Charlotte Islands, as they were known then, though when the subject did come up, there was a strong sense of nostalgia, and even of belonging in some way. But it was like my dad’s World War 2 experiences; it just wasn’t talked about much.
We lived in Revelstoke, and then in Rutland (Kelowna) till I graduated from high school, and went to Okanagan College. I did grow up with a strong sense of respect for people of all cultures. But we lived in essentially European-descent communities, and I simply didn’t meet any Aboriginal peoples–though I often wondered about them as we drove through Westbank on our way to visit our grandparents in Summerland. I wondered why their homes were small and decrepit and why their lawns weren’t mowed–things like that. I wondered why the few native people I ever saw in Kelowna itself were hanging around the dingy bar in downtown Kelowna. But since no one else talked about it, I had a niggling sense that bringing up things like that was somehow “wrong,” so I didn’t bring it up.
We must have learned something about “Indians” in school at some point, but I have no recollection of it at all. I don’t recollect learning anything at college, either–which, when I think about it is kind of strange, because when I graduated high school, I got the award for top history student, and I studied history at college.
The odd thing was, I was really “attracted” to native people. When I was 17 or 18 I met a native young man at the beach, and I really wanted to know him; I felt like somehow I knew him, that somehow we had a connection. But I had no idea where that came from. We had an interesting conversation or two; but he was just passing through town, and left a day or two later.
At University (UBC), I studied Education. I noticed there were some native students in the department, and I really wanted to talk to them, but it seemed like there was this wide river, and they were on the other side. They were all in the NITEP (Native Indian Teacher Education Program) and there didn’t seem like there was any “bridge” between “us” and “them.” I used to hang out in the Museum of Anthropology a lot and wander around and wonder why I had this kind of undefinable sense of … what can I say? Loss? Loneliness?
And then I got my first teaching job–in Masset, of all places. In the same room that my mom had taught in (and that I had spent time in during classes on days when Mom was substitute teaching after I was born, and she wasn’t teaching anymore because that’s how it was back then, but she’d take me with her, when my babysitter, Naanii Nora Bellis, wasn’t available). When I went to Masset, even though I had left when I was two years old, it was like I finally felt at home, where I belonged.
Immediately I started learning everything I could; it was like I finally had a chance to get some answers to the “wonderings” I’d had all my life. Another thing that happened was the very first person I met was a young Haida man (actually, I found out later, Haida on his dad’s side, his mom from Musqueam–they had met at residential school). It was my first day there, and I went into a Chinese food cafe and bowling alley, which I didn’t realize was considered an “Indian place.”
There’s a wild and crazy story about our meeting . The thing is, it was like I knew him already. It was like I knew so many people already. It was like we were already good friends. Later I found out that my parents and his tsinni (his grandfather, whom he had grown up with) were good friends back in the day, and we’d played together way back when. So, long story short, we ended up marrying, and we have 5 children and 9 grandchildren. And we’ve gone through a lot of bridge-building, which is still underway 35 or so years later…
The school I taught at in Masset had lots of First Nations students. I can’t say that I automatically fit in. I didn’t. As much as I felt at home in the community, I also felt myself a stranger. I wasn’t “accepted” just because I married a local guy (if anything, that just made things worse, for a lot of people). It’s been a process. It’s still a process. Reconciliation is hard; acceptance and respect is a process. A long, difficult process.
We’ve lived in other communities (Inuvik, NWT, for a few years; now in the Okanagan). I’ve interacted with many First Nations people, in educational settings, in community, in family… I’m still white, even with my “status card” I got because we married before the government changed the rules. And how can I not be? Sometimes it’s a difficult place to be, this in-between place. Between cultures. Between ways of thinking, of understanding. It isn’t easy for me, for him, for our children, for everyone whose lives we are part of, for the students I’ve had, for what it has meant in the classroom, in the community, in all our relationships with others. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
He’s not comfortable with me taking this course, I don’t think. He still hasn’t sorted out his feelings about being First Nations. He’s fiercely proud of it–and at the same time, struggles with the shame he experienced, grew up with, in residential school, in primary day-school on the reserve, in his time in the Canadian Armed Forces. We live with his struggles. And he lives with mine, I’m sure.
Yes, in writing this I’ve gone way past the parameters of this “assignment.” But maybe it gives you an idea of why I signed up for this course. I’m still working through “reconciliation” and so is he. And so are our children. And so are all of us, all us Canadians–at least we should be . If we’re not working through it, there is something too shallow about our existence.
Some responses I made to assignment responses submitted by other RTIE students:
- You are so right about the land, the connection so deep. It is something we settlers don’t have. I have had times when I have been so jealous because I feel I don’t have that long, deep connection to anything. It is sometimes hard to feel like one is standing on the outside edges, looking in. To be an “outsider.” Which is what we are in so many ways. It’s one of the reasons why it is so important for us to seek understanding. How can we “teach”–what can we “teach”–when we are so often trying to instill a truly “foreign” worldview? We need to learn so, so much before we have a right to teach. Maybe we don’t have a “right to teach.” Maybe we just need to be learners together.
- Thank you for your reflections on your time on Haida Gwaii. In some ways, as time has passed, the Haida/non-Haida bifurcation has become more subtle … and in other ways, more intense. It’ not an easy thing. There are layers and layers and layers. This is true everywhere, in relation to aboriginal/non-aboriginal issues. Reconciliation is so necessary. But hard work. I do believe schools have an important place in the process, but interpersonal relationships on all kinds of levels are necessary. At least schools can perhaps open our younger people to be willing, to be more understanding, to have the courage (and some tools, hopefully) to move toward true reconciliation.
- Thank you for sharing your “between” experience. It is an experience that so many share; I think sometimes when we talk about aboriginal/non-aboriginal issues, we forget about the many who are in the “between” place. (My five children and 9 grandchildren included). It is an aspect we need to think about when we talk about reconciliation. We need to listen to people who have traveled the “between” journey.
- Thanks for sharing. I too am an “Indian within the meaning of the Indian Act” — and you have really challenged me with your words: “I think that when you are in a position where you can show learners truth told by the peoples impacted you need to seize that opportunity even if it might turn out to be challenging for some students.” I so often recognize my “outsided-ness” and feel I am not worthy to say much. But I HAVE been impacted–and I see I DO have the obligation to “seize that opportunity.” Thank you.