You're Not Like Us
I used to believe that people were a direct product of their home life - the way a person acted or reacted in situations could be clearly linked to the parenting they received as a child. I think I developed this way of thinking because I am trained as a teacher and a counselor; I would spend many hours milling over theories of child development and life stages.
In my mind, if a child acted out it was because something was going on at home. If a child was defiant, it was because they didn't receive proper discipline, and so on and so forth.
Then I started looking at my own life. I was defiant, I acted out, I rebelled. I was pretty much your quintessential juvenile delinquent. By the time I reached high school, I had already been thrown out of the only two high schools in town. One of them even went so far as to put a restraining order on me prohibiting me from coming within 150 feet of the school property.
But things didn’t quite add up. I had great parents who were loving, ethical, and involved. I had a close relationship with my mom and never suffered from “daddy” issues. In fact, my dad was the one person I never feared would leave my life. Even though we were poor and my young parents had their flaws, I was very secure in the stability of my home. Why then, was I still trying to be such a badass? I just didn’t understand.
I decided to take a closer look at my childhood and my life and the memories that stood out to me…
I loved school, it was easy, and Kindergarten was a blast. I loved it so much I thought that I would become a Kindergarten teacher one day. Grade 1 came; that as well was a cake walk. I still remember the early days of the year when the teacher would get annoyed with me while she was trying to teach us how to read. Since I already knew how to read, I would excitedly yell out the words before the other kids had a chance to try. She sent me to the back of the class, and there at the little table, I would sit and write my own stories. In Grade 2, we focused too much on my weak area, math. But it strengthened my determination. We would do booklets, and every time you finished a booklet, you would move up a rank. I struggled, but I needed to stay close to the top of the group.
Now came grade 3, and I hated grade 3. That was the year that my friends decided they weren't going to be my friends any more. We formed a gang, and when it was time to have our first gang meeting out on the playground, they told me that I was no longer allowed to be in their gang.
It was only for kids like them: small, blonde, or blue eyed. That was when I realized I was different, I wasn’t like them; I was tall, chubby, and brown.
They all had big houses and had nice new clothes. I lived in a tiny house, covered in its entirety with black paper and wire fence. A majority of my clothing came from thrift stores or bargain basements. My mom was an expert discount shopper; she’s still awesome at it. All of these things seemed to make me not good enough.
One day, though, I spotted this girl, and I thought, she kinda looks like me! We were both brown, with dark hair and eyes, and we were both larger than all the rest of the girls. OK, I’ll make friends with her. By the time the next recess came, I no longer wanted to hang around her. During class, she was struggling with her work, and made the rest of us late for recess because she was too slow to finish. The teacher announced to the class that she was to blame for us having a short recess and we should all show her how we felt. When recess came along, all the kids chased her around the playground yelling at her, spitting on her, pushing her, and they ultimately brought her to tears. Apparently, this was considered OK because the teacher said they could. I started keeping to myself that year, not wanting to bring any attention to myself so that same thing didn’t happen to me.
Grade 4. The teacher had arranged all the kids in a nice horse shoe except for me and one other boy. We were put in the middle because we were bad, at least that's what she told us all. Bad, I thought, I’m not bad. Yet, there I was, told I was bad. So I just did my work everyday and didn’t associate with anyone during school hours. Thank goodness for my after school friends - even though they weren’t in my class, I could look forward to seeing them in the evening. They were my people. They lived on my block so we all had similar houses and clothing. Some of them were brown like me and some were only half brown, but it didn't matter to us what color our skin or hair was, we just wanted to have fun.
Then came grade 5. There was a new girl in our class, and other than her blue eyes, she was like me, tall and had long black hair. I thought she was so cool, and so did all the other kids. She was slightly older than all of us; we were 10 turning 11 and she was 12 turning 13. That made her even more appealing to the class. At recess time I reverted to the swing set by myself as I had gotten used to doing - but this time, the new girl was right behind me. She introduced herself as Amanda from Alberta. Immediately, she announced that she was an “Indian” just like me, and spent most of the time talking about how proud she was to be native. She wore it as a badge of honour. This was so strange to me; I had never met anyone so proud of being different. Then the “Mean Girls” came. The same ones that threw me out of their gang 2 years earlier. They had come to claim their new girl and I knew it. I didn't blame them though, she was like a shiny new toy that everyone wanted. But something unexpected happened. Amanda said, “No thanks, I’m just gonna hang out here with my friend.” And that was that. They left and I had won, at least temporarily. She remained my best friend all year and every time the mean girls tried to steal her away by inviting her to their extravagant birthday parties she wouldn't go unless they invited me too. I was so grateful for her friendship, but by the end of the year she was gone; her parents moved away and I was on my own again.
Grade 6. This was the year that everything started changing. I was still a loner, and I still loved the school part of school. My favourite time of day was sitting on the floor listening to my teacher read us novels. He would read Soup or The Boxcar Children. The stories were very dated; nonetheless, I looked forward to the momentary escape from my own life. One afternoon, my teacher left the room for some reason and while he was gone, the “hockey boys”, who were equivalent to the mean girls in every way except for gender, took it as an opportunity to amuse themselves by pulling a prank on me. They took a pin and taped it to the bottom of my chair. When I sat down on the pin and jumped up in shock, the group of boys across from me all burst out into a fit of laughter. I removed the pin and sat back down, everyone was staring at me and all I could think was don't let them see you cry, don't let them see you cry. But I couldn't stop it, the tears were welling up. So before I could allow them to see my tears, I jumped out of my chair and zeroed in on the first boy I saw. I grabbed him by the neck and flipped him over onto the table and began choking him. No one did a thing. I think everyone was scared of the strength I had just exuded. Not only did I flip him over onto the table, but I chose the biggest boy in the group. He was larger than me, and I was already bigger than most girls and boys my age. There I was, choking him till his white face went beet red and tears began spilling out the side of his eyes. Thankfully, I felt huge hands grab me and I realized my teacher was back, just in time.
From that day forward, I left behind a part of me that was soft, timid and gentle. I adopted a new persona that was hard, mean, and aggressive.
Grade 7. These boys must have been another level of stupid because they didn't give up. They continued to tease and harass me. I fought back though, verbally and physically - if I could catch them. The girls were smarter. They kept their distance. I managed to attract some new friends that year. These girls were bad: they drank and smoked and occasionally did drugs. They skipped school, had boyfriends, and went uptown to steal clothes after school. I didn't do any of that, but since I was tough, they were willing to be friends with me anyway. I was learning to fight.
By grade 8 I slowly began dabbling in all the reckless activities that my new friends were into. I also began dating my first boyfriend: he was 18 and had muscles. This was the year the boys stopped bullying me. I wish I could say it was because one by one I beat them all up, but no. I had just come from photography class and it was obvious I had been crying. I had just endured another day of teasing and taunting from this same group. I remember thinking thank god for this dark room so they can't see my eyes. I told my boyfriend what happened, and the next day he came over from the high school and threatened them all. After that, I had a few apologies and a new level of respect from not only them, but from some of the other kids too. It meant nothing to me; I could see right through their fakeness. I was learning to hate.
High school didn’t last very long. I fell into a depression and barely went to school. When I did, I would end up getting sent home for fighting or being an asshole to my teachers. Even though I felt the schoolwork itself was easy, it was just so hard being there, and I resisted it so much that I couldn’t bring myself to do the school work unless I felt I absolutely had to. I can recall so many times that I stumped the teacher with questions they couldn't answer, or spit out a story that would prompt them to read it out loud in the staff room or in front of the class.
I knew I was smart, but I always felt that in the end, it didn't matter because I was already labeled, and that was that.
It wasn’t long before I got expelled, only now I was 17, pregnant, and only had a grade 9 education. Well, I knew exactly how I got myself into this mess and I wasn't about to drag an innocent child down with me. I smartened up, went back to school, graduated with honors, and became a mom. I thought all of that ugliness was behind me because I had now become the child my parents could be proud of. I was studying to be a teacher and I was out there living in the world: just me and my daughter. And we were making it, we were succeeding - or so I thought.
Fast forward to university. I'm in class, I look around and it eerily feels like middle school all over again. I am 1 of only 4 natives in class; everyone else is white. Coincidentally, the four of us found ourselves in the library together, using the computers to work on our papers for class. It wasn't such a coincidence though. We didn't own our own computers, so we needed to come to the library to work. We were to tell about our lives and the lessons we learned. That was easy for me. I knew a lot about my life lessons because while I was fighting depression, my mom had taken me to every counselor, psychiatrist, and school psychologist that she could find that was covered under our treaty. Plus, I knew how to write stories- I had been writing them since grade 1. When I finished my work, I decided to help out the others. They were a lot older than me, they had been out of school for a while before coming back, and they were struggling. I sat with the older man and read through his story. It was all one paragraph, and poorly written. But I remember thinking that his story was so good, and so insightful; only someone who had truly experienced life could tell a story like this. I knew the teacher wouldn’t be impressed with the academic quality, so I tried my best to help him fix it up, carefully trying to preserve his voice and sincerity. A few days later, the Professor had an announcement to make: she had asked 3 people not to return to class because their level of writing was just not fit for university, and she didn’t know how they ever ended up there in the first place. I looked around, and I was the only native left.
Things like this would be a theme in university. I almost got the boot 3 times because my teachers had accused me of plagiarism. One teacher put on her most condescending tone and said, “Excuse me my dear, you are supposed to put this in your own words, you can't take it directly from the book and write it down.” I was pissed. I said, “What makes you think I didn't write this myself? If you want to accuse me of plagiarism then you better show me the source I plagiarized from; otherwise, you are accusing me based on assumption.” Another time my Prof. was so insistent that I wasn't capable of the work that I was doing that he failed me. I knew the backstory of this guy though; he was getting flack from his peers for handing out too many A’s to his students, especially to the native students who didn't have strong writing skills, and I was stuck right in the middle of him trying to prove himself. I promised myself that I would win this fight against him without throwing in the race factor as my defense, I would win this all on my own academic merit. Finally, after a long and grueling process, one that I almost gave up on, I won. I took my then 13 year old daughter with me to his office to have my grade changed. I wanted her to see her mom earn a victory, but in that room while he was apologizing and giving me permission to call him an asshole, I felt defeated again. I just wanted him to change my grade, and after that I never wanted to see him again. I wish I was brave enough to have gone public with this issue, because even though I had my victory, there must have been so many others in a similar position who simply gave up. The three students who were denied their education came to my mind at that moment. I also thought about my daughter. She was also going to have to go through all this garbage that I had gone through.
My daughter - this is where my story comes full circle for me. Instead of a pretty little circle of pride and accomplishment of look how far I came and look at my daughter thriving and succeeding, this circle was more like a boomerang, more like BAM, it's coming back and it's coming hard!
Arianna was 5 years old and already a mini me. She was smart, loved to read, and she excelled in everything she did. I decided to enroll her in gymnastics because as a child, I wanted to join gymnastics, but I couldn’t because we couldn't afford it. I remember begging my mom to sign me up. I was so happy when she agreed. We went to the thrift store, and I managed to find a burgundy leotard and some leg warmers. I was so happy; I was not only going to gymnastics, but I had the same gear as the other kids. When we got there, the lady at the table told my mom it was $50 dollars for the first 3 months. Well that was the end of that, we walked out of the gym and never returned with the money like my mom told the lady we would. She told me on the way home that we didn't have $50 dollars. I was crushed, and she knew it. She tried to make it up to me, and enrolled me in Brownies (girl scouts) instead. Brownies was free, and you only needed to bring a dollar a week for dues. I didn't even have that sometimes, but I would just pretend I was putting a dollar in the basket. I didn't hate brownies, but I longed for gymnastics. Now that I was a mom, I was going to be damned sure that my daughter was able to do the things I couldn’t. I was by no means financially stable (I was a student after all), but by this point, my parents were. They paid for her gymnastics, and they also paid for her to attend Brownies.
I was so proud of Arianna. She was so good at gymnastics that they moved her up to the group of 10 year olds. There she was: doing front flips and back flips out on that floor. Instead of me sitting up in the second floor bleachers with the other parents, though, I had to sit on a bench on the floor near Arianna because the little blonde girls wouldn't stop pulling her hair and calling her brown face. She endured the same treatment in Brownies as well. At the end of the year wind-up they had planned a sleepover. I was reluctant to let Arianna go because she was only in Kindergarten and hadn't gone on sleepovers like this yet. I reluctantly let her go, but I stayed by the phone just in case she called and wanted to be picked up. Sure enough, the phone rang at about 11 o’clock. It was one of the leaders asking me to pick her up. Some of the girls moved her sleeping bag to the corner of the room and nobody wanted to sleep beside her. I picked her up and she told me that the girls didn't want to sleep beside her because she was brown. From then on she started changing, and began to draw pictures of herself with blonde hair. By the time she reached grade 8, her hair was blonde.
Around that time, she came home and asked me if we were Dakota Indians. I said, “Why would you ask me if we were Dakota?” She told me that a girl came up to her at school and said “I’m Dakota, what are you?” to which my daughter replied, “I think I’m Dakota too.” I thought this was just the silliest story; clearly we were Cree, how could she not know what she was? That’s when the boomerang hit!
She didn’t know who she was because I hadn’t taught her. I had not taught her who she was, because I didn't even know who I was!
This was in 2010. I was 29, and she was 12. That was the year that I began to find myself, to find my pride as an Indigenous person and understand generational trauma. It took years for me to see change in myself and to begin unlearning what I had come to know as life. Unfortunately, by the time I had found my voice, it was too late, my daughter had fallen into that same trap that I had fallen into. It wasn't so much a trap, it was more like quick sand. It was disguised as normal, yet it was far from anything normal. It was deadly, and if you didn't have help getting out, if you were not rescued, you would get sucked in so far that it would eventually take you down. Very rarely were you able to get yourself out. You were considered one of the lucky ones if you did, and there were only a handful of us.
My daughter was going down, just like I had so many years earlier. Drinking, drugs, pregnancy, and mental health issues were all waiting for her, and I was powerless to stop it. I was failing at parenting, even though I thought I was doing it right. I gave her everything that I had, and so much more. She was smart and sensible; she was loved and protected. What did I do wrong?
Then I realized it. It wasn’t so much a clear-as-day answer, but I realized in stages where and what I did wrong. When I was sitting on the floor ‘protecting’ my child during gymnastics, what I should have done was march right up to the parents of those children that were pulling my daughter’s hair and demanded something be done about it. I should have demanded the instructors do something about it. But I didn’t.
When I had to pick my daughter up from the sleepover, I should have put those leaders on the spot and asked them why they were calling me. Why weren't they calling the parents of the bullies and having their parents pick them up? Yet again, I didn’t. I didn’t teach her that her brown skin was beautiful, that she was Cree, and that she needed to be proud of where she came from. I didn't, because at the time I was just learning; learning who I was and how to fight my own battles. How ironic, I spent my youth fighting, but when I needed to fight, I didn’t even know how.
The thing about fighters, though, is that we never give up. We pick ourselves up every time we fall.
I may not have been able to prevent my daughter from going down the same path that I went down and that so many of our Indigenous youth go down, but I was able to teach her how to climb back out.
Sometimes it is a daily struggle to stay afloat, but we never give up, we learn to pick ourselves back up and keep going.
I could have played the blame game, and pointed out all the things I did wrong, or point out all the things my own parents did wrong, but what would that have accomplished? We all did the best with what we knew how. They were navigating through life in unfamiliar territory just as I was, and just as my own daughter is now. The society we are currently living in is still so broken and hasn't found its way to rectify all the wrong doings yet. Truth be told, we still have a long bumpy road ahead.
The only thing I know for certain is that we are resilient. When I say we, I am talking about our Indigenous people. We can be pushed into the quicksand, but don’t count us out just yet. Those of us that have fought our way out are here to tell our stories so that we can help the generations that come after us. There are many people young and old who are stuck, and many, many more that have been swallowed up, but it is never, ever too late to fight our way out, together. One day, our children’s children will walk with their heads held high, with courage, pride and stability. They will know what their parents, grandparents and great grandparents endured, but more importantly how through it all, they never lost hope and their resilient spirit was never broken.