Our stories tell us who we are. They hold the past, present and future together, and give continuity and meaning to what might otherwise be isolated moments in time. If my story as a Native woman has a theme, it is loss—of Indian status, of visibility, of culture, of language and of resources.
My grandmother, Margaret Paul, grew up on the Lennox Island Reservation in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and was sent to a Catholic residential school in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, where she and her sister, Muriel, were beaten for speaking Mi’kmaq, their native tongue. In the 1930s, when my grandmother was thirteen, she and Muriel ran away and joined Bill Lynch’s Show, a travelling carnival and fair. Through the 1940s she ran a speakeasy from a converted barracks in Halifax. She didn’t tell her children they were native. By the time I was born, in 1973, nobody in my family spoke Mi’kmaq. I learned about my ancestors in school, as a brief unit in Canadian history.
I grew up on the land and lived in a house my father built from wood and tarpaper. In the summer I carried buckets of drinking water from a spring and in the winter I melted snow in a pot on the stove to wash in. My parents supported us by selling handmade crafts and by occasionally growing marijuana. Poverty taught me to see class oppression. My family’s criminality taught me to question authority, and to distinguish between what was illegal and what was immoral. This perspective has been invaluable as an activist.
I discovered racism in 1979. I had just turned five. Our primary class was lined up in the hallway waiting to be led to the washroom. The students of Mrs. Cameron’s grade three class stood next to us. To me, these eight years olds seemed impossibly tall, mature and sophisticated. As they went, Mrs. Cameron addressed Nikki, a girl with tan skin, “And wash your face while you’re down there,” she said. “I can’t tell if you’re dirty or if it’s the colour of your skin.” Her statement would stay with me forever, as an example of the power of white supremacy. In their view, to be brown was to be physically and morally tainted. As a woman with white skin, my Nativeness isn’t visible to others. My grandmother often praised my skin as pretty and feminine, and warned me to avoid the sun, lest my true nature be revealed. Her bias got me thinking about the connections between race and gender at an early age. Being treated as white, while knowing that I wasn’t, has made me self-reflexive. I’ve grown up with white privilege, yet also been aware of white supremacy which society insists whites to be blind to. While my scholarly activism often examines Native racialization, I also deconstruct whiteness, which is too often permitted to pass unexamined as if it were a neutral state of being.
The realization of what I’ve lost due to of generations of government-mandated assimilation has been a gradual process for me. For years, the most obvious effect was financial—without band funding I incurred $52,000 of student debt. In my thirties I began to realize that I had also lost a cultural inheritance. I speak only a few words of Mi’kmaq. My white mother has spent more time on the reservation than I have. Yet I’ve also been fortunate. I know my Mi’kmaq name, have made quillwork birch-bark baskets and bobcat tooth necklaces with my father, and got to witness my parents take an active role in Native politics when I was a child. I grew up rural, and experienced the ties with nature that our traditions take as a given, but which many urban Natives have not experienced. Even my family’s parenting style was decidedly Native. Reflecting upon these experiences has led me to change how I define “Mi’kmaq tradition.” I examine the ways my family has of doing things, and realize that these traditions are no less Native for being off the Rez. I think of the bravery it must have taken for my grandmother and her sister to leave their abusive school without knowing where they would go, and I try to embrace that bravery in myself.
Moving to Toronto for university took me 1,264 km (785 miles) from the Mi’kmaq nation, so I couldn’t simply stop into the Native Friendship Centre and be sure of meeting a Mi’kmaq elder. Without access to other Mi’kmaq people, I turned to academic sources of support. I became a voracious reader, seeking out scholarly articles, books, websites and blogs that discussed the Mi’kmaq. I read about Native feminism, indigenous self-government, the pan-Indian and American Indian movements, Native Spirituality, and Native health. Sometimes I am disappointed by the lack of material available. One side-effect of having an oral tradition is that it isn’t always available to people who have been assimilated. I am learning Mi’kmaq through online lessons, but have no one to whom I can speak it. Like many native people before me, I find strength and inspiration in the Black Power movement. I read Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. I read womanist and black feminist authors, such as bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. I listen to Public Enemy and Paris or find hybrids, such as Native hiphop groups Reddnation, Short Dawg Tha Native, or Slangblossom.
As a bisexual woman I’ve been involved in queer activism and community building for over 20 years, so when I focussed on my Mi’kmaq identity, I approached it from a similar angle. Much as I did when I first came out, I started by seeking community. I found my home in Native feminism and among two-spirited people. Sharing a common sexuality or politics made it easier for me to bond with the Native people I met. I join groups online that discuss issues relevant to two-spirited Native women, share resources and compare experiences.
I join with other Native people in protesting our oppression, in part because I feel I need to embrace the visibility that my grandmother could not. I out myself at every opportunity. On valentines day I attend the March for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women as we walk from police headquarters to the coroner’s office, protesting the lack of government response to the 580 native women who have been murdered or have gone missing over the past 30 years. I march with fellow Natives, carrying flags of the American Indian Movement, in Take Back The Dyke and the Slutwalk. I form bonds with other Natives, especially women and queers. I go to the two-spirited meetings and the drum circle at the Native Canadian Centre. I go to the Annual General meeting for Two-Spirited People of The First Nations, where I cry when a man leads a closing prayer in which he thanks the Native peoples of the east coast for bearing the brunt of colonialism.
My activist work also involves producing work from my political and social perspective as a non-status feminist queer native woman. I co-chair a presentation on two-spirited identity at the University of Toronto’s Multifaith Centre. I present scholarly papers on Mi’kmaq legends, Aboriginal gender and sexuality, and psychological decolonization at academic conferences. I draft course syllabi on Native feminism. I write articles about psychological decolonization and postcolonial theology and I write poetry about colonialism. This kind of scholarly activism is a conversation, not only between myself and other Native scholars, but among many people inside the academy and outside, whose work reflects on the impact of racialization and imperialism on spirituality and sexuality. Native women, whether we are perceived as women of colour or not, need to join with women who have shared the experience of living under racism and colonialism. Their experiences do not have to be the same as ours for us to learn from one another.
Those who would join me in solidarity can do so in five specific ways:
1) Learn about the history of colonialism in North America. This isn’t just “Native history,” it’s everyone’s history. Don’t rely on Native people for this information. People of colour are often expected to act as free educators for people whose racial privilege enables them to be ignorant of the lives of racialized others. Go to the library or read from a reliable online source.
2) Know the content of the treaties that relate to the land on which you live. It’s something every adult should do, like reading the fine print on your lease or mortgage. Know what the contract you have with the First Nation in your area is, and insist that your government representatives and the private businesses with whom they work honour that contract.
3) Tell your political representatives to support Native cultural programs. For generations government legislation outlawed Native language, culture and practices. Insist that your government put at least as much effort into preserving and promoting Native language and culture as was put into eliminating it.
4) Challenge anti-Native and imperialist remarks when you hear them. Don’t wait for a Native person to do it for you. There is no such thing as a neutral stance on racism, colonialism or genocide.
5) Join with Native groups in protesting on key issues, such as land claims, self-government, poverty, or murdered and missing women.
 The Take Back The Dyke march (2010) was a queer women’s protest against corporate and conservative interference in the Toronto Dyke March. The Slutwalk (2011) was an international protest against victim-blaming precipitated by comments made by Toronto Constable Michael Sanguinetti that women should avoid being sexually assaulted by not “dressing like a slut.”