The Odawa pow-wow was awesome…a little soggy, but nothing we couldn’t handle. It was a very laid back pow-wow and all of the kids felt very comfortable dancing during the inter-tribal songs and round dances. My sewing skills are frankly pathetic so I broke down and did the unthinkable…I purchased a jingle apron and yoke for my youngest from Native Bebe. I will work on the rest of her regalia over the next few seasons, but for now it is a good start. She was absolutely thrilled of course…she has always really been drawn to the jingle dance and it felt fairly fitting that she would start dancing in Anishnaabe territory where the jingle dress was first gifted.
I also purchased a lovely shawl for my eldest from Tammy Beauvais. This daughter wants to be a fancy dancer and I have been promising her forever that I’d make her a shawl and get working on her regalia. Well, I’ve got some of it for them now, and the rest will come in time as I get back into beading this summer. I recognise that it is a practical thing for me to do…to purchase some parts of their regalia…and I wouldn’t feel guilty about buying a beaded set…but I do feel sort of lame for not having made it all myself. My daughters don’t care though, they just wanted to dance! We won’t feast their regalia until a few more pieces are done, however. I think that is right. It would be different if their kookum or câpân had made the pieces, but until more has been complete with the hands of their direct relations I’m going to view their regalia as incomplete.
You might be wondering why I’m talking about the pow-wow when the title of this blog post is “dealing with racism”. Well, I wanted to set the scene for you. This weekend had an incredible impact on my girls. As urban Métis far from our home territory, they don’t get a lot of opportunities to be around other native people, or to experience some of the less ‘mundane’ aspects of their culture. (I don’t really mean mundane, I suppose I just mean quotidian.) When the girls woke up on Monday morning and were getting ready for school, they couldn’t stop talking about the pow-wow and about how proud they were to be Métis. They were really excited…especially my eldest who at 9 years is going through a lot of self-doubt as she navigates the pre-teen social sphere in a new school. It made me feel like I was doing something right. It’s been hard to keep them culturally connected, but the effort has paid off.
So imagine how I felt when I picked them up that afternoon and had my eldest burst into tears as she described how a group of girls had mocked her and called her culture ‘stupid’, ‘retarded’ and ‘ridiculous’.
Can I spare a moment to laugh mirthlessly at the delightful way in which ‘smart racism’ gets expressed as objection to people’s ‘culture’ these days? Yes, folks…it filters down to the school yard too.
Then she told me that a few different children have been teasing her off and on since she gave her cultural presentation. Calling her “Indian” in insulting tones, even ‘war-whooping’ and making little ‘feathers’ with their fingers behind their heads. Ironically, even as she was being teased for being an ‘Indian’, a little boy has been calling her “white bitch”.
It’s hard as a parent to hear these things, especially when they remind you of what you went through as a kid. I got called ‘white bitch’ some of the time and ‘neechi lover’ at other times. My girls are fair skinned too. They, like me, could easily ‘pass’ as non-native. We don’t face the most oppressive forms of systemic racism because you wouldn’t be able to pick us out of a crowd as ‘native’ unless we were traditionally dressed. We aren’t governed by the Indian Act. We could pretend to be just like every other anglo Canadian and get away with it. If I didn’t fight so hard to root my children in their culture, they would probably ‘fit’ a lot better.
Frankly, we aren’t the problem, and I refuse to accept the blame for this treatment. This morning, I expressed a need to figure out how to help my daughters deal with racism. My beloved rightly said no one should have to ‘deal’ with racism…but the reality is we absolutely have to form defenses.
It isn’t just racism either. We have to teach our kids (and ourselves) to deal with all the awful things that get said and done. If my girls weren’t being teased for being ‘stupid Indians’, they’d be teased for something else. Of that I have no doubt. I have not developed amnesia, I remember quite well just how cruel children can be, and how adults can enable them in their cruelty.
The rational part of me knows that continuing to instil cultural pride in my children through every day living and community participation will ultimately defeat the self-doubt and self-loathing that teasing can foster. The rational part of me understands that I also need to talk about these things with the teachers and caregivers at the school. And I will do those rational things.
But the mother in me feels her heart break when she sees her girls go to school in the morning with bright faces and pride in their step, only to come home in tears repeating the awful words that were hurled at them. I want to protect them. I want to take them away from the school, away from the bullies. I cannot understand why children still do these things. I fervently hope my children aren’t also saying awful things to other children, and I would want to know about it if they did. Do other parents want to know it when their children are calling other people ‘white bitches’ and ‘stupid Indians’? Why do we accept this? Why do we continue to believe that ‘toughening up’ is something our kids just have to go through?
Of course I will try to help them develop the skills they need to ignore the taunts. I will help them deal with the racism they will face…but every once in a while it’s going to get to me, and I’m going to go into my room and cry for a while because the truth is, I can’t protect them from the bullies. Not always. I have to console myself with the knowledge that at least they are only facing teasing right now…I do not have to fear that they will be taken away from me and put into Residential Schools. I do not even have to fear that they will be put into foster care like so many other aboriginal children. They are as safe as our struggles have been able to make them, as safe as I can make them.
No, they shouldn’t have to deal with racism, but they will, and it will not defeat them.
I hope you’re following up at the school. Good schools these days teach emotional intelligence and have anti-bullying policies, and I would expect (demand) zero tolerance for racism. Barbara Coloroso’s _The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander_ should be standard reading for principals and guidance counsellors, as should Michele Borba’s books on emotional intelligence. I know you’ll give your kids good tools, but the school should back you up.
The school my girls are attending was chosen because it has an incredible Arts focus. A draw-back to this seems to be that it is somewhat chaotic and there are so many different teachers and caregivers in the picture as opposed to a more ‘normal’ situation where there is one teacher you have for your entire elementary grade. I’ve talked to a few teachers there about bullying and a program to deal with it, but I haven’t had much luck so far. It’s not that they are not willing…the issue seems to be one of co-ordination. I taught for a number of years and I realise that it is difficult to stay on top of these things when you have so many kids and so much going on. I do think I’m going to have to roll up my sleeves and get into the school more, however.
Two really brief notes:
(1) I knew a guy who was considered “white” on paper, but was apparently (and widely considered to be) of indigenous ancestry (both he and his sister could have posed in advertisements as “stereotype” Cayuga)… it was widely assumed (by other white people who knew the family) that his mother was the product of one of those gruesome adoption strategies, or some strange history of rape that the family never owned up to. My working hypothesis on ethnicity in the Canadian context is that you “are” whatever police treat you as… and, yeah, I can remember being present when (white) cops referred to this guy as an “Indian”. I’m guessing there’s a whole generation of indigenous people in Canada who were “displaced” through adoption (etc.) who will end up questioning their own identity… and probably never finding any concrete answers.
(2) On that note, did you notice that Annett’s book “Hidden from History” is now a free PDF for download? It was formerly a book you had to pay money for… and there’s an interesting trail of “responses” to the material within the book now trickling along (however, the material in the book is predominantly B.C.-based… a separate tome could easily be written on Alberta alone, etc.). If you have time to glance at it, I’d be interested in seeing a blog post from you as to what you thought about Annett’s work.