Wenuhc? Wen nil?

I have been posting recently about my latest research concerning my Innu third great grandmother, and because of that I want to write today some clarification about identity and relationship. The more I am learning about Indigenous people–through study, through language, through cultural sharing by Indigenous people–the more I understand that I am not Indigenous. This might not even need to be said, except that there is currently a problem of people with ancestors even more distant or nebulous than mine trying to use those ancestors as a way to claim status as Indigenous or Métis, to get benefits from governments, or preference in hiring or hunting rights, for example. Sometimes they actually use this to try to take away benefits from Indigenous communities.

Years ago, when I was still just beginning to learn about all this, I wasn’t sure if I was permitted to claim an Indigenous identity, or a Métis identity. A few times I did, out of my own ignorance. And it is not simple for those of us who are mostly something else, but want to honor our Indigenous ancestors. Even so, I can’t imagine trying to use it to take something away from Indigenous or Métis communities. What I hope for is to be a good relative, a friend, to use my position in this society to act in support of Indigenous communities.

For my latest presentation in our Passamaquoddy language class, I found myself drawn to a word in Passamaquoddy that has been used to describe non-Indigenous people: “Wenuhc.” What does it mean? Some definitions say, “white person.” And that is partly true—it refers to white people. But, its roots come from an old meaning. When, they say, strangers came here to Wabanaki land, the Native people said, “Wenuhc?” It meant, “Who are they?” It also held a question, like, “Where are they from?”

When I ask the question of myself, it comes out: “Wen nil?” “Who am I?” The traditional way to introduce oneself is by naming the place where you come from, and your relatives, the people you come from. But for me, as a wenuhc, that wasn’t so simple. The more I played with the concepts, the more confusing it became—which certainly is a characteristic of many of us living in the mainstream culture of the United States. I want to share some of what I wrote—but mostly just the English translation:

The early strangers said, “We are Englishmen.” I speak English, but my roots are not English—so am I English? Wen nil? Who am I? Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots. But, I can’t speak German. I have German roots, but am I German? Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother came from Quebec, and she spoke French. I can speak French, a little. I have French roots, but am I French?

Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother’s great grandmother is named Marie Madeleine. She was Innu. She spoke Innu. Now, I know how to speak Innu a little, only a very few words. I have Innu roots, but am I Innu? Now, I can also speak Passamaquoddy a little, but I am not Passamaquoddy.

Wen nil? Who am I? I don’t know. I am a wenuhc woman, a “who are they?” woman. I am far away from family. Sixteen years ago, I came to Wabanaki land in order to work. Now, I am done working. So, what am I doing? Am I a preacher? Am I a witch? Am I a writer? Am I a gardener? Wen nil? Who am I? Tama nuceyaw? Where am I from? All my grandparents lived in cities. Now, I live in the city, Portland. Am I lost? How do I find myself? Am I a stranger? Am I your friend? Am I foolish? Am I wise? I don’t know. Wen nil? Who am I? I am confused.

What I learn from this Passamaquoddy writing process is that I am not well connected to a place or to my relatives. My being a lesbian, my being a justice activist, my moving around a lot, all contributed to a feeling and reality of being disconnected from place and family. And given the injustice I found all around me in “American” culture, I don’t regret the need I felt to resist it, to break away from it. But in some ways, that is a very “American” way of being. “America” celebrates individual identity and mobility. It defines who we are by what we do.

When I seek to find my way into relationship with the earth, with all beings of the earth, with the ancestors, with spirit, when I begin to value this relatedness, I see more clearly how I have been cut off from places and people that I might have been from. And I see more and more clearly how I am not Indigenous. I am wenuhc. I am “Who are they?”

And that truth is real, it is okay. “Who am I?” is an open question. It is why I make a spiritual journey into earth community. I can learn. As I learn to be thankful for everything, I begin to feel how I am related to everything, despite being wenuhc.

Note: I first learned about the word “wenuhc” from my Passamaquoddy language teacher Roger Paul. More recently, the organization I volunteer with, Wabanaki REACH, posted about this word on its Facebook page, quoting Rebecca Sockbeson (Penobscot), 2019.

Photo: Pileated woodpecker on a pine tree near our house. The woodpecker is a symbol of friendship for Wabanaki people.

Language Roots

Some presenters at Healing Turtle Island this summer suggested that we all, colonizers included, should seek to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had the idea then to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then to mark their transitions to other languages. (Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots, but in this exercise, I limited myself to my matrilineal line.)

I want to thank Roger Paul, my teacher of Passamaquoddy/Wolastaqey, because I could not have approached the Innu language without having learned so much about Passamaquoddy. From what I can tell, the structures of these languages are the same, the grammar, the animacy, even some of the words are cognates. So with this foundation, I was able to use the Innu dictionary online to shape sentences that might bear some resemblance to how the language is spoken, though no doubt I have made errors.

After I was deep into it, I laughed at myself, because to whom could I speak these words, since I am not in touch with any Innu people right now? But then it seemed that perhaps they were for my ancestors in the spirit world. And so this is dedicated to them. I also want to acknowledge that though I have studied French, Google translate was my helper in the French language parts of this exercise, and unfortunately there is no Quebecois French in that translation program, so some subtleties have not been included. I have heard it said that Quebec French is closer to ancient French ways of speaking. I begin with a photo of my great-grandmother, since she is at the heart of the story.

Claudia Tremblay

My great-grandmother Claudia Tremblay.

Mishen Claudia nitishinikashun.
My name is Mykel Claudia.

Claudia iapit nitanishkutapanukum ishinikashu.
Claudia is also the name of my great grandmother.

Shekutimit utshiu, ińnu-assit.
She is from Chicoutimi, in Innu territory.

Ukuma ińnushkueuńua, Mańi-Matińin ishinikashuńua.
Her grandmother is an Innu woman, whose name is Marie-Madeleine.

Ińnu-aimińua.
She speaks the Innu language.

Eukuannu nui ińnu-aimin.
That is why I want to speak the Innu language.

Mańi-Matińin uitshimeu Pień McLeod, kie mitshetusheu.
Marie-Madeleine marries Peter McLeod and she has many children.

Utanishu, Anisheń ishinikashuńua.
She has a daughter, named Angele.

Ashku Anisheń kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishtᵘ, ukauia Mańi-Matińin nipińua.
When Angele is thirteen years old, her mother Marie-Madeleine dies.

Natshe uitshimeu Anisheń kakussesht. Shushep Tremblay, kie mitshetusheu.
Later, Angele marries a French-Canadian, Joseph Tremblay, and she has many children.

Anisheń utanishu Claudia, nitanishkutapanukum an.
Angele has a daughter Claudia, that’s my great-grandmother.

Kakusseshiu-aimu.
She speaks the French-Canadian language.

Mon arrière-grand-mère Claudia parle la langue canadienne-française, comme son père Joseph Tremblay.
My great-grandmother
Claudia speaks the French-Canadian language, like her father Joseph Tremblay.

Très probablement, Marie-Madeleine et Angele parlaient aussi la langue canadienne-française, ainsi que leur langue maternelle.
Most likely Marie-Madeleine and Angele also spoke the French-Canadian language, along with their mother tongue.

Mes ancêtres canadiens-français sont au Canada depuis le début de la colonisation, depuis l’an seize vingt.
My French-Canadian ancestors have been in Canada from the beginning of colonization, since the year 1620.

Je ne peux pas compter le nombre d’ancêtres français qui se sont installés au Québec, atteignant onze générations en arrière.
I cannot count the number of French ancestors who settled in Quebec, reaching eleven generations back.

Ils ont abattu de très nombreux arbres et cultivé la terre dans un climat difficile.
They cut down many, many trees and farmed the land in the difficult climate.

Malheureusement, leur arrivée a entraîné la maladie et la mort de nombreux Innus.
Sadly, their arrival brought disease and death to many Innu people.

Les Innus vivent dans leur terre depuis des temps immémoriaux, et y vivent encore aujourd’hui.
The Innu have lived in their land since time immemorial, and still live there today.

Claudia a une fille Yvonne, c’est ma grand-mère.
Claudia utanishu Ipuan, nukum an.
Claudia has a daughter Yvonne, that’s my grandmother.

Par ma grand-mère Yvonne, j’ai l’héritage des colonisateurs mais aussi, dans ma descendance matrilinéaire, l’héritage des colonisés.
Through my grandmother Yvonne, I have the heritage of the colonizers but also, in my matrilineal descent, the heritage of the colonized.

Yvonne a déménagé aux États-Unis à l’âge de dix-huit ans, où elle parlait anglais.
Yvonne moved to the United States when she was eighteen, where she spoke English.
Ipuan atutsheu Upashtuneu-assit ashku kutuńnuepipuneshit ashu nishuaush, tanite akańeshau-aimit.

Yvonne has a daughter Carol, that’s my mother.
Yvonne a une fille Carol, c’est ma mère.
Ipuan utanishu Kańań, nikaui an.

English is my first language.
L’anglais est ma première langue.
Nitakańeshau-aimin ńishtam.