“Part Indian”

Yvonne DSC01872I don’t know the whole story about Elizabeth Warren’s claim to have Native ancestry.  I have heard her mocked by being called “Pocahontas.”  That mockery is wrong on so many counts, not the least of which is the tragic story of the actual Pocahontas that has been obscured and romanticized by American culture and cinema.  But what I want to explore today is the sometimes confusing experience of those of us who are white but have some Native ancestry.

I know enough now to know that having Native ancestry does not make one a Native American.  But I didn’t know that when I was young.  It was through trying to understand what my Native ancestry meant that I grew to understand what it meant to be white.

When my siblings and I were growing up, all we really knew was our family stories.  Our mom told us she was part Indian.  She didn’t know what tribe.  It was through her mother’s family, my grandmother Yvonne who came from Quebec to Detroit.  (That is Yvonne’s picture I have included above–taken on the day she crossed the border from Canada to her new life in America with my grandfather.) My mom was proud of being part Indian.  My dad had worked as a cowboy, so we used to joke about our parents being the cowboy and the Indian.

Our family stories opened in my heart a curiosity toward Indigenous peoples. As a young adult I learned more about American Indian political struggles, and began to take what action I could in solidarity.  But I also learned that white people who claimed to have Native ancestry were often joked about, considered Wannabes, and especially tasteless was to claim a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian princess.

Perhaps that was why I was relieved to discover that we were not part Cherokee.  I was the one who researched our family history and learned that we were related to the Innu people, who are indigenous to the land now called Quebec and Labrador. The French settlers called them Montagnais. I learned that the Innu know their land as Nitasinnan, which means “our land.”  Later, in the midst of my activist work, I had a chance to meet Innu activists, working against the hydrodams that Quebec was trying to build on their rivers.

Gradually, I learned more about the Indigenous experience in America, and was able to better understand my own position as a white woman.  But in between my childhood and my better understanding, it was confusing to me.  There were a few occasions that I said I was Native American, many other occasions I kept silent.  My sister once took an art class that she got into because she was 1/16th Indian (we thought).  For a short while, I said I was Metis–mixed–because that was a word used in a book in French that spoke about some of my ancestors.  Not being in Canada, I didn’t know about the actual meaning of that word in English to describe another distinct group.  It took a long time to sort out that it was more accurate and respectful to say that I was white.

This is why I have some sympathy for Elizabeth Warren right now.  With only family stories to guide us, it is hard to sort out the dynamics of race and privilege from cherished ancestral connections.  And the stories of my grandmothers are also meaningful to me still.  I say grandmothers, because it was my matrilineal descent that originated in Nitasinnan.  My Innu great-great-great-grandmother was Marie-Madeleine, who married a Scottish trapper near Chicoutimi, Quebec.  Her daughter was Angele, whose daughter was Claudia, my great-grandmother, and Yvonne’s mother.  When we were kids, we thought we were 1/16 Indian, but it turned out to be 1/32.  Much later, a DNA test confirmed that matrilineal descent.

These grandmothers were gradually–or perhaps quickly–assimilated into the white community, first in Quebec, and then in the United States.  I learned that assimilation itself was part of the long campaign to divide Indigenous people from their land and their history.  When an Indian woman in Canada married a white man, she lost her legal status as an Indian.  So, on the census records for Angele, for example, she was referred to as Scottish like her father.  The mother disappears, through a combination of sexism and racism.  I don’t think the assimilation was without difficulty.  I don’t know the early stories, but my mom mentioned once that her mom and her aunts didn’t go in the sun, because they didn’t want their skin to darken and people to think that they were Indians.

Their lingering shame says something to me about the difficulties of the assimilation process.  And yet–they told the stories–they didn’t forget their ancestry.  And that means something to me as well.  The Innu word for “my grandmother” is Nukum.  Even though I am now very clear about being white, I pray to Nukum for guidance in my life, and she has helped me on my journey.

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A Bowl Full of the Universe

There are helpers and elders all around us; there is wisdom, if we open to it. There are animals and plants and fungal networks, and rivers and mountains and the wild winds. We can enter into relationship with all beings, and find help from them for the great struggles of our time. We have not been looking to our relatives and our ancestors for connection, and so we often are unaware of the powers that exist all around us. When Paula Gunn Allen speaks of consciousness as an attribute of being, it helps me to move beyond the narrow vision of my own culture, and claim my own experience of relationship with other beings.

Once, after the difficult ending to a relationship, I was rocking in a hammock on the back porch of the home I would soon have to leave. In that place of loneliness and unknown futures, I saw something like an image, felt a presence. Later I described it in a poem:

How can I trust my senses
in a moment full of loneliness
when the old dark woman appears
gray hair gathered in a bun in the back
squatting near a fire holding
a bowl full of the universe?

It was an ancient Innu grandmother, my ancient Innu grandmother from many generations ago, and in her hands she was holding a bowl. I could see the darkness and the stars swirling inside.

Image from the Hubble Telescope

Image from the Hubble Telescope

What is a bowl full of the universe? What did it mean? I am continuing to learn about that.

I know that a bowl is a container, a shape that can hold something. When we are facing the great mysteries of the universe, we need some sort of container. That might be the definition of a spiritual practice. We create a container to be able to connect with the earth, with each other, with Mystery. And even though the container is small, humble, it opens up to so much more―the whole universe is there, the oneness of everything, the larger whole of which we are a part, infinity.

The Innu grandmother says to me, “The universe is in your heart, and you are in the heart of the universe.”

 

Reconnecting To a Broken Land

Broken Tree DSC01792For several years, I was active in the struggle of the Cree, Inuit and Innu people against hydroelectric development in Northern Quebec. The traditional way of life for each was one of hunting and fishing and gathering. In my imagination, I had envisioned small bands of people roaming over vast wilderness areas at random, looking for game. What I learned was different.

Each small family band had very specific territory—certain rivers and waterways, certain areas whose terrain was utterly familiar to them, whose beavers were counted by them, where traplines had been set out for generations. When the LaGrande project was built in 1970, those beloved lands were flooded, and lost to them, with their ancestors’ graves, the memories and stories of love and new life and home. I learned that even the migrating birds return to the very sedges from which they had departed the previous season. They, like the Cree, had lost their homes.

Because I am writing in a broken land, there are things I should clarify. I am a white woman, and I am also related, by matrilineal ancestry, to the Innu people who are indigenous to land now called Quebec and Labrador. My great great great grandmother was an Innu woman. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terre Rompue, which translates, Marie of Broken Land.

Yvonne DSC01872

Grandmother Yvonne arriving in Detroit

Having these Indian ancestors doesn’t make me an Indian in today’s world. My ancestors were assimilated into the white community, first in Quebec, and then in the United States when my grandmother Yvonne came to live in Detroit. Actually, assimilation itself was part of the long campaign against Indian people. 

But this story created a broken place in my heart, a need to explore and understand the history and to find healing for the present. It helped to spark in me a deep feeling for Indigenous peoples. As a young adult I was drawn into activism in solidarity with American Indian struggles, and that has remained an important influence throughout my life. When I was able to travel to Nitasinnan, the land of the Innu, I felt some sense of place, a sense of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land.

But Indian ancestry is not necessary for the work of reconnecting to the land. Indian people have a belief that every person and being on this earth are related to each other. All of us can be part of the work of rebuilding our relationships where they have become torn and frayed. 

Sacred Animals

We may not be able to know and appreciate all the animals and plants, but we sense that something important might emerge if we can know and appreciate one animal. This has led some to have an interest in looking for a “power animal.” I think this interest comes from a desire to be connected to our fellow creatures here on earth.  Finding a power animal began in some ancient shamanic traditions but has become popular in the modern spirituality marketplace, where often the idea is romanticized. People look for the exotic and the wild.

But there is another way to find a power animal. First, you can start by thinking about your food. If you eat meat or fish, or eggs or milk, what are the animals that give you their life, so you can have food?

In our culture, it is difficult to honor the animals who are most important to us. Chickens, cattle, and pigs are the most widely eaten animals in the United States. Most of them are raised in horrible conditions. My purpose right now is not to talk about the nightmare of factory farming. But when we begin to open our hearts to our connection with other animals, we have to ask ourselves about the animals we eat for food.

Chicken

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Let’s focus on the chicken—the animal most eaten in the United States. Sometimes they have been given a bad image in the media—we call someone “chicken” when they are lacking in courage. But chickens lay eggs that feed us, and give their lives to feed us. When allowed to roam a yard, chickens will kill and eat the ticks that can cause Lyme disease. They have their own nobility and useful simple lives. A chicken would be a fine power animal. Except that perhaps we feel too ashamed of how the humans have treated them. If we respected the chickens, how could we consider the agricultural practices that confine them to torturous cages?

To eat is a sacred act. So often, we eat mindlessly. We don’t pay attention. When we eat, we take one part of Mother Earth, and unite it with another part of Mother Earth—our own bodies. Eating is necessary for life, and yet always includes death of some kind, whether of plants or animals. The great mystery of life and death can be present to us every single day, in the ordinary communion of eating a meal. But most of the time we are separated from that mystery because we can pick up our food in the grocery store, without any indication that this food is from living beings.

One of Henry David Thoreau’s practices when he went to the woods was, for a time, to try to catch or grow whatever he ate. He spoke about how needing to kill and prepare one’s meat was something that inclined him toward being a vegetarian. Some people do make that choice, out of respect for the animals. For my part, I try to honor the sacredness of food by thanking the creatures who have given their lives that I might eat. And because of that, I try to buy meats of animals who have been raised with dignity. In our culture, it can be a difficult thing to do. But it all begins by making one simple change—to recognize and celebrate the source of our food at each meal.

The Indigenous Innu people of northern Quebec did rituals in which they asked the caribou spirit to help them in the hunt. They believed that the caribou spirit helped them find caribou to kill and eat. They did rituals after they killed a caribou, and made sure that none of the bones touched the ground. The animal they ate was the animal to which they prayed. We can do that too.

Cats facing Window DSC03590When I watch our cats looking at the birds outside, it seems to me that they are doing something like praying. We don’t let them go outside—we’ve interrupted their hunting of birds. But when they shiver and chatter in excitement just watching the birds, it seems very much like deep devotion.