Assimilation: A Journey of Resistance and Recovery

This an article written by my good friend Terre Chartrand for her blog The Red Fist. She has given me permission to repost it.

Normally I would give an article like this some kind of introduction, but I do not feel it is necessary with this one. Its words speak for themselves.

It has always been known in my family that we were Native, that the lines were imminent and close. What is news is that by blood quantum, I am a quarter, which is a pretty fair portion. The strangest thing about this statement is that this should be news. The family stories were muddy, gooey, and dirty about this portion of our history. I can tell you that the rest of it is comprised of Welsh, English, and French and can even give you the percentage figures of these. The indigenous parts were buried deep in the stories of the French. Rampant are the tales of some Indian Princess, Brave, Warrior, or some Son of a Chief to cover the apparent embarrassment of this part of the lineage. Oooh, we white Indians all have Indian Princesses and Braves and Warriors in our lineage. None of us have the embarrassment of having reservation-living, or city dwelling, or going about their regular business kind of folk with Native blood. Yeah, I never fell for the Indian Princess stories. Neither did my parents.

The process of doing a genealogical analysis is very long, very painful, full of loops, mazes, dodges, treasures, burns and failures, and strange delights in the often macabre realities of real people from the past. No, we don’t have a coat of arms. No, one of my grand-pappies was never some duke. Behind me is a solid, working class, peasant background with our closest brush with fame being the relation (great great great … grandfather back there) with Abraham Martin, of the Plains of Abraham fame. Still, a farmer. We had this French business traced back to the early 14th c. The Welsh/Anglo connection? Great Britain has notoriously bad and difficult to navigate records. Somewhere back there though was barrister in the Cotswolds who was a member of the Conservative Club. There is even a daguerreotype of him. I can’t imagine how much that would have cost. Strange enough, that is the line that produced my Red labeled (by McCarthy himself) Inco mining union organizing grandfather.

Now here comes the interesting part. That grandfather married a lovely woman (I take after her enormously in appearance and character apparently, in all except the eyes… most remarkable is an identical body shape, legs, and facial structure, including lips, mouth and smile. I twinkle and laugh like her, and love dancing, which was her’s too), and it is in this marriage record that we discover the most amazing thing. She was recorded as “French” in marriage. This is an easy thing to digest. The Indian Princess, Braves, and Warrior stories come from her side. Also easy to digest. However, when her birth records, baptism and other sacrament records were uncovered, she was labeled “Indian”. How does someone go from having “Indian” (sans Princess) on all her records to all of a sudden become a white French woman? Well, Anglicans never married Indians in the 1930s (duh). Her identity, whether by her consent or through conspiracy, we will never know, was stolen when she married a white Anglo man. From that point on, and maybe as history has proven as something to the benefit in this racist country, we became French-Anglo on that side.

Now why would something so hidden, in the shadows of the past hit me in such a profound way? Because, by process of systemic racism, the identities of the members of a whole family have also been stolen. Some would ask if this matters: why can’t bygones be bygones and things from the past stay in the past? Well, if it could only be so simple, other than my Frenchness and my Englishness, my revolutionary communist granddad, my grandmother on the other side, an Acadian descendent and strong woman (worked in a truck stop till she was in her late seventies) were all things that were worthy of pride. This Native grandmother, a strong revolutionary, mythical creature due to her young death (AVM when my mother was 21, long before even my eldest sister was a glimmer in her eye) became a most present ghost, her presence evoked on many days. I felt like I knew her because of the stories. I felt I lived her, this ancestor, because of the meaning made about the kind of woman and mother she was. She was magical. The stories of her, her parents, her grandparents, the ghosts, the songs, the farms, the mother stories, the stories of women, the birth stories, the death stories, the earth and sky, the lakes and forests, the ancestors, all came down through her. The meaning of her ancestry created my love for life, and provided me with a feeling of home wherever my body was, or what was being done to it. I had roots. I was grounded. I was pissed off when I found out that the roots, and grounding were founded on a big fucking lie. Even without this wishy washy emotionality, my grandmother’s identity was whitewashed, erased, and treated a bane.

So here I stand as a proud woman, with two children who by quantum are an eighth (Fuck quantum. It’s a construct). Their lives are permeated with the same ancestors we evoke in our family storytelling. They are pulled into the mysteries and are imbued with the responsibility of these ancestors for the lineage that brought them here as much as I am imbued with the same. This leaves me in a horrible place where my voice is that of an assimilated Indian. The greater part of my family identity is based on her matrilineal hand reaching over these generations of stay at home mothers and the children they have raised, and by gum, that grandmother has never left my mother and even though I never knew her, she watched over my childhood. After this theft, this assimilation, I can’t tell you anything about who she really was. I know her intimately (I even know about her most embarrassing moments), and more so, my mother did, and yet, she took this with her to the grave. I am left, voiceless, without identity and struggling to learn the why, the how, and the who.

After she died, my grandfather completely alienated himself and the rest of the family from her relatives. The stories are terrible. Yes, he was a proud revolutionary for the working class, but the man was a fucking racist of the Archie Bunker variety. I knew him, and despised him till old age turned him into a meek kitten: then I pitied him. Why would he go out of his way to remove this, our stories, and her from our lives? He remarried 6 months after her death, and the insult was complete. This bitter old man created a ripple of hatred that extends to my generation. We were never white enough, not like the other grandkids in his family whose quantum added German and more English to the embarrassing mix. At his funeral, the children of his second wife, his step children, took priority, with their lilly whiteness as something that he could still lord over the rest of us, even in death.

Maybe if the stories died with her, this would have never mattered. I could have gone on with my all white peasant heritage and the Indian Princess in ancient history, however she made sure that would never happen. Her ancestors also passed on the gift of their stories, which have trickled down to many nights in front of fires, sat in a wood-smoke smelling living room, sipping cocoa, eating popcorn, revelling at the tales gifted to us from my mother. Television was never a fair trade for this experience. The process of the telling, the listening, the sharing has made me the person I am. This was my grandmothers gift to my mother, and will be my gift to my boys (wood-smoke fire excluded… I live in a downtown flat).

So why would I be angry about voice theft? I grew up in a comfortable home with all the privilege that a working family could have. I have never faced racism. I am the age of people who were sent to residential school and I instead went to one of the best public Catholic high schools in the country, just by chance. Why would I begrudge this seeming gift? Because it has come on the back of the most magical memory and rich lineage of comfort being made a lie. I have no right to claim direct Native oppression in my lifetime. What I can claim is the oppressive struggle of assimilation. The oppression of hundreds of years of direct and cultural genocide. I can claim my anger with my very real and recently dead granddad who hated what his wife was, and denied her reality to his dying day to save his embarrassment of marrying an Indian, who hated my mother for marrying a French man, who called my black uncle a Nigger, who hated everything on the planet that wasn’t a WASP, and this whole fucking country that supports, and likely assisted in the creation of his ideology on a structural level. It most certainly directly supported it. My grandmother became French because she was no longer allowed to be Indian, and yet her legacy is the one that raised me. Her twin brother remained an Indian. I have to face this, and own it. I have to be proud of her even though no one, except her, and my racist bastard of a granddad could have revealed the whole story. She was stolen from her ancestors, her heritage, her culture, her race, her language, her home and was posited in a place where she dealt with his semantical violence to her, and her children. Her memory still suffers it when we shudder with our own memories of his hatred.

It is also the pulpit that took away her Indianness… the same church that institutionalized Native kids, perpetuating a horrific genocide. It is the government that shoved a people onto reservations in some of the most untenable lands, and sends body bags instead of medicine in times of crisis. It is the Drunken Indian rhetoric that assaults the senses of every North American person, perpetuation the systemic racism that fucked us all up and perpetuates this hatred.

When you appropriate symbols, and parts of culture, you steal them. I don’t have the right to these until I can consolidate my own assimilated white voice with my Native heritage. The tough part is that I have no perceptible Native heritage. I don’t know where she came from, and it is impossible to find out. I am a woman of Anishinaabe descent whose family has been erased. I have stories, traditions, and beliefs that reflect, but no connections to the tangible. I am a nebulous person, floating, struggling to find a new ground. I will not be a tourist in the heritage that was stolen. I will not be an appropriator of the stories that aren’t mine.  It is a stupid fiction to go back to the place where she was born and look for connections. I will never have an Indian identity, I will never have a band, I will never have status and pursuing these would be a disrespect to the people who have grown up with the labels, the quantum held over their heads, the direct violence and oppression.  It would also be an equal disrespect to the story I just accounted here as a valid tale of another portion of the genocide. I can’t Learn How To Be An Indian. I can only be the product of assimilation, and warrior against it. I may only ever be the Indian who may never have the right to that title. I will without a doubt always be Terre Chartrand, from Chatham Ontario. Daughter of Ray and Bernice from the North. Granddaughter of Bernard and Evelyn, and Joseph and Eva. Great-granddaughter of…


Posted on November 11, 2010, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Assimilation: A Journey of Resistance and Recovery.

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