This is the feature/cover story in the Pique this week. Yvonne Wallace has given permission for us to repost it here. Take the time to read it. Please. There is so much wisdom and heart in Yvonne’s words. There is so much to be learned, when we pause, and listen. Not just on National Indigenous People’s Day. But every day. But if there’s one thing you can do, to acknowledge National Indigenous People’s Day, then it could be this: take a deep breath, land in your own body, settle down, and let these words, and the love behind these words, meet you.
Ama sq’it (good day), I am Catherine Pascal’s granddaughter and my position in this world is that I am a mixed-race ucwalmicw woman born and raised in the Lil’wat Nation. My mother is Indigenous, and my father is non-Indigenous. My parent’s life together has been my barometer of true allyship and solidarity in the ever-changing climate of inter-cultural relationships; it hasn’t been easy but the rewards are beautiful. I identify as a granddaughter, daughter, mother, and everything I do has been influenced by being a Nation member. I am a proud Eagle that graduated from Xet’ōlacw Community School. I am not writing this article on behalf of the Nation, but solely as a writer, in my own voice, with an invested interest to gain momentum toward understanding reconciliatory ideas, thoughts and reflection on my personal experience.
I should also note that as an artist, formally trained in theatre, I have been working through my life experience in a public way while being mindful of not being perceived as performative, but only with the hope that my struggles and triumphs have a direct and positive impact on others in my community. The disclaimer is if my share feels like an over share then know that I am reaching out to my target audience, the Indigenous audience. It is important to note that my understanding of cultural identity is not some old, long-ago ideology: I am living proof of the Ancestors this country’s oppressive systems could not eradicate.
We are approaching our summer solstice. In our Nation, harvesting calendars have changed over time. We have had to learn and relearn the rhythms, patterns and signs of harvest since I was a kid in the 1980s. My whole life I feel has always been in constant readjustment. My first “Aboriginal Day” celebration 25 years ago looks very different than it does now. In 1996, I called a friend who lived at home while I was a newbie Torontonian.
“Hi, I got back from the [Canadian National Exhibition], and we celebrated Aboriginal People’s Day!” I said. “I haven’t seen so many beautiful outspoken First Nations all in one place before.”
I probably said “Indians” because I was talking to an Indigenous person, but I digress. My friend responded, “What’s Aboriginal People’s Day?”
I had quickly learned B.C. needed time to catch up with our Eastern counterparts. In 1996, I felt a shift from being invisible to being public; I felt publicly proud to be Aboriginal, First Nations, and now Indigenous. Never mind that the word Indigenous took over 20 years to negotiate as the collective term for us to be identified as.
Today, we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day on summer solstice. This year the elephant in the country is the recent findings at the Kamloops Indian Residential School that has devastated myself, and my loved ones. Do we celebrate this year? Do we protest? Do we pray? Do we get angry? Do we mourn? The answer, I feel, is “yes.” You do what you need to do to register the impact. It is a personal choice. You deserve the right to individuality; you deserve to do what you need to do to gain personal peace in your Indigenous reality. It has not been easy, and finally, FINALLY, the rest of the world knows our Indigenous truth across Turtle Island (an Indigenous term for North America).
In our Lil’wat realm, we have been telling stories from one generation to another, since time out of mind. The difference in Indigenous knowledge pathways is that we do not question the storyteller; we believe them because we have a tribal, or community agreement that the storyteller is telling from a place of common interest. When the stories of Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors were being told, even long before we heard the testimonies of the IRS survivors, we believed their stories. Now that there is evidence, the rest of the peripheral communities are catching up. Now what do we do? Do we move forward? Do we look back? My personal emails and social media have been inundated with messages of support, grief and anger from my non-Indigenous friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.
They are all asking me “How can I support you?” While I ask myself, can I survive this scar reopening? I have been gutted and my wounds have been stirred.
I have always had guilt that I had the luxury of living every day of my childhood at my parents’ home or my grandmother’s home, while my four siblings were forced by court order to attend St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. Imagine feeling guilty about living at home. Silly right? The behaviours and injustices toward my siblings, cousins, and my extended family all felt redirected at me. In my perception of the world, I looked white, I looked like the oppressor, so it only made sense at the time that I would be treated as such. When I have had the space to tell my story to people from outside my community, they are usually concerned with how my own family could treat me like that, as though the blame was theirs and theirs alone. In my mind, it has always been this country that has been so rooted in oppression that is responsible for my disrupted family ties. I deserve a family the same as everyone else in this country, but my reality is this: if I get close to family, I feel insecure—I feel more comfortable being “othered” than I do feeling welcomed. That is my truth, and I am willing to bet that I am not the only one.
I am not going to whitewash this; I have been invited to write about anything that I wanted to and here it is. I am attempting to articulate the impact of the recent findings, with my personal experience and make sense of this horrific past, all while looking for a way to celebrate my Indigenous ancestry on the scheduled day of June 21. It is not enough to say that we are resilient, because frankly I am tired of being resilient. When can we be seen as an equal to our non-Indigenous counterparts?
There it is, the question of equality. Perhaps that is the problem. I have been striving to achieve being equal. I graduated from a First Nations school, then Humber College with honours, then Capilano University and now working on my master’s at UBC. I am struggling to define what decolonizing mind, body, and spirit looks like, because it’s non-linear. Maybe I am not looking for equality but belief in our stories.
Thank you for following my train of thought while I work through this, believing that we have enough, we are enough, and we can live in peace. Maybe, it’s that the rest of society must be honest with their internal dialogue defining the Indigenous person, Indigenous communities, and Indigenous relationships.
I come from a long line of matriarchs and patriarchs who have worked hard and loved unconditionally, all while their children were forcibly integrated into a system of cultural genocide. My grandmother was humble not because she was forced to be, but because that was our way. When we harvested, we harvested enough so that we could show generosity to those who did not have enough. Our woman celebrated births, children, coming of age, parenthood, and worked together. Regardless of betrayals we’ve suffered, from systems or from each other, when someone in our community struggles, we all drop our differences and gather to help each other, without financial gain. This is what makes my Indigenous experience exceptional, and this is the private part of the Indigenous experience that the rest of society does not see.
These are general, sweeping statements, but if I invite you to a conversation and you are non-Indigenous, then I think you are non-judgemental, and you see me eye-to-eye.
If we continue with our new dialogue, I invite you to a meal; it could be breakfast, lunch or dinner. Feeding people is a basic need, but to us it’s more. We invested our time, finances and labour to make sure your basic needs were met. This is what I like to say is “Indigenous Love”: caring for you even though my life is a struggle, dropping everything to help you feel as though you belong. It is a generous act because you, as a non-Indigenous person, have been benefitting from a system of oppression towards me, yet I am going to let that go and do better than this country has done to me. It’s that whole rise-above thing, so maybe that does not make me equal, maybe it makes me exceptional. I have been taught to be exceptional, I have a responsibility to be exceptional and so does everyone else in my community. If someone is not behaving exceptionally then maybe it is because their intergenerational trauma is running the show.
My experience is that my community members are exceptional. We suffer many compounded losses every year. I guesstimate that we lose 15 or so people to tragedy per year, so that means since the age of four, I have known, loved and lost more 600 people over my lifetime and still show up ready to give “Indigenous Love,” like everyone else in my community. My experience of systemic bias and racism towards me shows me that many non-Indigenous people see me only through a Canadian lens, as something other than exceptional.
In closing, I invite you on June 21 to hear our language through different ears. Open your heart to our songs and dances because they are a living and tangible evidence that we are exceptional. There is no denying we have lived through many stages of cultural genocide, and yet we still have and share cultural knowledge, our language. Indigenous Love.
Yvonne Wallace (Ucwalmicw) is a playwright whose plays include Smothered Sweetly, The Last Dance, I will Remember my Language and ustzan (to make things better), a play dealing with language reclamation and her first-language fluency progression. Utszan premiered in Whistler, in 2019, Wallace’s traditional territory and has toured to Dawson City and Whitehorse, Yukon. She is currently working on her Master’s in Education Leadership at UBC and can be found in N’quatqua working on her fifth play, Residential School Residue, a rough draft of which will be livestreamed by Arts Whistler on June 29.