“You don’t look Native.”
How many times have I heard this comment from strangers, usually white people, who find out that I am Native; Indigenous; Indian; or whatever term you’re calling us these days?
White people say this to me at least once a week. I have to say that having to validate how “Native” I am is a real pain in the ass.
I don’t ask the average white person how European they are or where they got their blue eyes. Why? Because I know for the most part where you come from. I’ve known of your colonial ways for my entire life.
Now, don’t get me wrong, some of you know exactly where you come from, usually it’s proudly exhibited in the form of a clan tartan; a crest adorned on your wall; a kilt; or some other image on a tee shirt. But what is surprising is how little most of you know about your own ancestry and heritage. More discouraging is how little you know about Indigenous people, especially considering there are five First Nation communities in Unama’ki (a.k.a. Cape Breton).
Red spirit, white exterior
So, how does it feel for me to look like a white woman when every fibre of my spirit is RED? Well, honestly, that depends on the day and how I’m feeling. Most days I’ll take the time to validate your comment – and my indigeneity – after the internal scream inside my head says, “Jesus, this again!” Then, I will typically explain the following to you: ‘Yes, I am indeed Native, but I prefer to use the word L’nu. L’nu is the term I use to describe myself as an Indigenous human who grew up in this Mi’kmaw territory and who speaks her L’nu language. L’nu is the word in my language that defines and describes me as an Indigenous person.’
Again, depending on my mood, I will usually explain that my parents and grandparents are Mi’kmaq. I might even tell you that I’ve researched my ancestors and can provide documents that go back as far as the mid-1800s. And for the shock factor, I’ll likely tell you that my great; great; great grandfather hailed from the Guysborough Canso area and was a black man. Yes, a black man. I’ll also tell you that I can speak my beautiful Mi’kmaw language – and that I was born and raised on the ‘rez’.
That response usually adequately addresses my ‘whiteness’ and allows us to continue to carry on a conversation. But there are some of you who are so shocked that I am L’nu and you insist that I verifying who I am.
Every time this happens, I find it funny given all the ‘pretendians’ out there today taking our spaces by identifying as indigenous. It makes me wonder why their backgrounds weren’t checked and verified as much mine.
Right, back to me, I get that my blond hair; green eyes; and light complexion are not the characteristics you’ve seen in movies and read in the textbooks about Indigenous people. But, just like white people, we come in all shapes; sizes; and colors.
It’s when someone continues to say things like, you don’t ‘look like them’ or my favorite, you don’t ‘speak like them’. This one irritates me a lot because it means you think my people don’t speak or articulate their words appropriately and are dumb if they don’t speak English the way you do.
Well, here’s a question: If English wasn’t your first language how well do you think you would annunciate your words in the language? If you’re a fluent Mi’kmaw speaker or fluent speaker of any other language, it’s difficult to annunciate the complex words of English. Let’s face it, English is a rather annoying language. For those that don’t know, it is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.
We have L’nu words that cannot be translated into English because they don’t exist. Our language is beautiful and complex because it uses feelings and emotions. English is cold and direct. Take the word goodbye for example, it has a finality to it. It suggests we will never see each other again. But in the Mi’kmaw language we say ‘nmultes’ which translates to ‘we will see you again’. Better, right? I think so.
Anyway, I didn’t realize that I didn’t look like my L’nu people until I was in grade two or three. My only real awareness of being labeled as ‘native’ came when I started to attend the off-reserve white school.
I remember coming home and asking my mom what a ‘squaw’ was because that was what I had been called. She told me it was a term used to describe an ‘Indian princess.’ Thanks mom, she later told me that the word was a derogatory term used by settlers to make our L’nu women feel dirty and ashamed.
If you look up the meaning of squaw, you will learn that it originates from the Algonquian language, and it means woman. The settlers got it wrong, again, and used one of our beautiful Indigenous words to make us feel dirty. It’s a word that still stings, so, please know that when those words leave your lips, it makes many indigenous women feel disrespected and perpetually misunderstood.
Growing up I was irritated that I didn’t look “Native, Indigenous, Indian.” I used to ask the Creator why I didn’t have the beautiful dark hair, dark eyes, and stunning skin that my brothers and sisters had. But I know now that my skin colour isn’t a curse, but a beautiful gift that is bestowed on me.
I’m able to walk into stores without being followed. I’m able to drink (although these days I choose not to) without being called a whore or being spit on. And I’m also less likely to go missing or killed because I look like Indigenous.
I’m able to have conversations with people freely and because they think I’m white I hear the racist remarks and comments that are made by people who don’t realize an ‘Indian’ is in the room. I’ve been in meetings with politicians, professors, doctors, nurses, teachers, and lawyers who have all joked and made fun of Chiefs and Elders for their appearance, or who have said things like ‘let them say their piece so we can say we consulted and do what we want to do anyway.’
It’s rather amusing for me to see the look of shock, embarrassment, and fear on their faces when they realize that they demonstrated their white privilege in front of someone who now greets and speaks the same language as the people they were just disrespecting.
It’s not just the white people though; I get the same discrimination from my people. I have walked into rooms and have felt the coldness because I look so much like a settler. It hurts more when it comes from my own people, or at least it used to.
I once was told while out west that I wasn’t “Indian” looking enough to be an Aboriginal court worker. It pissed me off because I was denied the opportunity to help my people in one of the most complex systems in Canada, the justice system.
But, instead of feeling sorry for myself I got a job as a court clerk and worked with the judges to make sure Indigenous clients received the treatment and respect everyone else got while weaving their way through the criminal justice system.
That’s a little bit about how it feels to look like a settler when you feel red inside. We white-looking Indians get racism from both sides. We sometimes don’t feel like we fit in with our own people or the larger community that we live within.
So, as you move forward, remember that you might encounter someone like me; someone who doesn’t match your preconceived notions of what a Native should look like. When you do, please don’t say dumb things. Find another way to show your shock and surprise.
And for fuck’s sake, please stop with the my great, great, great grandmother was Indigenous stuff because the old man was teepee crawling. That’s more irritating than making me outline my family tree. Surely, you can find other ways to relate.
Sorry, you’ll have to walk a few decades in our moccasins. That’s more irritating than making me outline my family tree. You can find other ways to relate without trying to jump on the band wagon. You’ll have to walk a few decades in our moccasins, and having the old man teepee crawling does not make you an Indian, just review the Indian Act guidelines and our guidelines of what makes you L’nu.
I have no idea what I’ll address next week; I want to be just as surprised as you. But in the spirit of reconciliation, I believe we will address the murder and missing epidemic that is taking place here on Turtle Island with our Indigenous people.