(This a copy of a comment I made on a Facebook post from an indigenous artist friend, who always has things to say that trigger self-reflection about my role in the process of truth and reconciliation with BC’s First Nations people)
I was on a panel at the UBC First Nations House of Learning a few years ago, and each of the other 6 people on it introduced themselves with their personal aboriginal lineage. As it came to my turn as the last to speak, and the only ‘settler’ on the panel, I felt so inadequate because I could not do the same for myself. I could not speak loud and proud to declare my belongingness to a lineage as each of them had done.
So what did I do? I told the audience of mostly First Nations people what had been going through my mind, and did my best to explain what I did know of my antecedents. It triggered a paradigm shift for me, emphasized by the elders in the audience, whose expressions showed me they accepted this as authentic. After the presentation, I was further encouraged by what people came up and said to me, that my stumbling new insight was not seen as a mockery of their culture, but a breakthrough.
In the years since, I have delved into my history and discovered a lot of things I didn’t know. I know that my indigenous Celtic ancestors in Britain were conquered by my other ancestors (the Normans and the Norsemen) and I carry a Norman surname because of this.
This was centuries ago, but it makes me think: these many centuries later many of us descendants of European settlers do not have a clue about our lineage, or if we do, we may not know our people’s history and culture. As a result, our pride in belonging has shifted to other things, like religions or political parties or other constructs. And we have forgotten the lessons that knowing the history of our own personal lineage brings. We may take life and privilege for granted, mostly unconsciously. We mock those who maintain cultural traditions, which, we have been taught, are a sign of backwardness.
I know that my ancestral family tree shares much more with other peoples than it is different from them. Or superior to them. That reality just hasn’t travelled down to me in any useful form. My DNA shows I’m 97% European with <1% Middle Eastern. The Viking and Norman conquerers are there, along with the Celts. It’s a pretty broad band with little detail about family specifics.
And therein lies both an issue and a solution. There is a reason that there is such an interest in ‘finding our roots’ these days. Many of us are uncoupled from our ancestors, the chain is broken. And we need it, to understand ourselves. This ‘seeking to know’ reveals these shared experiences, hopes and challenges, which could help us all relate to each other a bit better.
There is a lot to be said for maintaining and honouring an oral history, as we are finding few bits of written history to help us in our search for reinstating those personal links. Our indigenous people have taught us ‘recent arrivals’ (we are slow learners) the validity of such a methodology, as their oral record-keeping is being increasingly honoured where signed records and treaties were never made. We are only beginning to understand what we have lost, and it isn’t what we thought.
Our conquered/settled land was never ours, nor the government’s to give to people like my grandparents (160 acres in Peace River in the 1920’s). It wasn’t ‘empty’ nor unpopulated. These starry-eyed young couples were duped into an adventure, to settle in places they had never seen, with weather and challenges they had never experienced, by marketing promises that spoke directly to their hopes and dreams of ownership and great success.
My grandfather, who went to sea at 14, and my grandmother, whose leather-bound copy of Moliere’s plays (a prize for excellence in French at school) sits on my bookshelf now — these are the people who thought they could take raw Peace River prairie and farm it and raise a family. They did pretty well, all things considered, but it wasn’t viable in the end. That’s a story for another time.
I am still ruminating on all this, and stumbling towards becoming a better member of the larger community through truth and reconciliation with the First Nations people I know and love. I learn so much from my friend Lou-ann Neel, who does know her ancestors, and she enlivens my days with many chuckles and inspiration from her posts and amazing creations. Thank you!