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Interior of the Best Indian Kitchen on the Crow Reservation by Richard Throssel (Native American, Cree (adopted Crow), 1882–1933), 1910

This is a response to NPR’s Codeswitch episode from April 19, 2017 where Kristina Ogilvie asks if other “mixed kids” suffer from “racial imposter syndrome.”

‘Doxtdator’? Boy, that’s a hard last name to say. It’s kinda cool. Where’s it from?

I usually let people guess for awhile before telling them that my last name is First Nations. Often, I get a smile back with a side of slight confusion. After all, I don’t look “visually Indian”, to borrow a phrase from Thomas King, and ‘Doxtdator’ sure doesn’t sound audibly Indian. So what’s going on?

Growing up, I never saw another living Indian in the curriculum of my schools. Sure, we learned about what Indians wore and ate, and how they were all so much more in touch with nature than we are, which seemed true since my dad and his brother enjoyed a good game of golf on the weekend. It wasn’t until I was studying in university that I read Thomas King’s Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, that I encountered a living Native voice writing about other living Native people. Up until then, all of the representations of Natives in my education were dead Indians, constructed Indians, often wearing a headdress and sitting atop a horse.

Those constructed images had an impact. And they still do.

Everyone looks at those photos taken by Edward Sherrif Curtis and thinks, “Now that’s a real Indian.”

I did, too.

Writing about Curtis’ photographs, King tells us that they are completely staged so as to represent what people thought Indians should look like. He asked men to shave their mustaches and gave them wigs and headdresses. So, “How can something that has never existed – the Indian – have form and power while something that is alive and kicking – Indians – are invisible?” King asks an important question that I was never able to put into words until I read his writing.

I remember as a kid that my grandpa had an awesome headdress in his house, high up on a shelf above the TV and beside some pictures of my grandparents’ vacations in Florida. They drove down every year in my grandpa’s big and shiny car, my grandma telling him when he strayed from his lane, as his depth-perception suffered since one of his eyes was made of glass.

When I was in Grade 3 or 4, I wanted to take the headdress to school, with its bright yellow and red feathers, resting atop a white styrofoam head, perhaps as proof of my Nativeness, or a way of acting out part of me.  Maybe I brought it in for show-and-tell one day. I can’t remember.

After those thoughts flashed through my mind, I went back to watching Dirty Harry or some other action movie with my older cousins.

Grandpa Doxtdator and me, sometime around 1985

 

For King, there is little room for Native people to exist. You can be seen as either non-Indian, not looking or sounding the part, or if you do happen to “look Indian”, then at best you are Entertainment, like the constructed images in Curtis’ photographs. For a long time, I worried about what it meant to be really Indian. If I didn’t know the answer to that question, how would I know who I was?

Going off to university to study philosophy didn’t help. Once, a few years later when I taught a philosophy course in a high school, I introduced my students to the philosophers who ask after the meaning of life. What’s the point of life? Who are we?

Looking serious, I asked my students, “What does it mean to be ‘authentic’?”
A quick hand shot up.
“Spicy.” Her voice was completely confident and she smiled at me.

“Please go on,” I prompted.
“Authentic food is spicy.”

Maybe there is a deep point here. Maybe asking, “What does it mean to be ‘authentically’ Native?” is a bad question that will only lead to bad answers.

When I was a kid, I sometimes longed to be more ‘authentically Native’ in some way. I grew up in a comfortable, middle-class mostly white neighborhood in Brantford, a medium-sized town not far from Toronto. If you haven’t heard of Wayne Gretzky, you probably know of the electron microscope or the telephone, both of which also have roots in Brantford. My home town is also not far from the Six Nations reserve.

Some of my friends were new Canadians from countries like India, but my friends had mostly white faces. A typical summer night involved playing basketball on an asphalt court surrounded by chain-link fence, and later playing in a band in my parents’ garage. In other words, I had the kind of childhood that I will always remember fondly.

While I was never bullied for being First Nations, I don’t think I ever heard anything good about Indians either.

Mall food-court scene on a Friday night, me with a group of my teenage friends after shopping for the new Tragically Hip CD:

“Look at the size of that Native guy!”

“Probably drunk.”

Yes, in the 90’s we hung out in malls and food-courts. No, I never really knew what to say, especially when those comments were made by my friends. I still have to live with the fact that I was silent. While being First Nations is neither something I have hidden nor felt like I have the right (obligation?) to introduce up-front (Hi, I’m Ben, and I’m First Nations), hearing those comments never made me feel like bringing up my heritage. Maybe I always wished that I was ‘visually Indian’ in some way – that desire to bring the headdress to school was disapperaring – so that people wouldn’t make those hurtful comments in front of me. But when I think back on what really stopped me from speaking up and saying, “But I’m First Nations!”, it was a deep fear of being laughed at.

“Come on man, you’re white. Let’s go get some fries.”

Grandpa Doxtdator, sometime before WWII

 

It was in university when I read Thomas King that I first heard the phrase “passing for white”, and everything clicked. And in the very next instant I recoiled: was I stealing whiteness and wrapping myself in it?

In my life, I have only experienced white privilege: I look white, my name sounds like it could be German. My grandpa looked ‘visually Indian’ and I can’t imagine the discrimination that he faced throughout his life. But the privilege of passing for white is complex because it also means that many First Nations people are invisible. Were Thomas King giving a lecture on Shakespeare, you might not even know he is an Indian. Thus, the desire that I have often felt to be more “visually Indian”. I often feel too pale, and when my skin quickly turns golden brown in the sun, I feel somewhat more at home in my body.

But of course that desire to be visible is one that I, and King, can afford. King says, “Middle-class Indians, such as myself, can, after all, afford the burden of looking Indian. There’s little danger that we’ll be stuffed into the trunk of a police cruiser and dropped off out the outskirts of Saskatoon.”
King talks about his own desire to have been more “visually Indian”, and with his mix of comedy and pain, he tells a story of how his prom date turned him down because her dad didn’t want her dating Mexicans.

 

I’m not culturally connected to the Six Nations community, and now that I have made Brussels my home, it’s unlikely that I will develop those connections. For a long time I felt at fault for that lack of connection. But being disconnected isn’t my fault, or my parents’ fault – it’s the intentional erasure carried out by settler colonialism, which is supposed to turn Indians into white people. Or kill them. In Canada, it’s doing both.

Every year, I play Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk about the dangers of a single story for my class. We have so many single stories that reduce people to stereotypes and strip away their humanity: about what girls can’t do and how women should look; about the criminality or entertainment value of Black people; about the danger immigrants and refugees pose to society; about the uselessness of people with disabilities or mental illness, and burden of the elderly.

I ask my kids, are all single stories dangerous? What about the story that all Canadians are nice?

You can see where I’m going, but my students fall for it.

When I accompanied students on a field trip to Normandy, we had some time on Juno beach. Both my grandfathers arrived in Europe  shortly after d-Day. The one story of my maternal (white) grandfather is a relatively straightforward war story to tell, as far as those stories go. The other, about my grandpa Doxtdator, is more difficult to relate because at the same time as soldiers ‘fought for our freedom’, the Canadian government stole land known as Ipperwash from the Chippewa people in 1942 and turned it into a military training camp. In fact, both of my grandfathers trained at Ipperwash, stolen land that wouldn’t be fully returned until 2016, over twenty years after Dudley George was killed by the Ontario Provincial Police during a protest in 1995. During an inquiry into the shooting of George, OPP officers are on tape saying that they have “tried to pacify and pander to these people far too long”, and Mike Harris, the Premier of Ontario reportedly said, “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.”

When my grandpa Doxtdator returned from the war, he also returned to the ongoing ‘residential school‘ system, that removed Native children from their families, stripped them from their culture, experimented on them, and ultimately resulted in the deaths of 6,000 children. This system only officially came to an end in 1996.

When my grandpa Doxtdator returned from the war, he also returned with one less eye.

As an English teacher, I take representation seriously.  As a student that never saw a living Indian in my school curriculum, I take representation personally. And that’s not to ignore other problems in the education system, such as the access to quality schools for First Nations children, but all systemic issues are connected, and all are related to representation and voice, too. Who is listened to? Who gets to tell the stories about Native people?

Speaking of stories, when’s the last time you heard a story about Indians with a happy ending?

In the book version of the lectures, King provides an Afterward that is a private story that he does not tell orally. I’ll let you read it for yourself someday. But to spoil the moral, King bravely turns the lens on his own shortcomings and how he feels sorry for a world he has, in some small part, helped to create:

“A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted in pursuit of my comfort and pleasure… I find it easier to tell myself the story of my failure as a friend, as a human being, than to have to live the story of making a sustained effort to help.”

I’m not going to have that ‘authentically’ Indian story to live, and I have stopped wanting it or thinking of the problem in those ways. And I too have needed to tell stories about how I should have been a better person at different points in my life. My hope is that as a teacher, I make a sustained effort to give my students representations of their lives – and the lives of others – that are constructed by the people who have some stock in them. While I have not resigned myself to never recovering a cultural connection with the Six Nations, I have also done the best with my own emerging future as a teacher who doesn’t want to see the identities of children erased before they even have a chance.

 

I footnotes