1. Dental hygiene was a self-directed exercise in my household, which meant it didn’t happen. Unused toothbrushes sat stiff-bristled and impeccable in cups on the sink. I only ever noticed a smell on my father’s breath, though: an alcoholic bitterness. The smell usually corresponded with the subwoofer trembling at midnight, spitting out Bonnie Raitt and other smooth-voiced saints of heartbreak.
I separated my father into two entities: the one who drove me to basketball practice and counseled me on my best friend’s inferiority complex, and the one who stared at me dead-eyed when I asked him to turn down his drunken music. Mom never bothered to explain why Dad’s voice was so loud and slurred. I had no clue my father was having problems weaving himself into the tapestry of white suburban bliss. I never knew about the promotions he’d seen slip past him despite being one of the top salesmen in every company he worked for. I never knew about the rampant alcoholism on his side of the family, its body count. All I knew was when we went down to Six Nations for the Pow-Wow, all of my aunts and uncles and cousins were loud and laughing, too, their breath the same pungent flavour I then considered genetic. They didn’t dote on my siblings and I the same way they doted on my caramel-coloured cousins, pinching their cheeks with one hand, holding a beer bottle in the other. But at least there was musical consistency: Bonnie Raitt always there, crooning me awake.
2. In grade two I went to Native American Magnet School #19 in Buffalo, New York. Part of its mandate was to provide a class for its handful of Native kids to learn Native culture. Everyday we would slip away from the droning arithmetic of our classrooms into a space dispassionately hung with dreamcatchers and laminated warriors. The curriculum was a grab bag of general knowledge. What the Navajo ate, what the Oneida wore. Neat bloodless trivia isolated from historical context. They’d show us teepees and longhouses and adobes drawn over state lines, as if we could belong in America as easily as those sketches on that map. Then we’d sneak back to our regular classes and continue like we never left, a collective amnesia settling over us.
There was one white girl in my Native class: Regina. She wanted to make crafts and sing songs with her best friend, Brittany, so her parents claimed a sliver of Cherokee ancestry and the school let her in. I hated this, because I hated Regina. Before she came along, Brittany was my best friend. The fact that Regina’s parents successfully lied her way into my Native class filled me with a rage so intense it could only ever be understood by fellow vengeful seven-year-olds.
The other kids knew why we were being whisked away between math and spelling. Yet when my new best friend, a Puerto Rican girl named Rosita, saw my father and asked if he was Native, disgust curdling her words, I paused. She couldn’t already tell? Where did she think I went everyday?
I never really considered it before, but I looked more like Regina than I did my father. It was like his genes skipped over me entirely. I realized then I had a choice. My white skin was a blank canvas onto which anyone could paint. I’d fallen down a rabbit hole into a racial Wonderland where logic was negotiable. Only I wasn’t Alice; I was the Cheshire Cat, the Trickster. If I wanted I could say I was part Mexican or Italian or Mongolian, and the person would squint, but nod. As though everyone actually thought America’s melting pot would sooner or later boil all races down to a pale person like me.
“He’s not Native. He’s Puerto Rican.”
Like Regina, I could pretend.
I waited to be called out for my fraud, for my father to stride over and hold up my pale arms as proof. Nothing happened. Incredibly, Rosita believed me. I was too cool to be Native anyway, she rationalized, too clean. She cemented our newfound racial sisterhood with a necklace of the Puerto Rican flag cleverly assembled from red, white and blue pony beads.
I wore that necklace with an absurd, anxious pride, wondering whether Regina felt the same uneasiness when she brought home her construction paper headdresses and three sisters soup recipes.
3. My mother is a staunch Catholic who, like any good Catholic, raised us in the faith. We were fed divine mercy chaplets and patron saints more often than food. Even my steely-willed father wasn’t immune; he converted to Catholicism for her eventually. I still remember his baptism. It was a bizarre tableaux, a scene from some forgotten fairy tale: a giant Native man hunched over a stone fountain meant for babies as water spilled from his thick black hair. After that he dutifully sat in the pews with us on Sundays, silent and steady until he had to shut us up with a furrowed glare.
When we moved to Six Nations he started going to the longhouse and getting involved in sticky Rez politics. Staying out long and sleeping deep. Finding his roots, he said. Mom said “roots” were nothing if they led to Hell. All her prayers’ intentions were for his recommitment to Catholicism. While us kids droned half-heartedly through every “Hail Mary,” her prayers took on the tenor of threats. She claimed she was just worried about Dad’s soul, but it was more than that. Every step he took towards his Native identity was another step away from her. With us she felt the same. If we ever went to longhouse she’d rant for hours about how we weren’t just Native, you know. We had other heritage and we shouldn’t hide it. Were we ashamed of our own mother?
It was around this time I started taking Canadian History in high school. We covered residential schools in broad strokes and clinical tones, giving the impression these schools were from an era long past. Kids pulled screaming out of their homes, forced to speak English and say the rosary and endure all manner of abuse, returning to families with whom they could no longer communicate. My teacher never mentioned that the Mohawk Institute, Brantford’s residential school and unhappy home for over 200 Six Nations kids, remained fully operational until 1970. I’m not entirely sure she knew, despite it being turned into a museum a short drive away.
I asked my father if he knew the residential school was open so recently. “The Mush Hole? Yeah, I know a lot of people who went there.” His voice was terse, pained, like I was picking at a scab that just started to heal. I dropped the subject.
My curiosity was hardly sated, though. As soon as my dad left for one of his meetings, I explained what residential schools were to my mother. She being our family’s religious ambassador, I asked her how members of the Catholic Church could do such awful things to children. She hesitated. Then, with a politician’s duplicitous finesse, she said that while those priests and nuns were extreme, they did save many Indian kids’ souls. They probably thought they were doing God’s will. It seemed strange that she—the most compassionate person I’d ever met—was defending such abusive methods of indoctrination, as if Heaven were a gang you got jumped into. “It was another time,” she said. “They had different ideas then.”
She’d start a rosary just as my father was supposed to get home from some community meeting. A door slam would announce his entrance and just as quickly his exit. My mother’s face was like shards of glass, broken but dangerous.
4. On the hour-long bus ride from our homes in Six Nations to our high school in Brantford, Ontario, one person was wordlessly, unanimously agreed upon as the bus punching bag. Most years it was Ryan. His sloped forehead, large stature and passive nature proved an irresistible cocktail to the violent and otherwise insecure. That is, until Ryan’s mother pulled him off the bus and Carrie came along. I was in grade 11, she was in grade 9: loud and raucous and well-liked. You could tell she had a white mother, too, but all it took was one good “innit” to know Carrie belonged in ways I never could. Besides, her hurricane of a personality prohibited certain questions about blood quantum and skin shades.
She’d been on the bus a week. As usual, I kept to myself, hood up, headphones on, straining for invisibility. When the handfuls of pennies smattered against my head, I was only shocked for a moment. Her laugh was unmistakable, her sugary voice spitting “white girl” like fire. Her pale jester face—somehow swept of all irony—ducking down every time I turned around.
My Trickster designation was officially null and void.
That’s when it became clear: whiteness meant different things in different contexts. On the Rez, Carrie and I could share skin colours and still be perceived entirely differently as Native people. While my culture derived solely from Michael Jackson videos and Disney’s dubious visions of femininity, Carrie’s culture was slowly, carefully poured into her hands the same way generations of Six Nations people had culture poured into theirs. It didn’t matter that I never chose to be born in Buffalo and raised generically American, that’s just the way it was. There was nothing for me to do but sit there, let the pennies ricochet off my head and hope my non-reaction would make Carrie bored instead of incensed.
5. The day my daughter Eva was born the Pow-Wow was rained out. All the spectators and dancers made for the lacrosse arena, leaving Chiefswood Park soggy and deserted. I hated those Pow-Wows. I hated that my boyfriend Mike’s first Pow-Wow was one of those Pow-Wows. The experience wasn’t right without the dancers blurring against the grass like rushed strokes of paint, haggling over beaded jewelry I couldn’t afford, dribbling Indian taco grease onto my shirt and giggling as white visitors claimed their great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess.
It had been eleven days since my due date and I’d been having irregular contractions for the past two. My dad and brothers were away on a month-long Unity Run, culling my support system down to a skeleton crew. I wondered whether my Dad’s absence had anything to do with my staunch biological dismissal of his many “marry Native, have Native babies” speeches. Before he left he reminded me my child wouldn’t have a status card, that Mike wouldn’t be allowed to live on the reserve. I’d rolled my eyes, all eighteen-year-old panache.
My water broke. When we arrived at the birthing centre, my midwife took compassionate control, not even balking at my insistence that Coldplay’s Parachutes soundtrack the next twelve hours. As the birth progressed, though, my father’s family history began prowling in the back of my mind, something I hadn’t given much thought until then. His mother, the only one in her family who didn’t go to residential school, leaving her Six Nations home for Buffalo so her children, too, could bypass the Mush Hole. His father murdered by a white bartender over ten dollars. His older brother murdered by two white men in a roadside scuffle. He himself beaten to a bloodied mass by a white man with a baseball bat at a bar. His was a family legacy that often changed forms. One day it appeared as a six-pack of Bud Light, another as white fingers squeezing a trigger. Sometimes it struck with such violence its only consolation was that it was over quickly; other times it snuck up, draining a life one excruciating drop at a time.
Then my daughter Eva came barreling out of me. Once her complexion settled from the red shock of newborn skin to soft pink, my anxiety abated. Any visible traces of her Native heritage had been blotted out. She didn’t even have the brown eyes I’d considered my family’s defining trait; squinting from between pale blond lashes were two orbs of indigo. As much as it made me sick to admit it, and as much as my Dad had lectured around it, I knew those eyes, that skin, had given her a shield. She could deflect the sharp, parasitic legacy of shame and violence she’d inherited. My mother had given me the same shield. I’d never had any of the experiences my father’s family had and I probably never would. Carrie’s copper assault was the closest I’d ever come to discrimination, and pennies rarely kill.
Yet as I held my daughter for the first time surrounded by Aboriginal midwives, I remembered the pain of passing. The way you deny parts of yourself to appease others, as though identity were so easily partitioned. This day with these people you’re Native, while this day with these people you’re white. Everything will be fine. You will be fine, ducking in and out of labels with a smile pasted on. All the guilt any white person feels for centuries of racial genocide and injustice welled up in me, but it was more complicated than that. I was both the winner and the loser, the victim and the abuser. Two strains married in me, impossibly. Anytime I felt outrage at something a white person said or did to my people, I felt like a fraud, as if I, too, were culpable by shade alone. Yet if a Native person made a sweeping statement about white people, I couldn’t help but question my belonging. After all, I didn’t have enough knowledge of my culture to mitigate my skin colour. Defences were always up. The tear always widening.
When my father talked about the issues our people faced, he uttered a three-word mantra as the solution: decolonizing the mind. He was referring to a process of re-training one’s brain to reject the values of Western culture. Or, in his words, “to stop living in the boat, and come back to the canoe.” That solution fell flat for me. Born from both the boat and the canoe, I’d always felt like I didn’t belong in either, so I was left drowning in between.
I’ve often wondered if being mixed-race doesn’t have to mean shaming myself out of my indigeneity just because I wasn’t raised in the culture: silently, safely watching from my whiteness as Native people around me suffered. If it doesn’t have to feel like forcing a smile while getting continually gutted by a dull blade.
Having knowledge of what is beautiful and difficult about being Native, coupled with what is confusing and advantageous about being white, did give me something others lack: an ingrained sensitivity to the spaces between. Unlike my father, with his hardened either/or rhetoric, or my mother, with her racial ignorance cloaked in religion, I can choose to recognize another option.
No one has to drown while figuring out whether to get in the boat or the canoe. There is inherent value in bridges.
Alicia Elliott is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, Initiations: Selections of Young Native Writing and, most recently, Women in Clothes. Her short story “Across the Barricade” won Enbridge’s Aboriginal Writing Challenge and was published in Canada’s History. She writes, reads and worries she will one day die in Brantford, Ontario, where she currently lives with her husband and daughter.