July 06, 2012

Cree girl pretends to be Portuguese

Change Happens

By Sarah KoiMy name is Sarah. I was born in Vancouver on May 20th 1989 by a pure blooded, beautiful Nêhiyaw (Cree) woman. My mother struggled in Vancouver’s, ‘Streets of Plenty.” The intergenerational trauma of Residential School and the breakdown of family left an open wound that riddled my bloodline with addiction, abuse and sickness. She died from an overdose in 1995; I never got to meet her. I’m not quite sure if I was taken or given up at birth. Either way, my biological mother could not care for me, thus I was adopted into a European family. This is my story as a colonized Cree.

I had always considered myself to be white. I knew no other way of life. My parents are from Finland. They speak Finnish, think Finnish, and live their lives as devoted Christians. For many years, actually for the majority of my life--I felt perfectly comfortable being Finnish or white. I had no clue what an ‘Indian’ was. I only knew of Indians on Hastings Street, the scary kind. I grew up with absolutely no Aboriginal culture or peoples around me. I wouldn’t say I was taught that Indians were ‘evil’, but somehow I developed this belief as a young child. I remember seeing the Totem poles in Vancouver parks. I was afraid of the carvings. I remember hearing the beating of drums while camping near Kelowna. I covered my ears because the sound terrorized me.

I wouldn’t say my parents are racist, but rather misinformed, or stuck in their influenced perceptions and ideas of Indigenous peoples and our struggle. They only see the statistics and thank God, Jesus, and Lord that I was saved from the savages! (No, my life has not been easy or handed to me--nor was I necessarily ‘saved.’ I was not immune to drugs, abuse and alcohol.)

During elementary and high school I faced exclusion and racism in different forms of physical, emotional and even spiritual abuse from students, strangers and church members. I remember being at private Christian schools and having basketballs thrown at my head, having my nose busted up and being called a “Chug” too many times to count. I didn’t have Cree pride to protect me. I couldn’t care less if someone was attacking my heritage. I was angry that I had the features of an Indian worthy of discrimination.

Around age 14 I began to lie about my identity. I would tell people that I was Portuguese or Hispanic. I even dyed my hair blonde and put blue contact lenses in. Looking back at that time in my life, I realize this self-hatred was the intergenerational effects of my Native history and policies of assimilation. “To kill in the Indian in the child;” this is exactly what I was doing to myself, and sadly no one stopped me.
Comment:  Do the math on this one, people. This didn't happen during the boarding-school era, in the mid-20th century. You know, when tribes were terminated and children were placed in white environments so they could become "good Christians." Sarah started pretending she was Portuguese in 2003.

This is a perfect example of how trauma gets passed down from one generation to the next. Sarah's mother was an addict, so Sarah was raised white, with no knowledge of her roots. This dislocation led her to "drugs, abuse and alcohol," just as staying with her mother would've done. Either way she faced challenges that most of us don't have to deal with.

As a child, Sarah didn't have the maturity or coping mechanisms to handle the bullying she received. That's how poverty and racism conspire to keep Indians and other minorities downtrodden. And it's idiocy for white folks to tell these people to "just get over it." If someone physically and verbally abused your child, I guarantee you'd blame the victimizer, not the victim.

Fortunately, things turned out okay for Sarah, as you can see if you read the rest of her essay. Intergenerational trauma isn't a death sentence, but it's a huge obstacle that not everyone can overcome.

For more on the subject, see Racism Linked to Addictive Behavior and Indians Suffer Toxic Stress.

Below:  "Lastrealindians.com Writing Contest winner Sarah Koi."

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