By Lou James
Here's the catch: I'm native.
I grew up in a small native community. My home was stereotypically native: abusive relationships dominated my younger years and permeate every aspect of my life today. My family, friends, and community have seen, and continue to see, disproportionate levels of murder, suicide, violence, sexual abuse, prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, emotional abuse, homelessness, and poverty and the criminality that follows from all of this.
We feel the intergenerational effects of residential schools, dislocation, and many other policies designed to civilize and assimilate us at best, and to exterminate us at worst. Every native person I know has, to varying degrees, lost his or her language, traditional knowledge, and sense of identity and belonging as native people.
I grew up in a town, province, and country that reinforced this as the dominant narrative about native people, except when we parade out a few traditional-looking natives to show off an integral part of the rich tapestry of the Canadian identity and imagination, and then congratulate ourselves for being so tolerant and multicultural.
When I moved to an urban centre to attend university, I noticed that the native people I saw in the city fit the stereotype: they were homeless, jobless, hopeless.
I was healthy, studious, goal-oriented, ambitious, and eventually I achieved my goals. Successful, I guess you could say.
As a result, I denied to others and to myself that I was native. It was the only way that I could process the cognitive dissonance that arose when I contemplated my success as a native person and the thought that in order to be a real native, I had to be all of those ugly things.
People around me reinforced that "success" and "native" were mutually exclusive concepts. Some said that despite my native heritage, I was a darn good student. A credit to my race! They were the well-meaning ones. The less sensitive people belittled me by making mean jokes about native people. In either case, they reinforced the idea that to be native, I could not be healthy, successful, and well-adjusted.
One of the hardest things for me to realize is that I have internalized these deeply-rooted prejudices about native people, and that I have to fight myself to shake them off. When I see a healthy, well-adjusted and successful native person, not only do I think that this is exceptional--I find it hard to believe. Due to my internalized prejudices against my own people, I find it very difficult, and perhaps sometimes even impossible, to see excellence in native artists, academics, advocates, and even parents. One way to make sense of it is to conclude that these individuals are not "really" native. It's hard for me to realize and admit this.
For more on the harm of Native stereotyping, see Mithlo's TEDx Talk on Stereotypes and Pocahontas Poster Shows Movies' Influence.