Point of View

Looking white and being Aboriginal

Regan Burden, a member of NunatuKavut who's from Port Hope Simpson on the southeast coast of Labrador, writes about being Aboriginal but not looking like the stereotype.

Rude comments spark identity crisis that took months to get over

Regan Burden is from Port Hope Simpson, but now lives in St. John's. (Evan Smith)

It was a beautiful summer day in downtown St. John's; my friend was working a food truck and on my way to work, I'd often stop to say hello, maybe grab a poutine to eat on my way to work.

One day, he had a friend with him; he was tall, handsome, had dark hair and a nice smile. He told me he had seen me at a show before, but I couldn't quite remember talking to him. I met a lot of people that night.

We got to talking about ourselves and he asked me where I was from.

"Port Hope Simpson. It's a tiny town in Labrador that I promise you haven't heard of." I was right about that. I always am.

Many of the residents in Port Hope Simpson are members of NunatuKavut. (Regan Burden)

He told me he was from Gander, but had spent some time in Stephenville. His mother was a judge and she got asked to go to Labrador but didn't want to.

"Stephenville was bad enough, all those f---ing jackytars stealing everything and sniffing gas. Can you imagine what it would have been like in Labrador?"

I grew up in Labrador and I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn't even know what a jackytar was and whatever he thought about whatever they were, I certainly didn't. I had to get him to explain. "You know, Indians."

I explained to him that I was an Aboriginal person and I found what he was saying to be really offensive. He just looked confused.

"Come on. You can't be thaaaat Aboriginal, look at you."

And then, somehow, for whatever reason, in the same conversation, he thought it was appropriate to ask me on a date. It didn't work out with us, I don't think I need to tell you why, something about our personalities just didn't click.

Berry picking is just one of the ways Regan and her family rely on the land for food. (Paulette Stone)

I guess he was kind of right. I don't look like what people have in mind when they picture an Aboriginal person. You see that white background this text is written on? I'm about three shades darker, maybe two and a half.

It wasn't something that I had ever thought about, what my skintone had to do with my background. I never thought anybody could ever tell me how Aboriginal I was.

Seeds of doubt

But after that day… after that rude and insignificant boy told me I couldn't be that Aboriginal, I began to wonder just how Aboriginal I was. I can't speak Inuktitut. I don't know how to drum dance. I can't throat sing. I am very bad at crafts.

For a long time, I felt like I was cheating, like all my life I had been pretending to be something I wasn't. Being in a city certainly contributed to that, not being able to feel like I'm in the middle of nowhere, not being able to be alone in the woods, or feel like it.

Regan and her father Dennis Burden, pleasantly surprised while checking her salmon nets. (Dennis Burden/Facebook)

I felt like I was lying, like maybe I had just been taking advantage of the system. I got the benefits of being aboriginal… the scholarships I could apply for, the extra salmon I could catch, my extended cod fishing season, access to a beautiful resource centre at Memorial University. But at the end of the day, I still look white.

People don't look at me and make any assumptions. I don't get dirty glances.They don't look at me and think that I'm lazy or stupid. They never make any assumptions about whether or not I have substance abuse problems. The beauty that is white privilege has been bestowed on my existence.

For months, I felt really guilty, like I shouldn't talk about my Aboriginality. I never really got over it until that fall when I talked about it at a provincial Aboriginal women's conference in Conne River.

A woman from the Qalipu Mi'kmaq, who was as fair skinned as I am, told me with tears in her eyes that nobody got to determine who I was — that nobody could tell me that I wasn't Aboriginal.

Not a stereotype

She was right. It didn't matter what anybody else thought. Someone's idea of what an Aboriginal person looks like, acts like, dresses like isn't what an Aboriginal person is. We are frozen in this concept of a person that doesn't exist anymore. Just like the rest of the world, we have moved forward.

One of Regan's first dog sled rides, a favourite pastime in her family. (Paulette Stone)

Just because I don't live in an igloo or hunt with a spear doesn't mean that I'm not Aboriginal and I feel sorry that people watch movies and read books that make them think we only existed in the past. That we are a chapter in your history books, that we don't have a place today.

But we are your doctors, your teachers, your neighbours, your friends, your gym buddies, your cab drivers. We are here today. And we are not going anywhere.

I am Aboriginal. I have always been Aboriginal and I will never question it again in my life. I grew up eating off of the land. I love being in outside in the middle of nowhere, it's when I feel the most peaceful.

My dad has been taking me dogsledding since I was two-years-old. The respect I was taught to have for nature is so integral to Aboriginal beliefs and I get a lump in my throat everytime I hear someone throat sing. I am Aboriginal, and nobody gets to take that from me.