Monday November 13, 2017

How musician Tom Wilson discovered his Indigenous identity

Former Junkhouse frontman Tom Wilson now plays with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and LeE HARVeY OsMOND

Former Junkhouse frontman Tom Wilson now plays with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and LeE HARVeY OsMOND (Jen Squires/Doubleday Canada/Penguin Random House Canada)

Listen 29:36

Story transcript

Like most children, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' Tom Wilson asked his parents a lot of questions growing up.

But they refused to answer his most burning questions — like why his mother Bunny and his father George were so much older than his friends' parents, and why they had no photos of him as a newborn. 

Or why his schoolmates would tease him about "looking Indian," when his only connection to Indigenous people was that he sometimes visited his mother's sister, who was married to a Mohawk man on the Kahnawake reserve outside of Montreal.

Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson's new memoir is called Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home. (Doubleday Canada/Penguin Random House Canada)

"There are secrets about you, Tommy, that I'll be taking to my grave," Bunny would tell him when he would ask her about the day he was born.

"I felt like I was in a mystery novel from a young age," Wilson told As it Happens host Carol Off, who he joined in studio to talk about his newly published memoir, Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home.

In the book, Wilson writes about spending much of his childhood in Hamilton, Ont., dreaming of becoming a rock star — a dream he eventually realized as the frontman for Junkhouse in the 1990s.

But as he became known around the world for his music, he grew more haunted by the feeling that he didn't know himself.

Drugs and alcohol took their toll, and it took him hitting rock bottom before he found the truth.

'I realized that I was born a Mohawk baby. In my 50s, I became a Mohawk man.' - Tom Wilson

He did not discover the truth until he was 53 years old, when a speaking tour handler who knew his family let slip that he was adopted.

"I knew Bunny and George as my mom and dad," Wilson said. "What they really were, were my great-aunt and uncle."

Beautiful Scars cover

And the aunt and uncle he used to visit in Kahnawake were actually his grandparents.

"I'm still a Hamilton guy. I'm about coffee and cigarettes, but there was a spiritual connection in that house that I didn't feel in other places," Wilson said.

"I felt more at home in my grandfather's home, my Uncle John's home, than I did in Bunny and George's house."

It took Wilson five decades to fill in all the pieces of his true identity as an Indigenous man — a Mohawk man, with roots still firmly planted on Kahnawake.

"After writing this book, I realized that I was born a Mohawk baby," he said. "In my 50s I became a Mowhawk man."

For more on this story, listen to our feature interview with Tom Wilson.