documentary Channel

I come from a 'rainbow family': We are white, Haitian and Heiltsuk

My culture teaches me that kinship and belonging are not about appearance, blood or biology

My culture teaches me that kinship and belonging are not about appearance, blood or biology

The Wilson children (Ariane, top left, Josiah, bottom left) (Sienna Films)

I come from what I call a "rainbow family," a term that reflects our inherent diversity: I have a Heiltsuk father and white mother; my older siblings are Black, adopted from Haiti as infants. All of us children are members of the Heiltsuk Nation, but none of us "appear" Indigenous (whatever that means, anyway). 

Our family's story is featured in One of Ours, a documentary that follows my brother Josiah's experience. He was adopted from Haiti, but raised and embraced by the Heiltsuk community where he played on a basketball team. But in 2016, he found out he wasn't allowed to participate in an Indigenous basketball tournament because he did not have the required blood quantum. The film explores his and our family's journey toward understanding our identity and kinship.

Our entire lives, my siblings and I have navigated people's shock, incredulity and judgment. From a young age, I knew my family was different. I have lost count of the number of times I've heard "But they're not, like, your 'real' siblings, right?" People often direct their questions at me since I'm not adopted: "So are the other two related to each other? And what happened to their real parents?" 

Yes, we are each other's "real" siblings. And while I know these people are curious and have no malicious intent, what they are telling me is that they think adoption is a less valid way of making a family; that biology is what makes family connections real. Their curiosity is hurtful.  

We are all family: One of Ours

17 days ago
Liette Wilson talks with daughter Ariane and her son about family. 0:45

To add to the confusion, our identity as Heiltsuk people is also often scrutinized. This has never been debated by the Heiltsuk Nation itself, but rather by outsiders looking in. My older siblings were adopted under Canadian common law and their adoption was validated by the Heiltsuk Nation. As soon as my parents adopted my siblings, in fact, our community uplifted and recognized them in feast according to Heiltsuk custom and law. 

People also ask my younger brother and me, as mixed-race members, to prove we belong to our nation. When the topic of our Indigenous identity is brought up, they ask, "But how Native are you?" or "What percentage are you?" — as if our identity can be understood simply as a percentage of our biological makeup. Non-Indigenous people often struggle to grasp that Indigenous identity is much more than race, blood or phenotype. 

What many fail to realize is that Indigenous identity in Canada is about belonging to a distinct collective and nation with its own legal systems and citizenship. Understood in this way, it is obvious how and why my siblings and I belong. Unfortunately, because of misinformation about Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty, people cannot comprehend that we can be citizens or members of our nation regardless of our appearance or biology.

We also face historical, social and political factors, including the ongoing colonization of Indigenous people. The norm of the Eurocentric nuclear family is what allows people to question the validity of my family. It also renders my family as "other" because we don't fit the mould. It creates pressure for us to prove that we belong, that we are a "real" family, and that we deserve to be recognized. 

In recent years, I have decided to resist these expectations. While I can't escape people's questions and disbelief, I can choose not to bend over backward to make my family make sense to strangers. Outsiders don't understand what it means to be part of a kinship network or collective that claims its own based on mutual recognition, participation, reciprocity and relations rather than DNA. My culture teaches me that kinship and belonging are not about appearance, blood or biology; rather, they are about enacting our responsibilities to one another. 

Rather than feel pressure to fit some notion of family or Indigenous identity, I rely on things that, to me, prove we belong. I rely on the validation of the Heiltsuk Nation; I rely on the fierce loyalty of my family; and I rely on the intrinsic value of my family. 

Expectations of my family no longer matter in the end because what we have is beautiful and valid regardless.    

Ariane Wilson is a member of the Heiltsuk Nation. She is pursuing a master's degree in political science (Indigenous politics) at the University of Calgary. Wilson's research explores Indigenous adoption practices and the possibilities adoption offers for revitalizing Indigenous governance, citizenship and self-determination.

One of Ours is debuting on the documentary channel, Sunday November 21 at 8 pm ET/PT.


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