Manitoba

Award-winning author opens up about 'finding the truth' of his Indigenous heritage

For the past two years, David A. Robertson has been going home to Norway House Cree Nation a lot more often on a journey of self discovery, which he documented for the CBC Manitoba podcast series, Kīwēw.

Award-winning Winnipeg author, David A. Robertson, explores what it means to be Indigenous

David A. Robertson won a 2017 Governor General’s Award for his children’s book, When We Were Alone. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

When David A. Robertson found out he was half-Cree in junior high, he denied it.

"Part of the identity crisis I went through as a kid led me to feel 'less than' growing up," said Robertson. "All I ever learned about First Nations people was negative. In turn, I looked at myself negatively."

Raised in River Heights, an affluent suburb of Winnipeg, Robertson knew nothing of his Swampy Cree heritage. His parents opted instead to hide the history of his father's family in an effort, Robertson says, to shield him and his brothers from "the difficulties of growing up Indigenous."

Now 43 years old, Robertson is a bestselling author of children's books, graphic novels and novels about Indigenous people. His award-winning work reflects Indigenous cultures, histories and communities, while highlighting contemporary issues. 

David A. Robertson (far right), his wife, Jill Robertson (centre), and their five children at their home in the Winnipeg community of Westwood. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

Yet, he is still discovering his own family history. Robertson can't speak more than a handful of words in Cree and the background of his father's family is in large part still a mystery.

This missing piece of his ancestry led the father of five on a journey of self discovery, which he documented for the CBC Manitoba podcast series, Kīwew (pronounced kee-WAY-oh), now streaming on CBC Listen.

'An intergenerational game of telephone'

Kīwew is a Cree word that means 'he goes home,' and for the past two years, Robertson has been going home to Norway House Cree Nation, 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg, a lot more often. 

He's also been spending a lot of time talking with his father, mother, aunts and cousins to help him piece together the history of his family and reconcile what it means to be Cree, Scottish, Irish and English, as well as a father, husband and son.

"When memories are passed down, they can become this intergenerational game of telephone," said Robertson. "They start out as one thing and become another thing. In some ways, I think that's the journey. Taking all these memories, all these documents, and finding the truth that is most likely. Sometimes, that has to be good enough."

David A. Robertson embraces his father, Don Robertson. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

Throughout his journey, Robertson has done his best to face the truths he held as a child, and uncover new truths along the way.

For example, why did his great grandfather, great grandmother and aunt all die within months of each other? What happened to his grandmother in the residential school system? And what is the story behind her missing sister that no one in the family knew about?

"There isn't just a hard truth, there are stories. And while stories can be flawed, they're also powerful. I have to put my faith in stories to piece together the history of my family, then I have to look inward, and consider how all of this shaped who I am today."

'We were both lost — from ourselves, and from each other'

Robertson was born in Brandon, but raised in Winnipeg, where his parents chose to shelter him and his brothers from their Indigenous heritage at an early age. In many ways, it was the only approach they knew.

His grandmother was placed in a residential school, where First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their families and culture and forced to learn English, embrace Christianity and adopt the customs of the country's white majority. His father was also forced to assimilate when he was banned from speaking his native Cree language while at school. 

David's grandmother, Sarah Jane Robertson (far right), graduates from Norway House Residential School. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

"I think he adapted well to the barriers he faced in life, but at some point, he became lost," said Robertson. "And just like strength has been passed down from one generation to the next, struggles can be passed down as well. Because there was a time where I think we were both lost — from ourselves, and from each other."

Robertson eventually learned about being Cree from observing his dad, but not until later in life. And even though he's learned a lot about himself and his family's history, the process is never over.

David's father, Don Robertson, passed away on December 27, 2019. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

"Even now, after spending months researching, learning so much more than I ever thought I'd learn about my family, I'm still learning. I'm still going home."

'When you lose the language, you lose the culture'

"The elders say that when you lose the language, you lose the culture, and I ask myself, 'did I lose the culture before I ever had the chance to have it?'" said Robertson.

Because of the cultural disconnect he experienced growing up, Robertson decided to write books about all the things he missed out on as a child. He now tours the country speaking to students and crowds about his experiences and about reconciliation.

"We used to pass down our histories — our ways of living, values, beliefs, traditions — from one generation to the next and lately there's been a reclamation of that," said Robertson. "I need to be a part of that movement, so that I can pass down what dad knows to my children. And they, in turn, can pass that knowledge to their children."

"All of my books focus on educating kids and adults about Indigenous people — their communities, histories, cultures and contemporary issues," said Robertson, who now speaks to schools and communities about his experiences and work. (Submitted by David A. Robertson)

At its heart, Kīwew is a story about family and belonging. Robertson hopes what he's learned throughout this journey will not only help him, but his family too, so his kids don't experience the same disconnection from their heritage that he did. He also hopes these universal themes will connect with listeners.

"I hope you'll come with me on this journey as I try to reconnect with my family, history, and culture — the stuff of identity," said Robertson. "As I connect the different stories I've been told, uncover truths, and piece together all the things that have brought me to where I am now, and where I'm yet to go."

Kīwew is now streaming on CBC Listen. It's also available at cbc.ca/podcasts and wherever you get your podcasts. The five-part CBC podcast series follows David A. Robertson on a journey of self discovery to learn about his identity and what it means to be Indigenous. Robertson's forthcoming memoir, Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory, is set to be released in September.

About the Author

Jeffrey Vallis is a writer and communications specialist. He was formerly the co-creator and editor-in-chief of Sandbox, an award-winning magazine that put a spotlight on Winnipeg’s thriving and vibrant cultural community. Though he now resides in Toronto, he will always maintain his Winnipeg cellphone number.

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