Montreal·Personal Essay

Where is my buffalo robe?

As I see theft of Indigenous identity around me, I’m left to forge myself from scraps left by politicians, capitalism and exploitation.

As I see theft of Indigenous identity, I'm left to forge myself from scraps

A survivor of the Sixties Scoop, Crystal Semaganis is working to piece together an identity that was torn away from her by government policy. (Submitted by Crystal Semaganis)

When I see the cultural appropriation and identity theft of Indigenous people — the Latimer situation and others like it — it stirs something ancient in me, that resonates deep like the heartbeat of Mother Earth herself.

I was part of the Sixties Scoop. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, it refers to the tens of thousands of Indigenous children apprehended by the government to be assimilated and raised in non-Indigenous homes. In my case, the AIM (Adopt Indian and Métis) program of Saskatchewan from the 1960s and 1970s placed me permanently in a white family in small-town Saskatchewan.

I am part of the national Sixties Scoop settlement which seeks to compensate those wronged by the erasure of our cultural identity and birthright.

Now, five decades later, that loss echoes in all that I am and do. I make my home in Témiscaming, Quebec on the beautiful Ottawa River. I remain an activist on Indigenous issues, but the recent spotlight on Indigenous identity, race shifting and cultural appropriation tears at the core of me. I find myself sitting wondering, where is my buffalo robe?

The buffalo robe I speak of is my Indigenous identity (Plains Cree) and I am one of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people displaced by centuries of Canadian government policy, left to forge my Indigenous self from scraps left by politicians, capitalism and exploitation. That's why these issues strike so deeply for Indigenous people.

My buffalo robe is my identity. It is my jingle dress on the pow wow trail. When I dance, the spirits move me and I dance without tiring, without shame and with great pride. Pow wow is a ceremony: flying ribbons, eagle feathers, all the colours of the rainbow moved by the resilience and humility of my people — a glimpse of that sacred buffalo robe on my shoulders.

I've never worn a buffalo robe. I imagine it must be warm, robust, loving, beautiful. I picture being able to wear it like I've been wearing it forever, like those hearty Cree who weathered the harshest winters of our Canada — long before mechanical things heaved their way across the landscape — traversing rivers, landscapes, herds of the wild ones, carving what we see today.

'If you're going to pose in that buffalo robe, well then. Pick up that glass of murky brown water deemed undrinkable that so many Indigenous people live with every day, too.' (Submitted by Crystal Semaganis)

I see you posing in a buffalo robe. Trailblazers, heroes and heroines, forging the Indigenous path for us to follow. Now, that sacred path is tainted.

Were they who they said they were? I see them in their finery, at film festivals, book signings, news articles, magazines, all while proclaiming an Indigenous identity not theirs.

This is trauma. Forging an identity is no light thing. It is resilience flowing in our veins, the whispers of thousands before us and those yet to come. This is what it means to be Indigenous. How can such a precious, sacred thing be taken from us now? Stolen buffalo robes!

I search for my buffalo robe. I feel exploited. We are living artifacts of the Indigenous nations across this country from shore to shore, and we fight to reclaim our language, culture and all things sacred. We search for connection! To have a settler reap such vast rewards wearing a buffalo robe that was meant for others, that's a hurt felt by so many.

Residential school survivors, Sixties Scoop survivors, fledgling talents in the entertainment industry and Indigenous people passed over by the deception of those in stolen buffalo robes, that's a hurt that won't go away anytime soon.

Please, look beyond the romantic ideals of dreamcatchers, inukshuks, mukluks and war bonnets and see everything. Not just the accolades and commodification of all things Indigenous (let's face it, there was much money to be gained by proclaiming to be Indigenous) – but really see.

If you're going to pose in that buffalo robe, well then. Pick up that glass of murky brown water deemed undrinkable that so many Indigenous people live with every day, too. Join us in the search for the missing, lament the loss of land, language, wild things, the trauma, the displacement, the crumbling abandoned schools. Take it all in — and not just the pretty stuff.

That buffalo robe is a sacred thing. I say now, we are coming for our buffalo robes.

Reconciliation is not taking our buffalo robes – it's giving them back.

I wear a size, immortal.

Dedicated to my sister,
Cleo Semaganis-Nicotine
May 7, 1965 - Dec. 22, 1978

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About the Author

Crystal Semaganis is an Indigenous activist living in Témiscaming, Que., with a focus on advocacy for the Sixties Scoop, residential school survivors and environmental issues. She is a mother of four, grandmother of one, an artist and a jingle dress dancer. She is on Twitter @Lil_Cree777, Instagram @seven_wolves and TikTok @sevenwolves1971.