Exploring My Indigenous Culture Now That I’m A Mom
By Alison Tedford
PHOTO © FatCamera/Getty Images
Jan 22, 2018
When a child asks “Where did I come from?” most people expect to have a conversation about the birds and the bees. But I have always worried about having to explain our culture to my children.
I am a status First Nations woman, but I wasn’t raised predominantly in my culture. As far as “the bees” go, I remember doing a bumblebee mask dance for a wedding. Some days it feels like that’s all I know about my people.
"I can only answer where my son comes from when I figure out where I came from."
I’m not completely ignorant — I’ve been invited to experiences that gave me cultural exposure, and I am fortunate to have books about my family to learn from because I come from very famous artists — yet I feel like I grew up not knowing what it truly means to be a Kwakiutl woman. My cultural background is one that I am proud of, but I feel like I haven’t truly lived it.
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I publicly self-identify enough to have experienced the coldness and cruelty of racism. My pride in who I am and who my people are helped take the edge off the frustration of being stereotyped, but it certainly didn’t numb it. My son may experience these feelings for himself one day, if he hasn’t already. I want my son to be proud enough of who he is that he will be protected from the sharpness of unkind words, but how do you teach what you do not know?
"I can explain in broad strokes why my culture cannot be captured by a generic appreciation for dreamcatchers, but I feel like I can’t distill into words what specifically makes my people so special."
This question has sparked a renaissance in my own education. At 34, I find I’m sending myself back to school to learn so I might teach.
I have visited my great-great-grandpa’s artwork in museums — I have learned to find the compass points he would make when he made circles in masks, something that was uncommon at the time and sets him apart from other artists. I am reading the books that I have and finding pieces of my personality in the stories of my ancestors. I’ve read depictions of my great-great-grandfather as a humorist who was unafraid of calling out breaches of protocol and it makes me smile — I never met him, but I hope some of him lives in me. I’m thankful for these glimpses into his life.
I can only answer where my son comes from when I figure out where I came from. I have to take responsibility for my own education and learn about my origins so I can adequately describe the beauty of my people. Until I had his little questions, I had enough of a working understanding of things to get through the idle curiosity of strangers. But to truly give him the answers he deserved, I needed to form a more meaningful relationship with myself, my truths and my past.
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"My cultural background is one that I am proud of, but I feel like I haven’t truly lived it."
I can explain in broad strokes why my culture cannot be captured by a generic appreciation for dreamcatchers, but I feel like I can’t distill into words what specifically makes my people so special. I can articulate the myriad of linguistic differences within even just the geography of my province, but I can’t say more than “thank you” and “cow” in my language (and it turns out you literally never have to thank a cow in adulthood). I can relay historical facts about my people and how they were impacted by colonialism, but I’m short on the practical, day-to-day elements of what my people face because I was raised somewhere else.
There is isolation in being an urban Aboriginal parent, and I know that I need to find community to find myself.
As a parent, there are so many ways that I need to learn to show leadership. This is just one of them. The dance of raising a child is a complicated one. I might not be able to answer, “Where did I come from?” in a way I can be proud of yet, but like I learned the bumble bee mask dance as I child, I will learn this one too.