In Your Blood
“Do you have Native blood?” she asks, as if the liquid in my veins could be distilled, the exact ancestry passed down to me from my great-grandmother turned into a number that determines something about who I am or where I come from.
My skin is pale, prone to freckling in the sun. I do not have the almost black hair of my mother, nor the high distinct cheekbones and ochre skin tones of my grandmother.
(Never mind how the maternal side is ignored by the patriarchy, not considered legitimate and often written out of history by discarding maiden names and women’s stories.)
“Kind of,” I say. “How can you tell?”
I am taken aback. No one has ever asked me this before, not unless they saw a photograph of my grandmother, or even my mother when she was younger, but this woman has seen neither.
“Your eyes.” She says. “You have Metis eyes.”
This is even more jarring, for someone to notice, not just some aspect of my genetics that speaks to an ancestry not solely European and solely white, but that she can name my great-grandmother’s tribe.
Understand there is metis and there is Metis — the latter used by those of ‘full-blood’, the former usually adopted by white folk like me with a Metis member in their family tree. Despite the joy I get from claiming Louis Riel as a distant relative, I consider myself neither Metis or metis, as they are not relevant to my upbringing or experience.
I carry the privilege of whiteness, not as a reflection of valid superiority but dictated by the imperial, colonial society in which I was raised. The status of my embodiment as somehow ‘better’ is a perversion, but a perversion I benefit from none-the-less.
I do not know, as my mother did, what it is to be called names because of the colour of my skin.
I do not know what it is to be made to feel less than, not only because of pigmentation, but also culture.
I do not know what it is to be punished for speaking my own language, for practising my own customs, for believing what my parents handed down to me from their parents and so on.
My culture is not spirit animals or dream catchers but Star Trek and bacon.
I had never thought of my eyes being distinct to a particular tribe or ancestral heritage, but once it’s been pointed out, I notice a friend, who is of the Kainai nation, has the same as me.
“Apparently,” I tell him, “I have Metis eyes.”
I am making conversation. I do not for one second think I have any right to make a claim to a heritage I have never suffered from belonging to. I simply find it fascinating that my eyes carry such a distinctive clue to my ancestral DNA.
He looks and blinks, a smile of recognition dawning on his face. He seems delighted as he says, “You’re Metis?”
In an attempt to salvage the people they systematically set about destroying, the Canadian government has ‘made an effort’ to assign Metis status, officially, as often as they can—or that’s how I understand it. My mum has her status card, as does her baby brother. They too have the distinct eye colour I bear, but their skin also turns a rich brown in the summer, where I just freckle and then burn. My mother remembers her grandma, who spoke Cree and French and taught her stories of her people.
I tell my friend, as my mother’s daughter, I am the last generation from my great-grandmother’s lineage who could claim the status, but I choose not to. I was not raised metis, even with a little ‘m’. I have had a very white, very middle-class upbringing, learning to make dream catchers in Brownies, not from my mother or grandmother. This does not seem to matter to him, though, as he suddenly treats me differently, as though I am on the same side of the social divide the construct of race has created in Canada.
“Did you know,” he says to some other First Nations kids, his arm over my shoulder as he addresses them, “that she’s Metis?”
I protest. I am not Metis, but yes, my great-grandmother was.
Regardless of my assertion, I am met with warmth, with companionship, with recognition. I think of my Scottish, Irish, English ancestry — the English in particular — which influenced not just my upbringing but the entire culture and society in which I was raised. In which we were all raised. I think of the walls these kids carry with them, the barriers they keep up until they have determined that it is safe to let them down, barriers I didn’t know existed until this moment when they decided I was a safe person to drop them for. It seems wrong — knowing even what little I knew at that time about Residential Schools — for me to be accepted into their circle.
But because of it, I think.
I think about race and identity often, reflecting deeply on both, and I learn. I learn about smallpox epidemics, and cultural genocide carried out by a government that didn’t even consult the people already living here when they decided to claim a new country. I learn to notice how these things have influenced what I was taught (or more truthfully, what I wasn’t taught) in school and in my community. I learn to notice how these things have affected the way I think.
And as I learn I seek to see, to really, genuinely see, my implicit bias.
I want to understand the assumptions I make without even thinking about it, to catch my blind spots, to address them, so I can annihilate them.
This is in my blood.