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Why I’m proud of my (real and imagined) aboriginal heritage Add to ...

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At eight years old, I was very proud of my aboriginal heritage.

My grandfather – or Poppa as we called him – had a full headdress hanging high on the wall, covered with multi-coloured feathers. It was so long that it almost touched the floor.

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He used to tell my sister, my brother and me about his days as an Indian chief and we loved it when he’d demonstrate some of the ancient rituals for us.

He was a fun Poppa who, I realize in retrospect, told us a lot of stories.

During walks through the woods behind his house, we’d always stop at “the bakery.” It didn’t look like a real one, but he always told us it was owned by Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. He told us our birthday cakes came from there.

Perhaps if I’d been a little more pragmatic as a child, I might have realized it was really an old cement mixer settled in what were likely the remains of an old plant.

But at the time, I believed everything he said.

Poppa also told us stories of leprechauns who lived in the woods and hid pots of gold, but I was never sure if I should believe those ones. How would an Indian chief know about leprechauns?

Our Poppa had many stories to tell, but my favourites were always about his days as an Indian chief. I loved knowing I was aboriginal.

So imagine my excitement one day, in about Grade 2, when it was my turn for show and tell. I could hardly wait to boast to the class about my aboriginal heritage. I told them about Poppa’s headdress and explained that he was an Indian chief.

I had somehow deduced that I was 50 per cent aboriginal, so I made sure to mention that, too.

The class remained skeptical, and I suppose the fact that I had pasty white skin and deep blue eyes didn’t help my case. But I truly felt a cosmic connection to my ancestry.

I glowed with pride that day.

I could hardly contain my excitement as I rushed home after school to tell my parents. But I wasn’t greeted with the pride and enthusiasm I expected to receive.

My dad smiled at my mom, then sat me down and explained how Poppa (whose last name was O’Brien, by the way), was actually of Irish descent and had never been an Indian chief.

I was devastated, because if Poppa wasn’t Indian, neither was I.

The real irony of the story was that Poppa wasn’t even my genetic grandfather. My father’s father had died when my dad was 6, and my grandmother had raised five kids on her own until she met Poppa.

At the time, I knew none of this. I was a very, very sad little girl.

I had been sure I was aboriginal: I felt it in my bones. My dad assured me I was not. I was a third-generation Canadian (from Manitoba) with bits of English, Welsh and Scottish in my background.

I suppose with a last name like Greenham, I should have questioned my assumed heritage, but I never did.

A few decades later, I was the proud mother of a son and daughter – and, eventually, a nephew, Nicholas.

Nicholas, in keeping with my sister, my father and my grandmother, is one of those lucky people who has a darker skin pigment and seems to tan while sitting beside a light bulb.

He looks quite different from my kids, his full cousins. In fact, I used to tease my sister that the hospital switched him at birth and they had the wrong son.

But my mother would dig out pictures of my sister as a baby and, lo and behold, the family resemblance was uncanny.

Over the next few years, my parents started digging through our family ancestry. We had always suspected there was a lineage in our family we were not aware of. The family vote leaned toward an Asian influence somewhere in our history.

We were all wrong.

Almost 35 years after my dad sat me down to tell me that I wasn’t aboriginal, he called to tell me what they had discovered in their research.

While it is true that his stepdad was as Irish as a leprechaun, his mother – my paternal grandmother – was third-generation Métis.

As I said, even when I was 8, I was very proud of my aboriginal heritage.

Karen Sawyer lives in Oakville, Ont.

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