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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I am a lecturer at Carleton University and I am often asked, “What does it mean to be First Nation?” or “What is a Pretendian?” by many of my social work students. It is a complicated and continuous issue because identity is all-consuming. It is both personal and political.

Being Cree is more than the trauma that I carry. It is also more than the Indian Status Card that Canada has issued for me and generations of my family. This colonial instrument does not make me a Cree. What makes me Cree is my family and the connections to my community that define who I am. My truth rests inside of me and all of my relations who came before me.

When settlers who claim First Nation, Métis or Inuit identity, but have no connection to an Indigenous community, they are pretending to be someone who they are not. We call them Pretendians. When these people are called out for their deception, instead of being accountable, they often become indignant. Their web of deceit and lies becomes more elaborate in their attempts to prove a connection. Pretendians take historical trauma and display it as an honour badge without truly understanding the deep beauty of Indigenous cultures, traditions and languages.

My own ancestral tree is Cree – the developing buds are my children while the branches – a little worn, a little beaten, yet still expanding, is me. My parents represent the sturdy trunk and finally, the deep roots that penetrate the Prairie ground are my ancestors. These connections to land and space remain strong even for the stolen children, those torn from our communities by government and child welfare authorities but whose steely determination meant they found their way back to lost families.

My great granny was an early feminist, entrepreneur and pioneer, although I doubt she would ever see herself in that way, as she owned and managed the local confectionery store in Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. According to the stories shared with me by mom, aunties and uncles, Granny ran her store with an iron fist, and it was hugely successful despite the fact that she could neither read nor write.

My maternal grandpa always considered himself to be farmer even after moving to Winnipeg where he became a construction worker. In town, my granny was a homemaker who was feisty, vocal and determined. She had skin that felt like powdery velvet and a laugh that was infectious. I loved the way her tiny North End home would smell like yeast when she made homemade bread and the whiff of chicken or hamburger soup coming from her kitchen.

My paternal grandpa was a hunter, advocate, leader, and in later years, a trusted Elder in Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba. When I was young, I remember attending my paternal granny’s wake and service. I have memories of old Cree ladies peeling potatoes in their long flowered skirts, scarves around their heads, wearing gumboots or beaded moccasins. I can still hear the hymns being sung in Cree and see my granny in her casket in the church basement.

I also remember harrowing stories of strength and courage when my parents shared their experiences when they attended residential schools. My dad was only 5 when he was taken while my mom was 10. The moment my parents got off the bus at the residential schools, their young carefree innocent lives ended abruptly and a new life of institutional living began. The residential school experience forever changed them. It was a prison designed to extinguish the sacred fire that lay within – a fire that makes us uniquely Indigenous. Of course, the experiment failed because our fire, although tempered, could never truly be put out.

While my parents lived their formative years at residential schools neither would ever return back to their traditional territories. Eventually, they settled in Winnipeg, where I was born and raised. I have fond memories of family gatherings surrounded by my aunties, uncles and cousins. For us, the strong ties of extended family is as important as the community itself.

The impact of colonialism continues to show its ugliness in addictions, mental health issues, violence and racism. Unless you have lived and walked in our proverbial moccasins then you do not know what it is like to experience hatred because of who or what you look like. As hard as they try, these experiences are lived realities that Pretendians will never know.

Clearly, the path to reconciliation is a rocky one and I don’t believe Indigenous peoples can walk this path alone, although the stories we choose to tell and share must come from us. Come to our kitchen table for soup and bannock, listen to our stories, I know you will laugh until it hurts and perhaps even cry. I have always believed that we need our allies to walk with us but becoming an ally does not mean taking over the conversation or our identities.

Our communities are both accepting and forgiving because our history has taught us to be. I have seen firsthand the strength and resiliency of communities that have stood up against adversity. We also know that reconciliation is a partnership between many; we cannot change the world on our own. However, instead of walking alongside us, Pretendians have chosen to steal our identity, our history and our truth for their own selfish gain. In their lies and deceit, they continue to perpetuate and maintain settler colonialism and in doing so, reconciliation will forever remain out of reach.

Deborah G. Young lives in Ottawa.

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