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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

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My uncle approached my father and his siblings recently at a family barbecue. He announced he was changing his name and wondered if they would take offence. My mother and aunt shared they would not be offended and offered their understanding, despite the objection of at least one other sibling.

Upon hearing this, I felt inspired, filled with both gratitude and heartache. Heartache not from the changing of a name but from the fact that it was taken from him at such a young age. I’ve thought deeply of our names’ significance for years now – since I first learned what my name really was.

Why was this an issue? Why was this something that meant anything to my uncle at all? Why was his complicated relationship with his name something to which I could immediately relate? It may be helpful to know the makeup of my family, which is unlike any other I’ve known. It is a vivid representation of a larger picture for many Indigenous people across Canada. At the same time, it is the family in which I was raised, and they are the ones with whom I share many memories. I have come to feel proud and grateful for the numerous ways it has shaped me, painfully or otherwise.

My adoptive father comes from a large Mennonite family in southern Manitoba. I’m not sure when his ancestors emigrated. I suspect they were fleeing religious persecution, in search of freedom and farmland, as was the case with many Mennonites centuries ago. Fast forward to the mid-20th century and there stood my dad’s unique family. He had 12 siblings, and our extended family now easily surpasses 100. When I was a child, we rented a local high school gym for our Christmas gatherings. Summer was easier, as people could mix inside and out, while we children dared each other to touch the electric fence or played No Bears Out Tonight in the wooded backyard.

The family was large, which was common for Mennonites in that day. What was uncommon was the physical and cultural dynamic of our family. Years ago, I tried to count how many Indigenous family members there were. I lost count after 30. My aunt and two uncles were adopted as foster children in the 60s and 70s. My uncles are tall Indigenous men with long black hair. They can easily hold a conversation in Low German with every John Friesen and Henry Thiessen out there. Nearly everyone in our city knows my one uncle by name: I suppose that’s what happens when you grow up as one of the only Indigenous men in an overwhelmingly white community. My chest feels heavy as I think of the overt racism I know he experienced along with the internal shame I can only suspect he faced.

I was born to a young Métis woman in 1989 on the day of her high-school graduation. I was adopted through Manitoba Child and Family Services a few weeks later, after the mandatory time period during which she could change her mind. She did not. My name was changed and all identifying information was sealed for the next 20 years. I was welcomed into my new, blended family, including foster siblings and two of my male cousins who had been adopted months earlier. They quickly became my childhood best friends. We were all Indigenous and looked nothing like our pale, freckled parents. Upon learning at the age of 4 that I was adopted, it made intuitive sense to me. I think I had assumed so all along.

To be Métis, raised within a cultural framework that was drastically different than my own, created a complicated and lifelong internal struggle with my identity. Although we never speak of it, I suspect this is the reality for all my adopted family members as well. To complicate matters further, racial bias wove its presence through my family landscape. I know my parents love me. I also know they would think nothing of their offhanded comments regarding Métis people as distrustful or lazy, or of locking the doors upon seeing an Indigenous person while driving through downtown Winnipeg. I suspect they have never wondered how this might affect their adopted Métis daughter, but I wouldn’t know. I have never asked them.

It has been about 10 years since I learned my birth name, and I still hold it close like some hidden, unrefined treasure. To some, the significance in a name may never be pondered. Yet, when I learned my name, it felt as though a missing puzzle piece was finally fitted into my life’s mosaic. A question surrounding my identity was finally tangibly answered.

So many of my other questions have not been so easily solved. They’ve required plenty of personal work in the quiet of my home and the office of the psychologist I met as a resident physician. This one was finally answered. It legitimated my connection to my life before my adoption. It allowed me to claim a connection to my heritage and certified that my experiences as an adopted child were real. It linked me to this Earth and to my ancestors like nothing else ever had. There have been moments when I’ve, mostly playfully, toyed with the idea of making a formal name change.

At some point, however, I realized I also have an undeniable connection to my adopted name. I will never be fully one and not the other. I exist as a composite of my life experiences, as I do with my two names. I am Métis. I am also, at least a little, Mennonite. I understand my Mennonite patients, while also relating to my patients who are foster children living with white families. I nod when a patient answers my question with an “oba jo” and another describes their chest pain, which occurred during faspa, shortly after meddachschlop. With painful recognition, I look into the nervous eyes of the eight-year-old girl sitting in my office as her foster mother describes her behavioural issues. I love roll kuchen and summa borscht. Even more, my feet involuntarily move to the beat of any drum, and I’m discovering what spirituality means to me as I slowly dismantle the rigid framework I learned at a young age.

I feel the weight of all of that, and yet sometimes it still feels like I understand myself so little. The shame still awakens from its slumber every so often. Throughout my medical training, I considered this a weakness. I was never Indigenous enough to look like my adoptive cousins or some of my patients, and I was never white enough to relate to most of my classmates. With the reclamation of my name, however, I am claiming my identity while navigating my way through these two worlds. I suspect it will be a lifelong journey, but I’m thankful I’m further along and finding greater comfort in my own skin than I had at the start. I hope my uncle is able to do the same.

Brittany Penner lives in Steinbach, Man.