Today’s First Person is part of a week-long tribute to mothering.
First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
My family was always different than other families, no relatives living nearby, proud and solitary. Back then, Métis was just a word, something our ancestors were.
There were seven of us, my mom and dad, and five kids. We lived on a cattle ranch north of Fort St. John, B.C. Sometimes my mother made fry bread, twisting it into loops and covering it in sugar. Sometimes my dad and my brother would go hunting and bring back an elk, which we would skin in the shed out back. But the thing that really made our family different was the music and the dancing.
My mom would dance while she was cooking, twisting from the stove to the fridge to the sink. On stormy nights, with the wind howling outside, my mother would play the piano or the accordion or the guitar, or my parents would put on records – Elvis, big band music, Johnny Cash – and we would clap and dance and laugh. My parents would take turns dancing with all of us, and then we would sit around wide-eyed as they would dance, dad swinging mom around his waist, throwing her in the air, jiving and twisting.
At 17, I went the University of Victoria to study biology. I never moved back to Fort St. John. While I was away at school my mother died – long before I knew the questions I should have asked her. Questions about her life before us, about her culture, about being Métis. (By the time I knew what to ask, the years had passed, my dad had died and my siblings, full of our family’s roaming independent spirit, had scattered around the globe.)
Dancing became my escape, my solace, a way to beat back the darkness of the night, a way to connect with my family that was gone. I didn’t understand the wildness that came over me when I heard a drum beat or the music of an untamed fiddle, but I was thankful; it grounded me and made me feel real.
When I told my friends about my Métis background, the jokes began: “Are they only going to give you half of your degree?” Then three years ago, things began to change. There were words in the air that hadn’t been there before: Reconciliation. Residential schools. The Sixties Scoop. I didn’t relate these words to my upbringing, but for the first time I became aware of them.
When I went back to UBC for a master’s, I applied for a Métis scholarship, something I had never done before. I expected the scholarship award ceremony to be boring, and my adopted Cree sister came to keep me company. There were posters of things that are important to Métis people – community, music, humour and pride, things that I valued. I walked into a room full of people that looked like me – they were proud, sarcastic and emotional. I was given a Métis sash. On stage I saw a First Nations Chicken dancer, an Irish Sword dancer and a Métis jigger. They showed us how historically the dance of First Nations tribes combined with European dancing to form a new type of dance: the Métis jig. Of course I knew all the steps, I had been dancing them since I could walk. My heart raced as the fiddlers played, but still, I didn’t make the connection that I had grown up Métis.
My program at UBC had a mandatory class on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. We put on a Métis “kitchen party” show with spontaneous music, dance and poetry. We jigged. We sang to Johnny Cash and read from the wild, proud and angry poems of Marilyn Dumont. And still I didn’t make the connection that I had grown up Métis.
That changed when I moved to the Kootenay region of B.C. for a placement in my master's degree. I knew that my mother came from the area but her history was hazy. I’d heard that my mother’s childhood best friend lived in town, and I sought her out. She told me story after story of my mother and her Métis family. My mother had lived next door, the family was poor and she had a hard childhood. When things got too hard, she and my Mom would run off together. She showed me their favourite sitting rock surrounded with rosehip bushes. One of my most cherished memories of my mother is how she would pick rosehips and chew on them. I asked her how my mother came to be so kind and funny, despite their poverty. There was always music in the house, her old friend said, there was always dancing.
It clicked for me then, the connection. Métis wasn’t just something that my ancestors were, it something that I was, that I am. It was my culture, it was a life I had experienced. I wasn’t alone. I was in a clan of thousands who had shared childhood experiences. Music for us wasn’t just music, it was rebellion, expression and freedom. Music and dancing had carried my mother through a difficult time, just as they did for me, and as they did for Métis people historically.
When my mom was 12, she was sent to live with kind relatives in another town. She was smart and got good grades, she won dancing competitions, and at 17 she moved to Edmonton to work as a receptionist. She met my father, dancing.
Even though my mother left behind the family she loved, she kept their traditions. The sacrifices she made kept me from the negative aspects of her own childhood – the prejudice, the poverty and the hardship. Now, because of her strength, I can look on my Métis culture and celebrate it. My husband and daughter know the stories and honour them, too. My daughter even plays the fiddle and my heart sings when she plays.
My Métis mother was a brave, beautiful, wonderful woman, and I miss her.
Lareina Abbott lives in Calgary.