First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
Early in March, I was scavenging through the junk drawer of my kitchen for an object to write about as part of a course I was taking. I was determined to push myself in new directions just then, in writing and otherwise, so I was looking for a proverbial stepping stone. My search uncovered a small plastic container of loose tobacco. Finding it was a pleasant surprise. I appreciated the practical little container it was in: transparent, cylindrical, with a sealed lid, easy to carry in a pocket or a purse. But I could not remember when or from whom I had received the tobacco.
While I cannot remember receiving my tobacco, Indigenous awareness training is a regular part of my professional life, and I remember clearly when I offered it to others. Twice I have presented tobacco to Indigenous speakers and the gift was acknowledged as a symbol of appreciation for what was to be shared. I was nervous both times. I rehearsed in advance and still fumbled, doubting each word as soon as it escaped my mouth. I focused on my potential mistakes rather than the intended meaning and chose safe words while worrying they were not safe enough.
On close inspection, this gift of tobacco is weighty for such a small thing, a heavy reminder of the long and troubled history of what is now my home country. Perhaps that is why it has been sitting, forgotten, in a dark, enclosed space for months. Yet even though I have shown little respect for it by keeping it stored in a drawer, next to pens, a lighter and a twist of twine, it has not begrudged me on rediscovery. In fact, amid my continuing efforts to interconnect all significant aspects of my life, its unexpected presence in my hand was yet another gift.
As a Canadian-born child of Italian landed immigrants, I grew up believing that I belonged to the history and traditions of Italy, my parents’ homeland, rather than Canada, the place of their residence. I had little connection to Canadian history, and as an adult, I repeatedly chose to live in other places – Montreal, Toronto and Norfolk, Va. – for extended periods of time, which only distanced me further from my own place of origin. For many years, distance has been my answer to ignorance of the original people and history of this place.
My evasion around learning more about the First Nations of this land is no longer excusable, and my discomfort with the symbolic power of my gift of tobacco is unhelpful. I must take responsibility for what I did not know once and – in knowing now – can no longer ignore.
I choose to make Turtle Island my permanent residence since it sustains me and provides me opportunities. Throughout my life, however, I have had the bad habit of accepting less than that even within the privacy of my own home. I would move into a new place and wait months or even years before unpacking my boxes to convert rooms into a personal, comforting space. I practised this distancing from my own needs until about a year ago when I decided to start caring for and respecting myself and to seek the same care and beauty for the land surrounding me.
Rediscovering the gift of tobacco in my junk drawer felt akin to unpacking: In finding forgotten yet cherished items, I instantly remembered dormant parts of my past. My gift of tobacco is now a simple reminder of what must always remain unforgotten.
With this gift in hand, I acknowledge the original keepers of this land, as well as the ways they cared for it since time immemorial before settlers arrived. Their sacred care of the land has enabled me to live, work and write freely. I stand on the territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region of Southern Alberta: the Kainai, Siksika and Piikani First Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy; the Tsuut’ina First Nation; and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations of Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley. Treaty 7 territory is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and to all Indigenous Peoples whose knowledge I can learn from to celebrate these lands we now call Canada.
My gift of tobacco now sits on a shelf in my home, in a space where I write and reflect. The tobacco faces a southwestern window overlooking Calgary’s skyline; it compels me to look at the land ahead and unfold the history of the people who built their lives on it: the original caretakers and those such as my family who settled later. My personal story on this land is intertwined with yours and the paths we forge will cross again.
I am not sure what lies ahead for me, but from its new spot, the tobacco is teaching me the powerful gift of remembering as I walk forward and honour my true course respectfully alongside others.
Filomena Calabrese lives in Calgary.
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