Root Bound

Learning about where you come from is an important part of figuring out where you belong. But when I began unearthing the buried Métis roots of my family tree, inherited feelings of shame and guilt were also brought to the surface.

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I think of my grandmother every time I struggle to talk about being Métis. It’s a struggle she and I have both experienced, but for different reasons.

My paternal grandmother passed away in 2013. Our lives overlapped for 22 years, and in that time, I never once heard her even say the word Métis.

Whether it was something she was raised by her parents to believe, or something she internalized from the world she grew up in, my grandmother felt her Métis heritage was better left undiscussed.

My own struggle comes not from having Métis ancestry, but from being so removed from it. I’m white-presenting and was raised by my non-Indigenous mother of Scottish and Irish descent.

My Métis father was very present in my life during my early childhood, even after my parents separated when I was six years old. He would often pick me from school and stay with me at my mother’s house until she got home from work around dinner time. This changed after I turned 12 and was legally able to stay home by myself. After that, I would see him less often — mainly on major holidays and during the week or two I would spend with him during summer vacations.

I didn’t learn of my father’s Métis heritage until I was a teenager. I overheard a conversation between my father and his siblings about the process of applying for citizenship with the Manitoba Métis Federation. I remember wondering why nobody had talked about our heritage before. Maybe they had just grown used to it being an unstated fact.

I interviewed my grandmother when I was in Grade 2 as part of a family history project. The interview script my teacher had printed out included questions about our grandparents’ childhoods, where they had grown up, and about their ancestors and heritage.

I already knew my grandmother had been born and raised in Manigotagan, Manitoba. At that time, my father still took my brother and me out there at least once a year. When I asked my grandmother about her heritage, she talked about how my grandpa’s ancestors had come from Ireland and France. She said they came to Manigotagan to work in lumber and mining.

I was too young to catch the evasion, so I didn’t press her about her own heritage and ancestry. I continued on through my childhood with the belief that my mother’s family ancestry was Scottish and Irish and my father’s was Irish and French.

Over the past ten or so years, I have lost many of my connections with my father’s family. But even when I was young and still saw them regularly, I don’t recall our family having strong ties to Métis culture. This distance between myself, my family, and our history is a painful loss that’s left the roots of my spirit blunted and frayed. I can feel them stretching out, searching for comfort and connection.

Feelings of unworthiness and fears of not being Métis enough have made it difficult for me to talk about my family’s heritage and have kept me from beginning a journey of reclamation. But I don’t want another generation of my family to live with negative feelings about being Métis, or to endure the feelings of loss and isolation that come from not knowing where your roots lie.

The view from the steps of my grandparents’ cabin in Manigotagan, Manitoba.

My grandmother was born and raised on the northern banks of the Manigotagan River by her French-settler father and Métis mother. My ancestral grandmothers along her line of the family tree are of Cree descent, with roots in what are now Manigotagan and Hollow Water, Manitoba.

When I bathed in a large metal washtub outside my grandparents’ cabin during summer vacations, I was sitting only a few hundred yards away from where my grandmother was raised. The long stretch of riverfront land that once belonged to her father was passed on to my grandparents so they could build a home and start a family.

Over time, the land was divided up between my grandmother’s siblings. Their cabins and trailers spread along the strip of land, most within eyeshot of one another.

The yard behind my grandparents’ place sloped away from the cabin — a structure appropriately and affectionately known as ‘The Shack’ — down toward the riverbank. This is where the town of Manigotagan’s main dock once stood. Tugboats and barges would stop to refuel or deliver lumber to the community from the nearby sawmill.

During her 35 years in Manigotagan, my grandmother watched the community’s population boom with the opening of the nearby mine and sawmill. Her father operated a small store attached to the busy dock’s fuel warehouse. The town was a mix of Métis and First Nations families, with a growing number of white settlers who had come to work at the nearby mine and mill.

Norman Meade is a Métis Elder-in-Residence at the University of Manitoba. I reached out to Norman because he grew up in Manigotagan. I wanted to know more about what my grandmother might have experienced during her time in Manigotagan and to try to understand why she hid her Métis identity.

When we meet in his office at the university’s Indigenous Student Centre, Norman’s Jack Russell terrier, Whisper, is asleep at his side in carrying bag. I stare at the dog’s twitching front paw as I listen to Norman share his memories of growing up Métis in Manigotagan.

“You know, we were referred to as ‘Indians’ when we lived in Manigotagan. And we were okay with it. And kind of proud of it, I guess. But some people weren’t. There were some people that were not very proud of it. Some didn’t want to be seen as, you know, or to be called an ‘Indian.’”

Norman is a few years older than my father, but they lived in the town at the same time. Hearing him talk about tobogganing with my father when they were young, and about his father and my grandfather being close friends, is thrilling and somehow validating. Before this moment, my knowledge of our Manigotagan roots has only come from my family members’ stories and my own faded childhood memories.

When I tell him about my grandmother not talking about being Métis, Norman isn’t surprised. He tells me it’s not a term that was commonly used, and that there was prejudice against Indigenous Peoples in the area, even within Manigotagan’s Métis and First Nations communities.

“I remember coming to my first meeting here in Winnipeg, an ‘Indian’ and Métis meeting. That would have been in the 60s or so. That’s the first time I’d ever heard of the word Métis,” he says.

Norman remembers his parents, who are both Indigenous, not approving of his wife because she was from Hollow Water First Nation.

“They said ‘well, no, you shouldn’t marry her. You know, she’s from the reserve’. That’s just the way that it was back then. Like, we were not the same as the reserve people were and we weren’t the same as the white people were that ran the companies in Pine Falls or Bissett. You know, we were different.”

In Cries From a Metis Heart, Dr. Lorraine Mayer uses poetry and prose to share her life’s experiences as a Métis woman. Dr. Mayer was born in The Pas, Manitoba, and is now a professor at Brandon University.

Early in the book, Dr. Mayer describes how watching her mother hide her Métis identity affected her own identity and sense of self-worth. She recalls watching her mother use makeup to cover her Indigenous skin and walk down back alleyways to avoid the eyes of prejudiced neighbours.

She also writes about the confusion and identity compartmentalization that many Métis people experience. She describes a childhood of feeling disassociated from both sides of her family — not white enough to gain approval and acceptance from her father’s family but conflicted about taking pride in her Indigeneity because of her mother’s shame.

As I read Dr. Mayer’s book, I wonder if my grandmother was the first in her family to hide her Mètis identity. Her mother, my great-grandmother, died when my grandmother was 12 years old. Did my great-grandmother raise her daughter to believe that being Métis isn’t something to be proud of? Or did losing her Métis mother so early in life sever her ties to Métis culture?

Photos of my grandmother in Manigotagan, Manitoba.

The first time I ever saw a photo of my grandmother as a young woman was at her funeral.

We gathered in a legion hall in Winnipeg to celebrate her life. Framed photos of her were displayed on a long banquet table. I had never realized how much we look alike.

I have been told many times that I look exactly like my mom, and I do see the resemblance. But in the young face of my grandmother, my father’s mother, I saw all the parts of my face that don’t match my mom’s. Before that moment, I had always just seen these features as being “not like my mom” rather than seeing them as something I inherited from my father’s side.

And while I look like my mom, there have been many times in my life where I felt quite separate from my mom’s family. Her siblings, my aunts and uncles, are well-mannered people who own cars and homes and hold well-paying steady jobs. They dress well, travel regularly, and get along with one another. I grew up going to family dinners with them nearly every Sunday night.

I struggled with mental health issues throughout my childhood and adolescence. I began using drugs and alcohol to cope with these issues when I started middle school. These experiences are not something I saw reflected in my mother’s family, and so I quickly learned to hide my struggles in order to continue fitting in around the family dinner table.

My father’s family didn’t have dinner together often but would gather for major holidays like Christmas. After the holiday meals, our family would split up — the smokers would move down to the basement while the non-smokers stayed upstairs. I can’t remember how old I was when I started joining the downstairs gathering, certainly younger than I should have been, but I do remember feeling a sense of camaraderie and belonging around the basement’s old card table.

My father, aunt, and uncles would all sit around and smoke and drink and laugh together, with my father’s burned CD collection playing on a small boombox in the corner. While I don’t recall my aunt and uncles ever specifically talking about mental health or addictions, they did talk about the struggles in their lives.

They were very open about their faults, failures, and shortcomings. They talked about relationships that had gone wrong, financial troubles, and whatever else had happened throughout the year. Hearing my relatives speak so openly about what they were going through made me feel a sense of belonging I had never felt with my mother’s family.

Norman listens patiently as I explain my feelings of anxiety about reconnecting with my Métis heritage. I tell him that even though I feel driven to explore and learn about my ancestors, I feel a gut-twisting fear that I am treading upon ground that is not mine to travel.

“You have to be led by the spirit, and the spirit will never lead you to the wrong place. But it leads you to the mysterious part of your life. The things that you don’t really understand. And your anxiety is tied to that,” he says.

He tells me to be like an ant. Ants go over or under or around any obstacle they encounter on their path.

The obstacles I’ve encountered so far along my path have come up during attempts to reconnect with some relatives on my father’s side. Some I’ve met and spent time with in the past, and some I’ve never met but heard stories about growing up.

Before I reached out to them, I felt anxious and guilty about trying to establish a connection with these members of my family. I worried that they’d see my attempt to connect as an intrusion or that they’d be suspicious of my intentions. I feared the distance between us had grown too far to bridge. When I reached out to my cousins and my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, my calls and messages went unanswered.

It felt like a rejection and fuelled my anxiety that in trying to reconnect with and reclaim this part of myself, I am trespassing. But what hurts more is the idea that through these attempts I’ve created further distance between myself and my family. I worry that these members of my family see my desire to build a relationship with them now as too little, too late.

The few parts of our family history that I know have come to me through my father. But his knowledge is limited to what my grandmother was willing to share with him. I worry I won’t be able to reconnect with family beyond my father, and that I’ll be left with unanswered questions and parts of myself that I may never fully understand.

Norman tells me he didn’t know about his own roots when he was my age. He says learning about mine will anchor me, that my roots are who I am.

“You gotta know who you are so you can feel good about who you are. You have to know where your roots go,” he says.

“And your ancestors that were there before you want you to go further on this path. And you should go further on that path. Don’t be afraid to go, just go. Follow your spirit there.”

My grandmother and her sister dancing in their kitchen while their brother plays the fiddle.

I call an old friend who is on their own path to connect with their Métis heritage. We commiserate about impostor syndrome and compare notes about things we’ve learned from Elders and Métis community members.

Jai Malowski only recently learned of their Indigenous ancestry through a journey that began with a DNA test. They were adopted at birth and raised by non-Indigenous parents in Winnipeg. When Jai opened the email with their Ancestry DNA results, their world changed within a matter of moments.

When they were adopted, Jai’s parents were told by the adoption agency and the government agency that had removed them from their birth mother’s care that they were a white child of Polish and Ukrainian descent.

As Jai began contacting the DNA matches listed in their profile, they quickly found their biological siblings who told them about their Indigenous birth mother.

They’ve spent the past two years connecting with lost family members and learning about their ancestry. Jai is the first person I’ve spoken to who can relate to my fears and anxieties about not being Métis enough.

“Honestly, after being raised my whole life to think I was white, coming into Indigenous spaces is awkward for me and I feel so weird about it. I’ve got some kind of, like, identity complex about the whole thing because I don’t feel like I fit anywhere.”

Jai tells me about a hurtful, dismissive message they received from an uncle they were trying to connect with. I tell them about getting blocked on Facebook by my cousin. Jai tells me I need to grant myself the same amount of grace and understanding that I give to others.

“You learning about your culture, your heritage, you as a person, does not make it harder or impossible for somebody else to learn about themselves. Take up the space that you take up.”

I smudge at home for the first time. I set up the space as best I can and place loose sage into a stone bowl.

I think of my grandmother as I light the small pile with a match. I wonder if she ever smudged, or what she thinks of me doing it now.

I let the smoke wash away the self-doubt and fear of rejection that have been clouding my mind. As I pull the smoke in toward my chest with my hands, I ask Creator for the strength to accept that I may never find all of the answers to my many questions about my family’s roots.

I thank my ancestors and Creator for this path that I’m on, and for guiding me to the right people to help me along it.

Headshot photo of Marshal Hodgins

Marshal Hodgins

Marshal (he/him) is a father, a deep thinker, and an avid tea drinker. He loves learning about other people’s lives and experiences, especially within the controlled structure of a journalistic interview.