I admit it. I have deep-rooted and ugly prejudices about native people in Canada. When I think of native people, I immediately think of alcoholic, jobless and homeless people who abuse themselves and others in every imaginable way. For all of my life I have seen these images and I continue to see native people this way.
Here's the catch: I'm native.
I grew up in a small native community. My home was stereotypically native: abusive relationships dominated my younger years and permeate every aspect of my life today. My family, friends, and community have seen, and continue to see, disproportionate levels of murder, suicide, violence, sexual abuse, prostitution, alcoholism, drug addiction, emotional abuse, homelessness, and poverty and the criminality that follows from all of this.
We feel the intergenerational effects of residential schools, dislocation, and many other policies designed to civilize and assimilate us at best, and to exterminate us at worst. Every native person I know has, to varying degrees, lost his or her language, traditional knowledge, and sense of identity and belonging as native people.
I grew up in a town, province, and country that reinforced this as the dominant narrative about native people, except when we parade out a few traditional-looking natives to show off an integral part of the rich tapestry of the Canadian identity and imagination, and then congratulate ourselves for being so tolerant and multicultural.
When I moved to an urban centre to attend university, I noticed that the native people I saw in the city fit the stereotype: they were homeless, jobless, hopeless.
I was healthy, studious, goal-oriented, ambitious, and eventually I achieved my goals. Successful, I guess you could say.
As a result, I denied to others and to myself that I was native. It was the only way that I could process the cognitive dissonance that arose when I contemplated my success as a native person and the thought that in order to be a real native, I had to be all of those ugly things.
People around me reinforced that "success" and "native" were mutually exclusive concepts. Some said that despite my native heritage, I was a darn good student. A credit to my race! They were the well-meaning ones. The less sensitive people belittled me by making mean jokes about native people. In either case, they reinforced the idea that to be native, I could not be healthy, successful, and well-adjusted.
One of the hardest things for me to realize is that I have internalized these deeply-rooted prejudices about native people, and that I have to fight myself to shake them off. When I see a healthy, well-adjusted and successful native person, not only do I think that this is exceptional -- I find it hard to believe. Due to my internalized prejudices against my own people, I find it very difficult, and perhaps sometimes even impossible, to see excellence in native artists, academics, advocates, and even parents. One way to make sense of it is to conclude that these individuals are not "really" native. It's hard for me to realize and admit this.
However, the hardest thing for me to realize is how this goes beyond just me. I have spent the better part of a lifetime thinking about native identity. I am a native person who is "successful" by any measure you choose: I am physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally healthy. I have good relationships with family and friends, I have a rewarding career and financial stability, I contribute to my community, and I've been told that I am a role model to many. I have proven to myself, my family, and my community that I am just as capable of excellence as anyone else. But I can't quite make the connection that we native people are as worthy or capable as non-native Canadians.
I am not asking for your reassurance or pity. I am simply admitting that, despite my efforts to discard my damaging thought processes, I hold deeply-rooted prejudiced views about my own people, and indeed about myself. If I can admit this while being a person who embodies what it means to be a healthy and successful native person, then I wonder what the reality is in the minds of others, both native and non-native.
I know that there are healthy-minded Canadians who do not hold such prejudices about native people. But I know from experience that there are unfortunately many who hold the typical prejudices about us. Perhaps they have not turned their minds to this topic -- and who can blame them? Everyone has a limited supply of time and attention to devote to other peoples' problems. Maybe they haven't taken the time to speak to Elders, to listen to stories of trauma so typical of native people, or to read about the topic -- and who can blame them? Easy access to these resources might not be obvious unless actively searched out.
Canadian-Indigenous relations are complex and difficult, to say the least. Both sides foster distrust, racism, and hatred. I doubt, though, that non-native Canadians end up distrusting, hating, and holding racist views of themselves as a result of this poisonous dynamic in our relationship. In my experience, some native people end up with this self-hatred. Some of us believe that we're not as worthy or capable of excellence, we're not as deserving of love, security, health, prosperity, equality. The result is predictable: suicide, abuse of one's self and others, and powerlessness. Just look at any statistics about the socio-economic conditions of native people in Canada.
In admitting this, I believe it will help me to recognize thought patterns which reinforce my prejudices so that I may change my thinking. I believe writing helps me heal from these thoughts. I am targeting thoughts that you may not want to admit you might have -- and perhaps you don't, I do not and cannot know your mind. I do not cast moral blameworthiness upon you, for I know how difficult it is to recognize and admit this. I write this in the hope that shining light on this ugly part of our reality will help us to grow together and to build a more loving, inclusive, and equal society.
Lou James is a pseudonym.