Part one: Walking Bravely as an Indigenous Person
By Sharon Marshall
I had finally had enough. I could not take even one more abuse or inequity. I was 14 years old when I ran away from home. I was tired of the violence. I was weary of the injustices. And I was ashamed of my upbringing. I needed to remove myself from the pain of it all — to save myself. And because my parents didn’t teach us anything about our ancestry, I had no cultural teachings to grasp in times of need. In my escape, I felt all alone. I knew I was Native, which to me, meant I was dirty. I was unlikeable. I was an outcast. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I was highly embarrassed. I looked at myself the way most mainstream society did. I was disgusted and embarrassed. And I was tired of the way I was treated at home, so I left.
It changed my life forever. It most certainly changed my parents’ lives and that of our relationship. I went back to live with them two years later, choosing to ignore their past transgressions. My parents were happy to see me and treated me like an adult. The abuses and inequities were no more. I even noticed that they were kinder to my siblings, almost like they had done an about-face.
I wish I could say I went back and we lived happily ever after, but such was not the case. We were a broken family and I only stayed with them long enough to get my bearings and then off I went again, spreading my wings, searching for anything to fill the void I felt deep within me.
I spent most of my life denying my ancestry and I would spend most of my life trying to fill the emptiness I felt.
In my late teens and early 20’s, I fell in love too fast, I partied too much and I worked too hard, always in search of… something…
I remember on more than one occasion being in a room full of friends, looking at everyone and thinking to myself, “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.” I felt so alone and empty...
Fumbling my way through life in those early years, rudderless, I came close to death a couple of times, narrowly escaping harrowing experiences by following an inner voice that I remembered as mere whisperings as a child.
In my early 30’s, I was still running...running from poverty, running from abusive marriages, and still running from my ancestry. It didn’t help matters that my first two husbands were a racist and a bigot. Then, in my mid 30’s, I married for the third time and we had two children. It was what I wanted most in life, I yet never felt more alone. I felt desolate and isolated and completely removed from everything and everyone. I questioned who I was because I really had no idea. And the whisperings grew louder. Until they were no longer whispers. I sat in the silence and listened. With two small children and no idea how I was going to do it, I knew I had to leave, following my inner knowing —the one “voice” that I remember hearing my whole life, in times of deep despair.
It was at this time too that I realized I needed to reconcile with my past. Three years later, I was having a conversation with a Métis counselor in her early forties who was telling me a story about how her mother had revealed only a few years prior that she had been raised in a residential school. She managed to keep that secret from her daughter all those years. Apparently, they used to call residential schools boarding houses and convents. When she said ‘convent’, my mouth dropped! My mother was raised in a convent! And all of a sudden, all the horror stories my mother had told my brother and me when we were little, came flooding back. It was then that I finally understood where my family’s brokenness came from. I think I now understand why they never taught us anything about our heritage...
Recent news about the bodies of 215 Indigenous children found in a mass grave buried underneath the Kamloops Residential School has ripped the wounds wide open, exposing the ugly truth for the world to see. This uncovering reminds me of the hatred by others that I have felt for much of my life. As late as 2011, I recall the words of a manager I worked with, telling me, “The First Nations people of the community are the problem.” I was shocked he would say this to me, also knowing I am Indigenous. But I was not ready to speak up and so I stayed silent. A few weeks later, a colleague and friend (or so I thought), also a manager, knowing full well that I am Indigenous, reiterated what the other manager had said to me, quipping, … “The First Nations of this community are the problem —they are stifling progress.” Again, I was flabbergasted but said nothing. I left the organization not long after that.
I wonder what they would say to me now, and if they feel any emotions over this latest tragedy? I know that if someone were to make those statements to me today, I now have the courage to speak up and I would do my best to help them see what the problem really is. It’s taken me my whole life to get to this point.
If I had had some cultural teachings to lean on in times of need, perhaps I would have been better equipped to deal with those racist comments. Perhaps, at the very least, I would have had more self-esteem, and I know that many of my Indigenous brothers and sisters know exactly what I mean.
The most significant psychic breach we can have is losing our connection to our ancestors.
The Honourable Murray Sinclair, former Manitoba Judge and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission believes every Indigenous person must answer four questions in order to understand who they are. They are:
Where do I come from?
Where am I going?
What is my purpose?
Who am I?
These are questions I have asked myself my whole life…
Although I can say I spent my life running away from myself, what is intrinsic in me, my blood, my blood memory, throughout my life, has shown up in ways I am still realizing. Even when I was in denial, I was still being guided by Indigenous ways of knowing and being. I was still being guided by my ancestors.