I had written this at 19 years old in 1995. The university class assignment was to write about what Cree identity meant to us. This was the result of that assignment:
I have a general knowledge of my First Nations culture and the various traditions. I have lived my twenty-one years in brown skin and acknowledged my First Nations background. I have come to realize that my Cree identity has not always been so clear as it is today. When I was growing up I knew little about the Cree identity I carried within my mind, until I realized that my Cree identity was in my soul.
As a child I remember feeling proud of my brown skin. The color of my skin made me feel important and special. My family always lived in the cities but made many trips back to my reserve. As a child watching cities become larger, I made my reserve my only home. I felt like one with the land as we pulled off the highway onto that long stretch of dirt road. That road would become steep and then high making butterflies in my tiny stomach, and I would laugh until we reached the house where my Grandparents lived. Looking back on this now I realize that I felt Indian then because the land made me happy. I felt embraced and nurtured.
I grew up with the pow wow and the many faces of my people. The bright color of the dancers and the pounding heartbeat of us all in the drum amazed me. I remember how my parents would ask me to dance pow wow for them and without a second thought I would. I remember falling asleep next to my parents in the tent as the music of the pow wow sang me the greatest of lullaby’s. This was the Cree Indian I knew I was a part of.
As an adolescent my Cree identity would be put to the test. The high schools I attended were mixed. Somehow I still ended up feeling like the minority. Though I was never ashamed or lied about my Indian blood, I never spoke out in class when the subject came up. I was annoyed and angry studying a thick history book where there were only a few pages of First Nations history. I grew up learning every racial slur towards First Nations, but never really learned my First Nations history. I knew the stereotypes that society made against First Nations and all around me every First Nations person fell into this trap. At the age of seventeen I was the first in my family to graduate high school without dropping out or voluntarily losing my culture.
Living as an only child and having an extremely disciplined, sheltered, overly protected, and spoilt lifestyle, I knew I was incredibly naïve. A few months after my graduation I made the decision to move to my reserve against my parent’s wishes. The place I choose to learn about life was my reservation. I knew before I moved there that there was extreme poverty, over-crowded household, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and isolation. This was nothing I was accustomed to, but I knew that these things would teach me many realities about life.
Once there I went on welfare because there were no job options. I began to learn many lessons of reservation life. The drinking came first and there was no avoiding its effects. You learned to read the signs before my family drank and hid in fear when they did. I remember many nights laying in the darkness terrified of my drunken relatives. Listened, party after party, of all the bad words they had to say about you. I began to believe those bad words which only made it easier to fall victim to alcohol. It bothered me to know that my family became white society’s stereotype of what a First Nations person is supposed to be.
The second lesson of reservation life crept up on me too fast. The violence became all too well our Indian lives. My drunken blacked-out uncles would scream “I’ll kill all of you!” as they tore the house a part. I remember my bedroom door being kicked in at any hour of the night or day. Waking up to the house upside down, cleaning it up before they woke up to start drinking again. I began to accept that this is how it is, as I would walk over my passed out relative on the floor. I had to listen to my uncles in a drunken state trying to sing pow wow or watch helplessly as they burned a whole sweetgrass on the stove. Walking down the same road that once made me laugh, trying to talk my cousin out of suicide. Then there came the domestic violence. I remember running with my sister to the neighbours in winter to phone the police. The white police officers would take their time arriving and I could see the disgust they held for us in their eyes. Too many times I woke up to find my sister with a closed purple eye. All the while thinking that this not how First Nations should live and not being able to do anything to solve it.
The third lesson was the easy access to drugs and its addiction. We would all gather around the knives on the stove and inhale the hash oil. First Nations sold it and First Nations bought it, and I accepted that. I remember smoking the drugs day and night for months on end, along my fellow First Nations. Most of the time I would be alone all night -high. Watching the sun come up to reassure myself that there was another day for me. The alcohol and drugs were just another part of the family tradition. At times drugs even took the place of food, which was rare anyway.
The one lesson that just about broke my spirit was the isolation. I once loved my reserve but I realized that this was no place to harbor a soul. I felt alone and there were so many people around me. The emptiness we saw each day was who we had become. The darkness of night I saw outside was the same darkness that would blanket my Cree soul. I lost hope many times and I accepted that this was Indian life. There was no escaping the addictions or the dependency on welfare.
The breaking point would come when my uncle was almost killed in a car accident while he was drinking. Hours before he was drunkenly harassing us to go with him and his drunken pals. We said no and went back to bed. I did not want to end up another First Nations statistic. So I swallowed my pride and moved back home. For some reason or another I would return to my reserve again. My reserve had remained the same but the effects on me would worsen. I was nineteen when I came to visit my parents; it was this visit that I would register for university. I made the decision in a blink of an eye and it scared me.
I was full of despair and rage at the life I had created for myself. I blamed the world for not helping me out. I was completely lost, confused, and jaded. My life felt like it was spiraling and I lost my way. I believed that this is how First Nations are supposed to feel. Instead of trying to solve any problems out on my reserve, I just added to them. There was no place to go in life any longer and I knew I was hiding from life out on the reserve. It was then I remembered that I had made a commitment to my parents to attend university. I knew I would not have left the reserve if it were not a commitment to me.
That fall I began classes at a cultural university. The university opened my eyes to many interesting aspects of life. The knowledge gave me back the breath of life I was searching for. It also gave me back my hope in myself and in the world. My cultural awareness was heightened further while learning about my traditions, culture, and Cree history. This was my first experience being taught by elders and they made learning easy and enjoyable. The knowledge gave me back my Cree identity but not without it being difficult.
The first few semesters in the social work program focused on who we were and at the time I did not have a clear answer. I had changed since the days of childhood but I did not expect to have to examine that change. My Cree identity is who I am and without all the new information I received from the university I would not have grown as much. Now when non-First Nations discuss First Nations issues I have solid information to present. My low self-esteem had also been raised from my strengthening Cree identity. I am not only proud of my Cree history but also proud of myself for learning about it.
My Cree identity is spiritual and strong. Having a firm belief of one’s culture and the identity that results from it creates a powerful peace inside. A peace that you know no one can take away or destroy. There is a sense of calmness in your life and a great respect for the Creator. It is a feeling of belonging in this enormous world, an acceptance of the path in life which you lead. Cree identity has a lot to do with the connection one feels with the Creator. The peace and calmness I have had from time to time in my life has been a gift directly from the Creator.
I feel that I have gained a solid hold on my Cree identity because I do not feel lost anymore. The pride of my background gave me a place in the world. The knowledge that allowed me to strengthen my identity is the key to understanding my past. I feel that being Cree means to live without regret but yet in the acceptance of one’s self. There are no mistakes in life, they are only stepping stones to the person you will become. A Cree person is also accepting of others and beliefs they hold. Cree identity to me is having pride in being First Nations. It is having the strength to stand up to prejudice and racism but still be able to have compassion for that racist person. Cree identity is keeping one’s head held high under any circumstance. I have pride in my culture because I know from what my people endured in the past that we are all survivors.
Cree identity to me is respecting Mother Nature. For me, this respect is shown to the Creator by acknowledging the nature that is sometimes overlooked. I remember as child I would walk in the middle of a field just to try to absorb as much of it as I could. I have noticed how a lake can reflect the beauty of the sky. A First Nations person learns to listen for nature’s sounds that do not make any noise, like the rising sun and the passing clouds.
As a First Nations child I grew up experiencing all the beauty and energy my culture has to offer. As an adolescent I learned to be First Nations was to be proud and strong even in the face of adversity. My reserve days taught me that the First Nations "will" is resilient. The cultural university education lent me the wisdom to break the stereotypes for our people. Throughout my young life I have worn many masks. I am finally living life without masks. What lies underneath is what I truly am...Cree.