I need to begin this series with a story about myself that I am not proud of. I grew up in a beautiful rural community in eastern Ontario. For reasons I do not understand, as a girl of about 7, I took a turn at mocking Linda Mindle, a sweet, gentle girl in my class, for being “Indian”. When my parents, who were farmers and active United Church members found out, there was hell to pay. I don’t remember the punishment, but I do remember the shame I felt for the cruelty of my actions. Then a few years later our parents adopted a one-year-old half- Ojibway girl from Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. I completely fell in love with her. She had curly black hair and black eyes. She was soft and chubby and slept snuggled in with me in our father’s boyhood spool bed. She was the baby sister I had always wanted.
Janine, is now married to Michael Chokomoolin, a Cree artist and is the mother of three fine young women. She is closely connected to us, her adopted family, and to many of her extended birth family and the community in which she was born. Her own nuclear family is deeply committed to the native ways that are honoured in the seasonal ceremonies.
Our parents had always told Janine she was special and had been chosen through adoption by our family. But life wasn’t always easy for her and if I am really, really honest, I know that; tied to the wonderful gifts she gave us and we gave her, there was a string attached to the idea that we had “saved” this child…and she should be damn grateful for it. Ya., I know. It’s a crazy dance that happens when you take on the role of saviour. Someone has to play “victim” for you (and be indebted to you) and someone else has to be a “tyrant” (often times there is a “rebel” nearby too). I hate to admit it, but in my mind Janine had been the victim, her parents the tyrants and we white folks the saviours.
But this dance of the tyrant, victim, saviour and sometimes rebel doesn’t work. Its movements are based on who I need the other person to be – not the truth of who they are or the truth of who they have had to become because of outside forces. In this dance we can’t create anything new together. We’re just locked in step – I do this…you do that. It is vastly different from being simply “a good relation”. “A good relation” seeks to understand the other person over and over and over again. They welcome the truth and they stand up for the other.
Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair is Anishinaabe and an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. In the newly-released Masculindians by Sam McKegney, he says, “Every part of Indigenous cultures – if we’re talking about anything pan-Indian – every single ceremony that I’ve ever been a part of is about being a good relation. There’s nothing more simple than that, or more essential. A good relative is not always an idealized romantic image either. It’s sometimes where you have to stand in front of a bulldozer. It’s sometimes where you have to stand up for the water or you have to remind others of the sacredness of the Earth. It’s sometimes where you have to make food. It’s sometimes where you have to open a door. Every single part of being an Indigenous person, in the most meaningful way that I know, is about being a good relative and about thinking of somebody or something other than yourself. “
So it’s not about being a saviour, a tyrant, a rebel or a victim, it’s about being a good relation. I have seen the power of that in our own family. I have seen the power of that in 19th-cent
ury Quaker reformer Lucretia Mott who went to great lengths to be a good relation to members of the displaced Seneca nation; to women, especially marginalized Irish immigrant-girls; and to African Americans, be they male or female, influential or enslaved.
I think it’s time all of us became good relations to the Aboriginal members of this Canadian family.