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Becoming me

By Jesse Thistle • August 06, 2019Open Your Mind

"I used to listen to Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand in high school. I’d heard Hendrix was a quarter Cherokee and tried to connect with my own lost indigeneity through his music."

From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way by Jesse Thistle

In this extraordinary and inspiring debut memoir, Jesse Thistle, once a high school dropout and now a rising Indigenous scholar, chronicles his life on the streets and how he overcame trauma and addiction to discover the truth about who he is.

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I used to listen to Jimi Hendrix’s Castles Made of Sand in high school. I’d heard Hendrix was a quarter Cherokee and tried to connect with my own lost indigeneity through his music. Part of the song is about a young Indian boy who dreams of becoming a warrior but is killed before he can prove himself in battle. I always imagined myself as that boy growing up, hit by tragedy before proven a Brave.

My early childhood in Saskatchewan was rough. By the time I was three, my Métis-Cree mother had left my Algonquin-Scot father, and our family fell apart. My two older brothers and I wound up in Children’s Aid before my paternal grandparents, Jackie and Cyril Thistle, stepped in and raised us in Brampton, Ontario. The circumstances around the transition remained shrouded in lies for many years. My father’s relatives told us various things to shield us from the truth, as usually happens with kids who are adopted. Some aren’t told anything at all. It wasn’t until I started seeing a psychologist while writing my memoir, From the Ashes, that my traumatic experiences become clearer. The total loss of identity and human connection I suffered at such a young age was, however, unforgettable.

Parents teach children a more complex sense of self—where one is from, what your heritage is, what your family history is, and what that all means within the society in which you live.

Parents, mothers especially, are the great socializers of humanity. They teach infants and children touch, language, and all the foundational knowledge we need to function as healthy adults. Your mother’s body is, quite literally, your first home, your classroom and library. The way it smells, feels, and sounds, and the protection it affords—all of that is data transmitted through conscious and unconscious communication. Mother-child contact forms the bedrock of our social and emotional programming. Fathers do some of the socialization work, too, and represent our first superheroes. Their strength and ability to provide and protect create a harbour where the family unit can safely anchor and survive through the years. But both roles are interchangeable and can be done by one person independently if need be.

Parents also teach children a more complex sense of self—where one is from, what your heritage is, what your family history is, and what that all means within the society in which you live. Think of all the stories your mom and dad told you of where your people are from, what they went through, and the struggles they endured. An example: Jonny heard from his mother that Grandpa Irving was a Jew from Poland who went through the Holocaust but survived and found his way to Canada where he started a carpet business, and everyone lived happily ever after. These kinds of family stories are called metanarratives, and they’re the compass you and your people use to know yourselves in the world—they lionize past struggles, make sense of family trauma and dysfunction, and also give you and all your relatives a sense of purpose that orients you in a positive way towards the future.

Now, try to imagine that you don’t have any of those stories, or compasses, no navigational tools in essence through no fault of your own because of processes like adoption, abandonment, being stolen from your family, or the immediate death of your parents or grandparents.

For Indigenous kids like me and my brothers, taken from our parents during the formative years, that’s how it is starting out— total social and emotional disorientation from childhood that lasts for the rest of our lives.

And try to imagine that your history was totally dismissed or never acknowledged or even written down by historians or the mainstream— as has happened with Indigenous peoples in Canada. Residential School— get over it. Loss of land and sovereignty— you lost it fair ’n’ square. Genocide of Indigenous women and girls— didn’t happen. Bison slaughtered and your people purposely infected with smallpox— who cares.

You’re starting to get the picture, I think. You’d have no sense of yourself and no sense of your family’s history—what nation you come from, your language, your religion, your culture, or what Grandpa Irving did or went through during the Holocaust. No one would even acknowledge that the Holocaust occurred, or that being Jewish was okay. Moreover, beyond the higher orientation stuff like history and culture, you lack basic mother-child connection skills, so you don’t even know how to trust or love others because you weren’t taught those things in childhood.

Well, for Indigenous kids like me and my brothers, taken from our parents during the formative years, that’s how it is starting out—total social and emotional disorientation from childhood that lasts for the rest of our lives. I know we were lucky—our grandparents stepped in, raised us, and gave us a partial sense of who we are. But they couldn’t teach us what it meant to be Métis-Cree, nor could they love us like a mother or father could.

Grandma never talked about what it meant to be Algonquin. Her father, Great-Grandpa David, had gone to residential school, according to family oral history, and had most likely been taught that his culture was nothing to be proud of. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Indigenous kids like him taken during the Residential School era, the ’60s Scoop, or now the Millennial Scoop and raised in loveless environments. Operations during which the Canadian state felt it was their place to swoop in and “rescue” Indigenous children from their parents’ supposed cultural backwardness, squalor, irresponsibly, and poor hygiene habits, or whatever other fantasies social service officials told or now tell themselves to justify the abduction of Indigenous children.

They don’t get stories of how their family struggled, what their peoples’ history or culture is, or what their Nation had to endure; stories that are crucial to understanding themselves as Indigenous people in larger society.

Those kids grew up like I did and are growing up like I did— they don’t get the lower or higher social and emotional programming they need to function. If they’re like me, they look around themselves for explanation as to why their skin is darker than everyone else’s, where the hell their parents are, and why the other kids make war whoops every time they go to defend themselves in the schoolyard. They ask themselves if it’s their fault their family isn’t together anymore.

They don’t get stories of how their family struggled, what their peoples’ history or culture is, or what their Nation had to endure; stories that are crucial to understanding themselves as Indigenous people in larger society. They, in essence, have no compass.

Instead, they learn what it means to be Indigenous from the media or from Eurocentric and broken education and institutional systems, which—until very recently—taught only negative stereotypes about Indigenous peoples. They pick up these toxic references and form themselves anew from a bricolage of cultural parts; a Frankenstein of identity that isn’t based in reality but rather from what they’re taught and what society imagines them to be.

It’s little wonder I ended up living out all these false tropes of Indigeneity until I was in my thirties.

I learned to be “Indian” from the strangest places: Dances with Wolves, Conan the Barbarian, and Jim Morrison pretending to be an Indian shaman, among others. And enter Jimi Hendrix, my acid experiences, and wanting to be a warrior in high school. It wasn’t until I got to university, years after I’d almost died on the streets and jail, that I realized I didn’t have to prove myself in battle or take drugs to be proud of who I am.

I also realized that I wasn’t “Indian” at all; I’m a mix of Métis-Cree-Algonquin and Scottish and that it’s okay that I was confused about my identity and afraid of love— these were the consequences of childhood trauma, and I was actually normal. And that is the real Indigenous experience for people of my generation who were adopted out.

In knowing that, I came to heal and move forward in a good way— finally. I came to be more than just a tragic character cast on the larger stage of Canada. I came to be myself.

JESSE THISTLE is Métis-Cree, from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He is an assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto. He won a Governor General’s Academic Medal in 2016, and is a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a Vanier Scholar. He lives in Toronto. Visit him on Twitter @MichifMan.

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