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Opinion: My First-Nations Identity Feels More Like An Absence

A First Nations rally participant in Toronto, Canada, December 2012.
Steve Russell
Toronto Star via Getty Images
A First Nations rally participant in Toronto, Canada, December 2012.

As a child in elementary school, I hoped that my First-Nations heritage would give me supernatural abilities like uncommon tracking skills. Many Native sidekicks in movies and TV seemed to have the power to discern in the smallest detail what had passed their way. I remember sitting on a large yellow carpet with my classmates, convinced that I could sense when our teacher was about to return from the bathroom.

It has taken a lot of growth to free myself from the superficial fantasies and deep-rooted anxieties about what it means to be First Nations. For too long, those fantasies ensnared me thanks to the images of Native peoples belonging only in the past or on reservations, dead or in poverty. My identity is complicated by the fact that I have the privilege of passing for white, which means that I am never a direct target of interpersonal racism or ever suspected by colleagues as having "an agenda" when I introduce Native voices into my middle-school classroom.

My First-Nations heritage, Oneida, which is part of the Iroquois Confederacy, comes from my paternal grandfather Leslie Roy "Big Jim" Doxtdator. The Canadian government recognizes me as a status Indian under its Indian Act, which for generations stripped legal status from Indian women who married white men. (Before I could comfortably start writing this essay, I searched the house for my status card, which makes me legally Indian in Canada for five years at a time.) When I left Canada, I never renewed it, and it now sits in my wallet, of no use to me in Belgium, where I have lived and worked for the past five years.

While I feel very geographically detached from my family, I hadn't much thought about the nomadic history of First Nations people when I moved overseas. It turns out that my Oneida ancestors, after New York State reduced their lands from six million to a few hundred acres, moved to Ontario in the 1840's and bought their settlement on the Thames River near London.

My more distant Oneida ancestors were betrayed by broken treaties, which didn't stop many First-Nations peoples from fighting in the World Wars only a few generations later. Both of my grandfathers, Big Jim and Harry Edwards, of Welsh descent, passed through Belgium on their way to liberate Holland and Germany. In his war records, one lieutenant described Big Jim as "a better than average Indian lad."

While at times I feel disconnected from my First-Nations roots, too often I lose sight of the interconnections that I have through my family. My father worked as a probation officer for youth for over three decades, and many of his charges were from the Six Nations reserve in Canada. Though he never really talks about it, I know he helped a lot of people. I remember travelling to a school for a basketball game when I was in 9th grade. Someone from the other team came up to me and said, "Hey, I recognized you. Your dad has a picture of you on his desk." I waited to hear something menacing, but instead he said, "Your dad's helped me stay out of detention and in school."

I am thankful for what my family made me, but my personal nomadic story is nothing like that of my ancestors.

After studying philosophy in college, I fell into teaching it at an alternative high school in Toronto. In my first year, I got it all wrong. Quite simply, I took some contemplative questions, started way back near the beginning, possibly with Socrates, and traced the debate up through the present. ("What's knowledge? What's justice? What's truth? Now, let's hear what John Locke has to say.")

Years of studying philosophy made me feel sure that I had a discerning and educated eye for the naive mis-readings in high school textbooks. For my course materials, I carefully read through my bookcases, selecting the most interesting and lively passages from great western male thinkers. Not only did I reproduce a syllabus full of mostly privileged white men, but I reproduced a syllabus filled with their questions, their writing styles, and their elevation of dispassionate logic above emotion.

To my utter regret, it took years for me to recognize that once a dominant frame is applied to an issue an important operation of power has already transpired. And, as a teacher who is also First Nations, I was complicit because of how I prepared and carried out my lessons.

My central mistake began as a mis-framing. Before I ever stepped into a classroom for the first time, I should have taken Aboriginal studies courses, spent time developing an educated eye for my culture, and sought out chances to connect with other First-Nations youth. I didn't do any of that because I would have felt shame to enter the spaces where other First Nations people live and thrive and admit that I have no sense of my culture.

In the classroom, I have started to break my reluctance to speak openly about my First-Nations roots because I want to clarify what stake I have in discussions about equity. But I feel more like I was hiding my ignorance of my roots than my roots themselves. But middle-school students value it when teachers open up and become vulnerable, and increasingly I feel like I need to reciprocate since they share so much of themselves with me in their writing.

One of my favorite stories to teach, "A Coyote Columbus Story" by Thomas King, features anachronisms, like Native people shopping and going on vacations before Columbus arrives, but it tells the often untold truth that Columbus kidnapped and sold Native people. The story both counters the familiar narrative that valorizes Columbus as a heroic explorer, and it also crosses the boundary that aligns realism with truth against the magical and fantastic. We restrict our imaginations when we go to trusted forms in search of comfortable meaning.

My identity as First Nations and as a teacher build on one another. Reflecting on my past teaching mistakes has made me more reflective about who I am. Sure, part of teaching is a performance, pretending to be in a better mood than I am some days, being patient even when I face personal struggles. But the real work of teaching involves making the world, and myself, knowable to students. The last time I taught Thomas King's story, my voice wavered near the end as we read it.

Indigenous stories are ongoing, not simply legends from the past. I don't want my students to have the distorted idea that First-Nations people have vanished or are not "modern." Not only do I live this truth, but increasingly realize that my life gives shape to this truth.

Benjamin Doxtdator lives, writes, and teaches in Brussels, Belgium. Follow him @doxtdatorb

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Benjamin Doxtdator