Learning about my Indigenous Settler Roots and re-exploring my culture
TW: childhood abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, violence, Indigenous issues, residential schools, cultural genocide, hate speech, racism, trauma
Starting conversations about systemic racism
My voice was quiet, so my partner could sleep. It was well past midnight. I balanced my phone between my ear and my shoulder on my living room couch while reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers to my grandmother. The book was about several deaths of Indigenous students in Thunder Bay. To my surprise, she recognized many locations and even corrected my pronunciations a few times.
As a twenty-five-year-old former high school dropout attending college for the first time, I felt overwhelmed and curious. I was unaware of what systemic racism meant, although I suspected my family likely experienced it.
Despite being immersed in Indigenous culture as a child, I grew distant from it over time. Hearing words like “Anishinaabe” felt both foreign and familiar. Every chapter increased my interest in learning about my family’s history.
I Googled names of known relatives and found something would make me question what I knew about my Indigenous roots. There was an entire section on a Christian website dedicated to the Jesmer family tree.
The website contained bizarre findings of distant relatives who karate chopped the prime minister in 1969 or who starred as Catwoman in 1960’s Batman. There were tales of poisonings. Yet, most interesting to me was a man named Hérve Jasmin (Harvey Jesmer) who taught at residential schools. I felt angry thinking about how my people didn’t deserve to lose their cultural identities at the hands of a government initiative now seen as a key piece in cultural genocide.
Life as a white Indigenous child
The bang of drums pounded rhythm into my heart. My feet flew from our Earth. Hands on hips and head held high; I listened to men roar. The tantalizing metallic bells on my dress clashed together like tambourine rain. I felt alive and unafraid. Powwows had a habit of forming community and belonging. I was with my people. And we were dancing.
I have whiter skin than my mother or grandmother, but I grew up Indigenous. Eating fried bannock and Saskatoon berries, listening to tales of Turtle Island, and weaving dream catchers at our local Friendship Centre. Fancy dance and hoop dance regalia replaced my jingle dress as my best friend RaeAnne Harper and I performed across Saskatchewan.
I used to look at my mom with a smile on my face and say, “I want to grow up to be brown just like you, Mom.”
My mom also told me how RaeAnne once ate a leaf off the ground to prove she was a “real Indian.”
We laughed together. Powerful stories of warriors and ancestors living off the land influenced these naïve sentiments.
We didn’t understand racism or prejudice as children. That’s not to say we didn’t see skin colour or hear things — it just didn’t matter to us kids.
We were proud to be Indigenous children — even if we ignorant to what that meant.
People don’t need to know what intergenerational trauma is to be affected by it
Peppermint tea warmed my palms as my counsellor helped piece together my life’s patterns in her tiny office. There was an Indigenous painting on the wall and a note above her desk which read, ‘you are not a burden.’
I neglected counselling until my twenties. I needed it, and quite frankly, I needed it earlier. I became another Indigenous dropout statistic shortly after entering into Canada’s child welfare system at age 14.
There’s no centralized child welfare system in Canada. Animikii Ozoson handled my case, and my grandmother became my legal guardian. Similar to myself, almost one-half of all foster children in Canada aged 14 and under are Indigenous and twice as likely to live with their grandparents, according to Statistics Canada.
My counsellor and I discussed the broken branches of my family tree to understand why my life turned out the way it did. She asked my grandmother’s age.
“Your grandmother would have been alive during the 60s Scoop,” she said.
This was a pivotal moment for me because it was the first time someone made the direct connection between my family’s Indigenous roots and intergenerational trauma.
The 60s Scoop refers to a period when the Canadian government took Indigenous children and placed them into foster homes by the thousands, often without their parents’ knowledge or consent. It wasn’t a new practice considering the Indian Act had already been in place for nearly a century beforehand with its aimed efforts, as Duncan Scott declared, to eradicate the “Indian problem.” There’s still an overrepresentation of Indigenous youth within child welfare systems today.
I didn’t learn about the 60s Scoop until recently because of the lack of Indigenous history within Canadian school systems and society as a whole. Many of the challenges Indigenous Peoples face were, and continue to be, spoken about as if they’re not impacting current generations.
What is Seven Generations and intergenerational trauma?
I worked my first communications job in 2020 at the Canadian Mental Health Association. We spoke about empowering people and how lack of access to basics such as food, water, shelter, etc., can impact peoples’ mental health. We discussed mental illness and intergenerational trauma.
Intergenerational trauma is a term used by mental health professionals to explain how families can pass down trauma from one generation to the next.
It goes beyond learned behaviour. Studies have shown trauma affects us on an epigenetic level. Or, as my counsellor said — “trauma trickles down.” This is why it’s so important to learn about family history: to be able to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
There’s a traditional Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy called Seven Generations which many Indigenous tribes follow. Seven Generations considers both seven generations into the past and seven generations into the future when making decisions.
When I think about the Seven Generations philosophy and the impacts of intergenerational trauma, I have more forgiveness towards my family and more empathy towards myself. I think about my mother’s brown skin and the racist and prejudiced era she grew up in. I question if she abused me due to a resentment for my white skin and its privilege. Was that why she called me entitled?
We can’t choose our skin colour
My grandmother had a look of uncertainty from across the restaurant table. She fidgeted her fingers through her dark, wavy hair. She said she was growing it out — something she hadn’t done in my lifetime. She kept asking if it looked ok.
I looked down at my long hair. It was the first time I had my natural hair colour in almost a decade. Up until this point, I didn’t understand how people could tell we were family right away. I used to think we looked so different.
Did growing up in such a racist and prejudiced era impact my grandmother’s perception of her hair?
Whenever my grandmother spoke about residential schools, she often paused to say, “but others had it worse.” She told me how students’ voices hushed, and their spines straightened when teachers walked in. She told me how scared she felt.
“But I was one of the luckier kids,” she said.
It’s true. There are other Indigenous families who experienced far worse intergenerational trauma than ours.
My grandmother’s experience was different from other residential school survivors because of Harvey Jesmer. She said she didn’t go through the same physical or sexual abuse that many of her peers went through because we had a “Brother Jesmer” in our family.
She paints her experiences this way in order to avoid devaluing others who have faced more severe abuse.
I can’t help but think about all the times I’ve heard someone discredit their own experiences when I share mine. I’m an abuse survivor. Whenever someone devalues their own experiences, I’m quick to say, “look, it doesn’t matter if I’m drowning in an ocean and you’re drowning in a lake — we’re both drowning.”
In counselling, I learned bodies don’t experience trauma on a spectrum. Whenever there is a perceived danger, real or not, bodies react by going into fight-or-flight mode. They prepare for war. It’s eat or be eaten.
Many people grow up believing what they experience in their childhood is normal until told otherwise. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I learned later in life what happened to me is classified as abuse. There are still days I spend in disbelief despite once testifying against my mother to remove her guardianship. Having a definition doesn’t always make trauma easier to comprehend.
“The way other students and I reacted — it was the same. The ones who ran the seminars came, and everyone would stare at them. Fear came over me. I’d be quiet, look at the door and the teachers, and I’d get that funny feeling in my stomach,” my grandmother said.
In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) shared stories from residential school survivors. There are many documented tales of physical and sexual abuse. Children locked in cellars, handcuffed, beaten, neglected, and punished for speaking their language. They had to dress in European-style clothing, change their Indigenous names, and cut their hair.
Hair is spiritually significant and many Indigenous cultures believe it to be a connection to all living things. Some Indigenous Peoples only cut their hair when there’s a death in the immediate family as a way of grieving. Others believe it connects them to their ancestors. Some even believe it’s tied to the body’s nervous system. It depends on who you speak to because Indigenous culture is so diverse.
My grandmother said her friends used to ask if she wanted to run away together. It reminded me of how the kids in Seven Fallen Feathers ran to their deaths to get away from residential schools.
Running away from residential schools was common. Parents weren’t notified when the kids fled nor when they became sick or even died. Building issues and poor ventilation in the schools led to an increase in epidemics. Tuberculosis ran rampant.
I believe my grandmother’s experience of living through this racist and prejudiced era impacted her feelings about school. She never graduated high school. Despite the number of times my grandmother said she wished she finished it, she continues to avoid going back.
My grandmother said she didn’t go through as much as her peers because of our family’s connections. I still believe she went through a great deal despite her denial. A positive experience as an Indigenous person living through the residential school era is still living through an era in which cultural genocide is accepted.
The Indian Act era created a loss of Indigenous family history and identity
My family history is a massive puzzle that has taken me years to piece together. There were children out of wedlock. Abusive or absent parents. Children given up for adoption. Family scattered across the country. It was hard enough to keep track of everything before entering into the child welfare system. Memory loss is also common among trauma survivors.
So, I was ecstatic about finding the website about Jesmers dating back to the 1500s. It felt like I finally had answers.
Harvey Jesmer represented the privilege of my white skin. He was my grandmother’s uncle on her paternal side. He was also an oblate who taught woodworking and painting at several residential schools such as Muscowequan (Lestock, Touchwood), St. Philip’s, Fort Alexander (Pine Falls), Pine Creek (Camperville), and McIntosh.
I wanted to contact the website owner, Kevin Jesmer, to ask about Harvey. I felt a knot in my stomach. I worried about Kevin’s religious background — would he be willing to acknowledge the atrocities that happened to Indigenous communities? Or would he only be interested in converting me to his religion?
I decided to contact him anyway. I’m glad I did.
“There’s a way to believe in Christ without stripping peoples’ cultural identities away from them,” Kevin said.
I felt relieved. Kevin didn’t push his religion on me. We found common threads like how he attended Red River College when he was younger. It reminded me of Traditional Knowledge: how people are interconnected despite diverse life experiences.
“I grew up whiter than sour cream,” Kevin said, noting how his side of our family tree was full of pioneers and a missionary. We both agreed we had a lot of unlearning to do.
I found Kevin’s website valuable because I struggled to find records of my family’s history. It turns out this isn’t an uncommon experience among Indigenous Peoples.
“They [Indigenous Peoples] didn’t go by last names the way we do. That’s why you can’t go back that far,” Kevin said.
Governments needed last names to dispense resources into Indigenous communities, such as trading posts. The last name might simply be the name of the person running the trading post or the name of a Chief.
“Sometimes, the Catholic Church was the one keeping records. That’s why my family history is so extensive,” Kevin said.
Kevin’s website only provided information for my grandmother’s white paternal family. My grandmother’s Indigenous maternal family remains a mystery because my grandmother was separated from her family when she entered the foster care system around age 10.
Storytelling is necessary to Indigenous history and culture because, unlike Western society, which documents through writing, Indigenous Peoples primarily use Oral Tradition. The Indian Act and residential school era stole Indigenous language by cutting ties between Indigenous families and their traditional languages. This explains the lack of information regarding Indigenous family histories — especially those coming from broken families such as myself.
Knowing family history can help break the cycle of intergenerational trauma
It’s been helpful to learn the bigger picture surrounding my childhood trauma so I can move forward. I don’t hold the same anger towards my mother that I used to because I understand the larger context surrounding our actions. My mother’s anger was often a reflection of her failures and trauma. Our still-broken relationship is the domino effect of generations who repeatedly experienced trauma, shame, and systematic barriers. It’s bigger than both of us.
That’s not to say learning about my family history magically changed my relationship with my mother. We still don’t talk. I don’t think we ever will. But learning about my family history helped ground me and provided me with a stronger sense of identity. It allowed me to let go of baggage my ancestors hauled around for centuries. If I have kids, they won’t have to carry that. Even without kids of my own, I can still advocate a new normal for future generations.
Kevin suggested those interested in learning about or restarting their family history could find the oldest people they know, interview them, and systematically document their stories.
People can go onto sites such as Ancestry.com or look up obituaries. They often list names of people who attended funerals.
“Pace yourself. Make it a long-term project. I’m not sitting here every day looking up genealogy. Give it a 20-year-plan or more. Take it there, and you’ll be surprised,” Kevin said.
My experience suggests people may start to see the bigger picture.
I wouldn’t consider myself a history buff, but I took a free 12-week online course by the University of Alberta called Indigenous Canada. It was a great starting point for learning the history behind my Indigenous ancestry.
It can be hard to know where to begin looking for education and family history, but once people have it — it’s not easily taken away from them. It’s empowering.
Reconstruct history for future generations
When I first discovered I had a family member who taught at residential schools, I looked at my hands and felt ashamed of my white skin. I thought about how I’d grown distant from my culture. When I looked in the mirror, I was doubtful I saw the same Indigenous girl I did when I was younger. I felt ashamed of letting my culture go.
It became crucial for me to remember my roots and to remember our land. I started to think about Friendship Centres again and how good it felt to dance for our ancestors. But it became clear to me I wasn’t that little Indigenous girl anymore. I was an adult, and I needed to do the work to understand racism and prejudice better — or, at the very least, to try.
Some argue it’s a privilege to avoid educating yourself. As a former high school dropout, I can say it’s the opposite. Learning is a privilege. Refusing to acknowledge that denies class privilege and potentially contributes to the same problem it’s trying to solve.
No matter my education level, there will still be things I misunderstand when it comes to racial issues. I’m missing the knowledge of my ancestors. I avoid marginalization due to my skin colour, unlike my grandmother or estranged mother.
I have a massive privilege. I still have intergenerational trauma — these realities can co-exist.
Sometimes I feel shame for proclaiming I’m Indigenous. Would I better serve my Indigenous communities by quietly sitting down as another white woman with less of a voice?
I think about how much my grandmother has transformed during my journey over the last two or three years. I think about how she’s opened up about her life. Her hair grew long and spirited. My family has struggled to have a voice.
Maybe it’s better to have these controversial conversations and navigate the line between being Indigenous and being white.
There are small things I can do to re-introduce Indigenous culture into my life. I can support Indigenous businesses and creators. I can wear my beaded earrings with honour. But we need to go beyond that if we’re going to have an impact on future generations.
RaeAnne stopped eating leaves and became a leader in her community. She took a Native Studies course at the University of Alberta and stood in front of the Parliament of Canada for 2018’s Indigenize the Senate.
Based on my experiences, I believe the Canadian education system needs to continue introducing more Indigenous history into its curriculum. Canada needs to embrace accountability for its past beyond the Harper apology and the TRC. Part of this requires recognizing our past wasn’t all that long ago, and many issues continue today. The last residential school only closed in 1996. There are still thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. We need to continue to educate our youth. And we need to continue educating ourselves.
I wish more people could connect to their past. Not just thousands of years ago, but with people alive today. Those people have remarkable stories and teachings. My grandmother’s stories have humbled me. Imagine what we could learn by implementing Seven Generations and considering the role intergenerational trauma plays in our lives. What lost stories could we recover? What teachings could we bring to future generations?
Lastly, we must intervene. Bring up conversations. Talk about history. Help connect Indigenous Peoples to their ancestry by making simple personal connections like “your grandmother would have been alive during this.” My grandmother was.
It’s another late night. I’m on the living room couch again looking at photographs of me and my mother. Is reconciliation truly possible? Maybe. But it requires more than good intentions. Permanent change takes time, intentional focus, and knowledge.