By : Sarah Koi
My name is Sarah. I was born in Vancouver on May 20th 1989 by a pure blooded, beautiful Nêhiyaw (Cree) woman. My mother struggled in Vancouver’s, ‘Streets of Plenty.” The intergenerational trauma of Residential School and the breakdown of family left an open wound that riddled my bloodline with addiction, abuse and sickness. She died from an overdose in 1995; I never got to meet her. I’m not quite sure if I was taken or given up at birth. Either way, my biological mother could not care for me, thus I was adopted into a European family.
This is my story as a colonized Cree. I had always considered myself to be white. I knew no other way of life. My parents are from Finland. They speak Finnish, think Finnish, and live their lives as devoted Christians. For many years, actually for the majority of my life- I felt perfectly comfortable being Finnish or white. I had no clue what an ‘Indian’ was. I only knew of Indians on Hastings Street, the scary kind. I grew up with absolutely no Aboriginal culture or peoples around me. I wouldn’t say I was taught that Indians were ‘evil’, but somehow I developed this belief as a young child. I remember seeing the Totem poles in Vancouver parks. I was afraid of the carvings. I remember hearing the beating of drums while camping near Kelowna. I covered my ears because the sound terrorized me. I wouldn’t say my parents are racist, but rather misinformed, or stuck in their influenced perceptions and ideas of Indigenous peoples and our struggle. They only see the statistics and thank God, Jesus, and Lord that I was saved from the savages! (No, my life has not been easy or handed to me– nor was I necessarily ‘saved.’ I was not immune to drugs, abuse and alcohol.)
During elementary and high school I faced exclusion and racism in different forms of physical, emotional and even spiritual abuse from students, strangers and church members. I remember being at private Christian schools and having basketballs thrown at my head, having my nose busted up and being called a “Chug” too many times to count. I didn’t have Cree pride to protect me. I couldn’t care less if someone was attacking my heritage. I was angry that I had the features of an Indian worthy of discrimination.
Around age 14 I began to lie about my identity. I would tell people that I was Portuguese or Hispanic. I even dyed my hair blonde and put blue contact lenses in. Looking back at that time in my life, I realize this self-hatred was the intergenerational effects of my Native history and policies of assimilation. “To kill in the Indian in the child;” this is exactly what I was doing to myself, and sadly no one stopped me. In May of 2009, I was invited to go up to Northern British Columbia to visit a friend and attend her conference. I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I remember getting off the plane in Terrace. It was awful. It was too “bush bush” for me. I grew up in the city, and I sure didn’t appreciate the lack of people, buildings and vehicles. I especially didn’t like seeing Native men and women walking around. I felt uncomfortable and out of place.
My friend worked and lived in Hazelton at the time. She was a non-Aboriginal woman yet she was well loved among the Nisga’s. She would meet weekly with elders and friends. That Tuesday evening she invited me to come feast among elders and community members. I remember the feeling of walking into the rancher; my heart was pounding at the sight of other tan-skinned, brown-eyed and brown-haired people. I was hoping that they would not recognize me as a Nêhiyaw– but of course they did. I desperately wanted to maintain my identity as a ‘Portuguese’ with my fancy, counterfeit blue eyes and blonde hair.
That evening, an elder, Sam Aksidan, spoke to me directly. I remember this man with long white hair and dark brown eyes. Sam and some elders came around me and began to pray for me in their language. How did this coffee time turn into something so sacred? Over and over they said, “Gala, Gala,” this means to “come back, come back to who you are.” He took his coat off and put it around me and I began to weep. Years of questioning, self-hatred and confusion began to pour out of me. My blue contacts slipped out and landed in my hands. I remember looking at them and wrapping them in my tissue and throwing it away. I became a born again Cree, so to speak.
Identity is the rudder to the ship of our lives. If you don’t have a functioning rudder, you’ll never get to where you are meant to go. I had a personal revolution. After the tears flowed and the snot dripped, and after many apologies and hugs, I stood up and left that rancher as a Cree. I was born a Cree, but it took me 19 years to accept being a Cree. In May of that year I went through a significant healing process and a journey of personal discovery. That May has since stretched into weeks and years. I am still on that journey- this is the journey of decolonizing. The more I learn, the more passionate I become about our people’s rights and about our culture and potential. I am forever grateful to Creator for giving me this gift; I hold it dear.
That time of healing is what gave me the desire to find my roots; my biological family. Since then, I have become a proud sister, aunty, niece; and even a daughter. I am coming up on my 4th anniversary of accepting my identity. These last four years have been incredible. I’ve met many Chiefs, leaders and grassroots change agents. I had the opportunity to work in a reconciliation initiative all across Canada. I’ve been so inspired by many. I have learned to speak some of my language. I had the opportunity to hunt on a trapline, and experience some of our traditions and ways of life. I am so thankful. I now have vision, and determination. I am a full time university student. My dream is to receive a M.A in Aboriginal Governance and Policy. I believe it is imperative that we as First Peoples take our rightful place.