When my oldest brother was 10, he stood up in class one day and told the teacher she was wrong. When he refused to apologize, he was sent to the principal’s office. My mother was called in and told her usually polite and well-behaved son had been so rude and disrespectful to the teacher that he was going to be suspended.
After being told the story of what he had done, she promptly asked my brother why. He replied that the teacher had been going on about how Indians were all lazy and drunk. My mother was so filled with rage that she began to shake. She turned to the principal and gave him such a tongue lashing for allowing teachers to say such blatantly racist things that even a ten-year-old child knew were wrong, and how dare he threaten to suspend her son for standing up and speaking the truth.
It went further than that though, because it turned out that the school textbooks at the time were riddled with racist misinformation. My mother immediately took the matter up with the board of education and was responsible for having all the texts re-written. The year was 1976, in the predominantly white Anglo-Saxon suburb of Beaconsfield on the island of Montreal.
My brother knew the teacher was wrong because of me. Not because I had told him anything as such, however. When my parents adopted me they knew I was of native ancestry, so they made a point of educating us all about native people. Our home was filled with books, photos, sculptures and toys that portrayed natives and native culture in a very beautiful, positive light. In fact our bookshelves were lined with books about all visible minorities. As my parents were also foster parents, there were always children of all colours running around the house, who we considered our brothers and sisters for however long their stay was.
I had come into the picture not because my parents were looking to be heroes, villains or advocates of any cause, but rather simply because my parents had three sons and decided they wanted a girl to make the family complete. At the time, I was the one available for adoption. I doubt my parents knew what they were taking on when they adopted me. Besides the fact that I was a handful, (even on the way home from Winnipeg I was causing such a fuss in the arms of my mother that I accidentally ripped the earring from her ear, causing much bloodshed and pain) their adopting me did cause somewhat of an uproar in the community.
In the beginning they had to deal with the many stares from curious onlookers and the looks of confusion when they introduced me as their daughter, so many explanations of me being adopted. They got sick of the sneers and disapproving looks from the uppity adults who couldn’t understand why such a fine “white” family would want to adopt an “Indian” as their own.
Some people may say that what makes a family a family has everything to do with the shared blood that runs through the veins, rather than their shared history and shared experiences. Many people will look at two people of different skin tones or hair colour or eye colour or anything minute like that and deny that they could be related, not “really” related. Yet how many people will say they are family and then turn around and either figuratively or even literally stab a family member in the back, or turn their back on them in times of need and deny their existence? How many people who claim to be family have no love, loyalty or respect for each other?
The fact that I was of native ancestry never made a difference or caused great distress to anyone in our extended family. I never once had the sense that I wasn’t just like any other member of the family. Even my nanny, who is technically my stepmother’s mother and only became my grandmother when I was 14, is slightly offended if I don’t mention her as a family member when relating any information about my family. To my brothers I have always been the younger brat of a sister and you can quote them on that, running around thinking I was a little white boy just like them. My oldest brother to this day always refers to anyone in the family as “blood,” despite the fact that he too was adopted! And of course, you couldn’t convince my parents or me for that matter, that they are not as “real” as any other parents.
My parents and many others like them, were pioneers, flinging in the face of all doubters that a family was only a family based on the DNA that was shared by all. Not only did they show that cross-cultural adoptions worked and were good, they inadvertently took on the task of educating everyone about native people. In a sense my parents were responsible for bringing a part of native reality to a corner of the world that was content to be ignorant and believe the negative stereotypes at the time. My parents gave my brothers and I one of the greatest gifts that any parent can give their children, which is unconditional love and respect for all people regardless of ‘race’, religion and gender. They also gave us the courage to speak out. My brother was only ten when he put those teachings into action and I can only conclude that we are all the better for it.