I stopped by the Native Friendship Center of Montreal today, as I like to visit my old stomping grounds now and then. There have been many changes since I left four years ago, many faces have gone, but some new faces have come on the scene. New in a way, for I met up with a fellow native adoptee who is one of the animators on the Homelessness Initiative that has been running out of the NFCM since February. We originally met years ago when there was a sort of Native adoptee support group in the city. He was instrumental in setting it up. It was basically a group of native adoptees that gathered to chat and go on outings. We never really spoke of the issues we had but it was comforting knowing that you were amongst others who had similar experiences growing up. The first time I went to a meeting, the number of others like me living in Montreal amazed me. I learned that some had lived around the corner from me at some point in my youth! After years of thinking I was the only one, I discovered I wasn’t. So it was not surprising when this friend told me that the other animator for the initiative was also a Native adoptee. Turns out we went to the same high school at the same time!
What amazes me most is how many native adoptees end up working for Native organizations in the city. It’s almost as if we are reclaiming our origins in some way. For many of us, going back to our birth communities to live is not really a viable option, yet we want to at least be a part of our Native culture somehow. That’s how it was for me. The first time I went to the NFCM was when I began my journey to rediscover my roots almost 14 years ago. I remember cautiously walking in to see what it was all about. Back then the NFCM was located in a small homey building, where everyone seemed to know each other. The people were nice but I felt like a real fish out of water, as I had not grown up in a Native community. I knew very little of Native people at that point and was incredibly insecure about my Native-ness, so even though I signed up to be a volunteer, I never went back.
Years later, after learning more about my culture and meeting more natives in the city and generally feeling more at ease with being native, I went back to offer my services, hoping to learn more at the same time. I was immediately hired on as the Intercultural Liaison Officer. I was the only Native adoptee at the time but there was really no distinction to anyone. Overall it was a really fun-filled time and an incredible learning experience.
Native Friendship Centers began to spring up around the country in the 1970’s, heeding the call to provide a sort of home away from home for Natives who had left their communities for whatever reason. At first they simply provided a place to meet and feel akin with people, but over the years they came to offer a number of services specific to the needs of the people such as: how to find a place to live; clothing banks; food banks; health services; and social services. They have also become a mecca for people like me and others who wish to not only know more about the culture they were adopted out of, but also to offer their knowledge and skills. It’s a place where we too can mingle and feel a little bit of what we think we may have missed because we were adopted.
That’s one of the things about being Native and being adopted into non-Native communities, we had no Elder or auntie or uncle to turn to for traditional knowledge, no mother or father to watch and learn our culture from. Most often we had nothing to identify with as being Native when we were growing up, other than books written on the topic by non-Natives. My parents always told me of my adoption and that I was of Native ancestry, that it was something to be proud of. I pretty much grew up thinking that Native people dressed only in loincloths, lived in teepees, wigwams, or longhouses, and hunted buffalo on horseback or fished for whales in big canoes: that basically they lived a blissful kind of life in a world far away from mine.
For me, the NFC provided a place to meet actual Indians, to learn firsthand about the urban Native situation and the hurdles they faced. It also put me in touch with what was going on in other native communities as well as the other urban native communities. It allowed me to learn about traditional drumming and dancing, the medicine wheel, healing circles and other traditional ceremonies. I met Elders and got to know people from across the country who basically helped me to understand the Native-ness in me.
The NFC provides a community for people who feel they have none because they are not living in their home community. It’s made up of members of all nations from all over Canada and the United States of America with which one can share stories and learn something new from. So I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that there are so many Native adoptees working at places like the NFC or even here at the Nation magazine. For many, it allows us to feel connected to the culture we were denied, to feel we’re sharing our unique experience and knowledge and in return learning more about what it means to be native.