My journey home: the challenges and struggle of reconnection and healing
As the year comes to an end, I reflect on all that has happened in the last six months on my journey to find home. I’m happy I took the time I needed before deciding to open up about it. Because of my work, I've been in the public eye, which brings with it a degree of scrutiny from others. There can be a lot of pressure to put yourself out there on the timeline of others, but this is my journey, my life and my story. After much consideration, I decided a blog was a good way to tell my truth.
So much has changed for me since the summer of 2022; things I couldn't have foreseen. As I sit here staring at my Christmas tree, I think about all the Christmases I’ve missed with my Father's … yes, plural. As the title of this blog says, I’ve come across many challenges and struggles on my journey to find home. Before I dig into the details, I would like to preface this by saying, I know there are varying opinions out there about DNA, community, and doing the work, but everyone's journey is different so please understand I’m only speaking to mine.
If you are on your researching or reconnecting journey - please be kind with yourself, surround yourself with those who hold space for you and know the truth of your heart. Much grief can be found while walking down this path, and you may discover things that will make your head spin and heart break. I never thought my journey home would include having to grieve the loss of my Father again, but here I am.
Grief is an interesting thing - just as we think we’ve healed, it can creep back up in ways we couldn’t fathom. Over the last six months I have been grieving. I grieve the loss of the man who held my hand as a little girl and whose memories fill my heart as a woman, and I’m grieving the loss of time I could have had with my new found siblings, cousins, grandparents, great grandparents and… another Father (more on this in a moment).
Growing up as a mixed-race youth was confusing. Although I consider myself to be white-presenting, others didn’t always see it that way. As a kid I remember my Mom being asked, “what is your husband?” (alluding to his race) and numerous times people would call me “exotic looking”. I was just a kid though, so I didn’t really think much about it. But in the quiet moments while my Dad braided my hair before school, or when we went camping, fishing and spent time in nature, and right up to our frequent visits through plexiglass while he was incarcerated, he reminded me to be proud of who I was no matter what anyone said.
I grew up not knowing much about my Indigenous roots. Around the age of 14, my Dad started teaching me the limited things he knew about our ancestry and traditions, and the importance of gaining stronger ties to it. My Dad was, and always has been, my hero. Despite his challenges with incarnation, addiction and mental health, he taught me that helping others is one of the most important things we can do in life, that we must give back to the community to keep it strong.
My Dad was my teacher, even though his physical presence was shortened in my life, he would share with me the things he was learning on his own reconnecting journey. I think of him often, and feel his spirit when holding his smudging feather. I’m fortunate to still have my Dad’s feather, and some of his journal entries. Many reflections of his spirit and tangible signs of his own attempt to find home.
I remember my Dad being excited when he and the other Indigenous inmates were finally able to smudge in jail and go to the sweat lodge. He would call me after each one, and tell me all about the new things he was learning. Sadly, I also remember the pain in my Dad’s voice when told me about negative experiences, like asking if he could acquire ceremonial tobacco for my uncle’s funeral, and having a guard throw a cigarette at his feet while laughing. I remember the rage, hurt and shame he expressed on that call.
The hardest part was observing the system fail my Dad again and again, as his health condition worsened dramatically, due to consuming contaminated water during the Walkerton water crisis. I was devastated. This was supposed to be the time for his rebirth, he had worked so hard through ceremony and with the native liaisons to heal his spirit; I was finally going to watch my Dad achieve his dreams of helping others stay out from behind bars. But it was not to be.
I watched as my sweet joyful Dad slowly faded away, his beautiful long brown hair started thinning, his once colourful disposition now tired and grey. I remember our last conversation, about all the dreams he had to support Indigenous youth in the system by sharing his life story. How he was going to join the fight so Indigenous communities wouldn’t have to drink toxic water, but he never got the chance. I lost my Father in September of 2001, and I was left with only these pieces and a limited understanding of my roots. These are some of my lived experiences as an Indigenous person, forever imprinted in memory.
It’s his words that encouraged me to gift my time, talent and treasure when I was finally thriving and no longer surviving, to keep his legacy going. That is why I chose to volunteer and bring awareness to organizations who are working with Indigenous communities to create sustainable solutions for safe water, fighting for environmental equity and well-being.
Now fast-forward two decades later, and my whole world turned upside down again. In the summer of 2022, everything changed. While still on my search for answers about home, I learned that the man who raised me, and who I had believed to be my Dad, was not my biological Father. This is when I realized my Indigenous bloodline was not tied to the Mi’kmaq Nation, which is how my Dad had always identified. At that moment I immediately stopped identifying as Mi’kmaw, pulled out of upcoming projects I was scheduled to be a part of, and took a large step back. This identity crisis cut deep. I felt depleted emotionally and mentally. Everything I thought I knew about myself was instantly ripped away from me, and had me feeling at my lowest. I felt alone, confused, hurt, shameful, and angry. Who was I and where did I belong? What worlds was I allowed to step in?
What I did know for certain was that multiple DNA tests confirmed that I am roughly 25-30% Indigenous by blood, so maybe naively, I didn’t question my Dad’s claim to Indigenous identity or that he was in fact my Dad.
As traumatic as all this information was, it explained a lot. I had been hitting nothing but dead ends trying to connect with people, who I believed, were my relatives. It all made sense. Now I was faced with a whole new set of questions - where does my Indigenous blood line come from? I felt like I was trying to put a puzzle together, with only a few pieces.
On the recommendation of a mentor, I did additional DNA tests and sought out genealogy experts in hopes to find more answers. As those DNA tests came in, more information came to light. I found out I had half-siblings, and as those siblings also did additional testing, our results updated. I learned that my Indigenous lineage, from my biological Father’s side, actually comes from Mesoamerica, the tail of Turtle Island. And I discovered my bloodline comes from the Kuskatán Nahua Nation of Western El Salvador, with additional ancestral ties to the Yucatan peninsula.
I sat in shock reading my sister's profile, which had mentioned my biological Father's name, the words seeming so unfamiliar to me. After connecting with my sister, brother and cousins, I was able to put the puzzle pieces together. I finally had the name of my biological Father, and later, the opportunity to meet him for the first time. I learned that he was born in Western El Salvador, along with many generations of my grandparents, and he grew up close to the city of San Salvador. He and many other family members came to Canada and the United States just before the1980 civil war broke out, but I still have many family members who never left El Salvador that my biological Father connects with frequently and visits.
I can’t describe the feeling of finally being able to identify where my Indigenous roots come from. Empowered by this new information, I began reaching out and reconnecting with other lost family members, and people from the Kuskatán Nahua Nation, in the departments of San Salvador and La Libertad in Western El Salvador where my father and many generations of grandparents were born and raised, to begin my journey of reconnecting.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have these individuals, and others from various Indigenous communities and nations in North and Central America, guide me gently on this journey. I’ve been able to connect with some amazing Kuskatán Nahua community members from San Salvador, Izalco and Nahuizalco, who live and work to sustain the language and culture and have welcomed me with open arms. I have also had the opportunity to meet my biological Father, and we are working on getting to know each other. I know I have a lot to learn, and a lot of work ahead of me, but I feel grateful for their warmth and kindness in welcoming me home.
I truly feel for anyone who is trying to reclaim or reconnect. It isn’t easy, and can be full of heartbreak, hitting wall after wall. Waiting for censuses to be digitized, band offices and friendship centres being of little help, not to mention the significant financial investment of traveling to connect with relatives and using ancestry sites. I think about others who don’t have family ties - no parents or grandparents to give them information - and feel alone.
For those who were like me in the early 2000’s, a young parent, with no support, no answers, no money to travel, and no way to do the research, and your main priority is to keep food on the table and a roof over your head, it can be overwhelming and daunting. Let's not forget how we even began to access this information. The internet was not a viable source until the early 2000’s - for those who could afford a computer - and the accessible DNA tests came long after that. So those who are disconnected or far from home may find themselves at an even larger disadvantage. Remember, there is no perfect or clear road ahead for reconnecting.
I've had many conversations about where my journey has taken me and how I can support my Indigenous cousins of the North, and my own nation. If this journey has taught me anything it is the importance of doing the work. This has all been very traumatic for me in many ways, and realizing how this may have impacted those I respect and care about, has been truly heartbreaking. I will take all that has happened and continue to learn from it, yet another lived experience to inform my future path.
I have spent the last year focusing on getting to know my family, history and my Kuskatán Nahua culture. It has been said to me that, “you can’t undo what has happened, and you can’t continue to shame yourself for what was out of your control. It is the actions you take now that matter and what you do with this new knowledge you hold”. I carry those words with weight as I move forward.
As I reflect with both sadness and joy in my heart, I know the Creator was guiding me home, and until then gave me a Father who raised me to be proud of being Indigenous. I often think about that; how different my life could have been if I wasn’t brought up with a Father who was on his own reconnecting journey. Would I have thought differently of myself with all these findings? Would the narrative in my mind still be one of pride?
The main thing I’ve come to learn throughout all of this, is that reconnecting can be a life-long journey, and looks different for everyone, but it is an important piece to combat the long-term and ongoing impacts of colonialism.
Trying to find where you fit in often feels like an insurmountable task, and you find yourself constantly having to learn, unlearn, and relearn how to act. Sometimes it can feel like you’re never enough on either side. The colonial construct of who gets to claim an Indigenous identity has led to so much conflict, as of late. There are so many ideas, opinions and systems about who gets to live in an Indigenous body, making the claim of identity extremely complex. Some may say community is the only way, others focus on blood quantum, and some look at whether you're urban or traditional. It can seem like a lose-lose situation.
Because of this, I hope we can show compassion to others who are finding their place. This experience I’m currently living makes me realize that no one has all the answers, and even with all of the challenges and heartbreak, this journey has had its joyful moments. I have found siblings, cousins, family and community members who have welcomed me home, and are teaching me about our history, culture and traditions. And as I continue on my journey, the parts of me that were shrouded with pain are being replaced with peace. I am reclaiming my roots, and I’m grateful I have finally found my home. I’m a daughter of Turtle Island, and although my journey has taken a different turn, I will always be a proud Indigenous woman.