Salmon Arm, BC
"Pathways" is a story about a guy who grew up dad from his reserve and his culture. His experiences are very much like mine, as someone who grew up in a town far away from my community. This story is important to me because it's about the Native issues I wasn't aware of growing up, both because I grew up so far off the reserve and because I have lighter skin. Being Native is more than just skin colour, which is what I want people to take away from this story. I want people to know that, even when you're lighter-skinned like me, no one can decide for you if you're Native or not. The same goes for the many other First Nations youth who are just like me. Being Native is also culture and traditions, both of which can disappear too easily if they're not passed down to us youth. You don't have to experience Native issues to be Native, and it's never too late to become connected to who you are as someone with First Nations ancestry. I originally wanted to submit a research paper on missing and murdered indigenous women I wrote for college as my entry. It was too long, so I took what I learned writing that, tied in a lot of my own experiences and feelings to make it personal to me, and wrote Pathways.
I didn’t grow up on reserve. My fully Native mom, being the only girl my grandmother
gave birth to, moved away from the Malahat reserve when she married my quarter Native dad
because he got a job in the Okanagan. Even though I'm only a quarter European, I'm a bit pale
for a Native, and that never really occurred to me until very recently. I knew I didn't pass as
White, but I was lighter than most Natives I've known, who are brown with black hair. Do I still
get to be Native with lighter skin? Or do I not belong, even though my grandpa went
to residential school?
Regardless of my lighter skin, I met someone who was curious. She came up and asked me in the student lounge, "Aren't you an Indian?"
I looked up from my textbook at the girl, and said, "Yeah...?"She could tell?
She'd paused for a moment, before saying, "What kind?"
And I said, "I don't know. If I scalped you, would that answer your question?"
I laughed at her reaction. Her jaw dropped as she inched away.
"I'm kidding. Did you know White people used to get paid for scalping Natives? So you
should be asking that the next time someone says to you, 'Hey, are you a real White person?'"
"U-um," she stammered. "I didn't know that."
Amused by her fluster, I laughed again. "Sorry."
She was appalled. "Why are you laughing?"
I’ve been conflicted about this myself, but... "I believe that First Nations can bounce back
from what happened in the past…. That we should look at the bright side." I extended a hand.
"My name's Orion, by the way."
I’m still not sure if I had a right to say that. But if she could tell I was Native, maybe I
She eagerly shook my hand. "Isabelle."
Not growing up on reserve did take away a lot from me. Getting to know my family for
one thing. I always feel like a stranger whenever I go back to visit. Almost like an outsider,
which I guess I am. I’m not a pow-wow dancer, I don't speak hul'q'umi'num', I don't do sweat
lodge. It's not because I don't want to do those things--I want to learn my ancestral language
more than anything--but I don't really have access to them here in Salmon Arm.
Salmon Arm is pretty White; the KKK even used to own land here. That’s why this town
used to be called one of British Columbia's most racist towns. People here have told me, I don't
really see you as Native, like it was good thing. I feel like it's because "Native" is associated with
alcoholism or addiction (both of which are diseases). Aside from that, personally, I've never
experienced overt, hateful racism. I myself didn't know racism was a huge thing in Canada,
because Canadians are seen as nice. It's like a smoke screen to what really does on up here in the
"true north." Missing and murdered women, terrible living conditions on reserves, increased
victimization, high rates of suicide; and I used to think these things were normal, before I learned
the truth. Indigenous people continue to go missing and be murdered, most of which the media
looks passed to pay attention to a missing White man or an abused dog.
Says a lot about Canadians, eh?
And then when they say they aren't racist, what they're saying actually is racist. Some
Whites boast about not seeing race, seeing “only humans,” but in doing so they’re erasing a big
part of who we are. Our people fought against erasure in the past, so why continue what was a
huge factor in indigenous genocide?
I don't know. Maybe I take it too seriously.
Isabelle turned out to be pretty nice. The reason why she was asking was because she was
curious about Native culture. We became friends, and I learned that she is a quarter Cherokee;
that's why she was curious when we first met. I’ve become like an outlet of knowledge for her. I
don't know everything, and she knows that, but any questions she has, I answer the best I can.
"Why don't many people know about First Nations?" she asks me one day, when we're
sharing a table in a local coffee shop.
"They don't want to admit their sins, I guess," I respond. "When I was in grade seven, we
were learning all about how terrible the Germans were during World War Two, how much the
Jews suffered." I pause. "And did you know Canada enforced multiculturalism only after the
Holocaust? That happened when Indians were still getting the Indian beaten out of them in
residential schools, on North American soil."
She shakes her head. "That's such BS. I thought Canadians were supposed to be nice."'
"Right?" I reply. "Canadians have always bragged about their nice and friendliness, they
have the rest of the world fooled into thinking they're better.”
"You don't think of yourself as Canadian," she guesses.
"We never wanted to be Canadian, so no."
Isabelle nods. "I get it."
"Natives get cups of coffee and rocks thrown at them just for being who they are,” I say.
“I've lost many family members from suicide, alcoholism. One was murdered."
Her face drains, as she gapes at me. “Orion, I'm so sorry."
"She was my cousin," I go on.
"Oh my god."
Not being able to handle the look of pity I've seen too many times before, I look down.
"It was two years ago. I didn't really know her.
"She was missing for three... four weeks? Um, they found her in a lake, and she was in
there so long that the funeral had to be closed-casket."
At the time I felt stupid, when I was at the funeral, because I cried. I cried when there
were people who actually knew her who were saying strong. I was crying, and boys aren't
supposed to cry. Did I have a right?
"I was the one holding her sister's, Ebony’s, arm as the casket was being taken to the
cemetery. I was the one holding a box of tissues for Ebony as the casket was being lowered into
the ground. To that point, I still couldn't believe it. I never got to know Emily, but now I never
Isabelle seems to be unsure of how to react. "I'm so sorry," she says again.
I still don't look up at her, so I stare at the table. "It was a shock. I didn't know this
happens to countless other families in Canada. Indigenous families, especially, because our
families don't get taken seriously. The reason being 'they're probably drug addicts or prostitutes.'"
"What's wrong with prostitutes?" I can hear the frown on her face.
Shaking my head, I shrug. "Your guess is as good as mine."
A silence follows. Have I said too much?
Hesitantly, I continue, "Her... dad was my late uncle. I never knew him either, he
committed suicide before I was born."
I try to make eye contact but she's not looking at me. At first I thought I thought I making
her uncomfortable, but when I see her, she looks depressed. "It's so sad..." she says, meeting my
eyes. "What Natives go through? I wish there was something I could do."
I stay quiet for a moment. Like I said, I've always been shy; I've never told that to
"You have the blood too," I say encouragingly. "It's never too late to learn."
"But I'm only a quarter."
"It doesn't matter. Being Native isn't some exclusive club or anything."
"Really?" Her eyes spark with hope
"Yeah. I had a friend who was non-status Native, but she still danced fancy shawl. She
If I don’t experience hate based on skin colour, do I still have a right to be optimistic?
As the grandson of a residential school survivor, as the cousin of a stolen sister, I think I
Because somehow, over time, she ends up becoming more of a reason for me to hold on
to the culture. I have the ability to educate people, especially people like her, who don't know
where to start feeling connected. I've become her pathway to that connection, and she’s joined
me on a pathway to resilience; a pathway to belonging