Photo: Jenessa Galenkamp

2. 14. 2022

To Be Good Kin

Patty Krawec

Midnight Sun is honoured to present an excerpt from Anishinaabe/Ukrainian writer Patty Krawec’s forthcoming book Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future (Broadleaf Books, September 2022) – introduced here by the author, writing as the far-right “Freedom Convoy” movement plagues Ottawa and several other cities across so-called Canada.

Featuring beadwork by Giniw Paradis, photographed by Jenessa Galenkamp.

It feels like watching a gathering storm,
this collection of truckers and their supporters who want an end to mask and vaccine mandates, an end to the infringement of their “freedoms,” and a disturbing trend is the legitimacy they seek through the indigenization of convoy organizer Pat King and some others. King has claimed that everyone who is born in North America is indigenous to this place, and as ridiculous as King may seem to be, this claim is not unique to him. The Anishinabek Solutrean Métis Indigenous Nation says this as well. The West is filled with people insisting they are Native because they are from here, even if their ancestors may have come from somewhere else. 

I do believe that we can become kin. Our creation stories, yours and mine, all point to some common beginning from which we all branched off in our separate directions. The Anishinaabeg and other Indigenous peoples remembered our old stories and that there were other humans we did not know, even if the early settlers had forgotten and were therefore baffled by our existence. So, we are related, we are kin. But what does it mean to be good kin? And what do we do with unwanted kin, with those ancestors we would rather not claim?  

As we think about what it means to become kin, it is important to think about what it isn’t. We saw in The Last of the Mohicans and then later in The Grapes of Wrath how settlers tried to find belonging by appealing to their relationship with land, a relationship that either replaced or simply ignored Indigenous presence. These books are fiction, but fiction describes how we live and think. In Not “A Nation of Immigrants,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz unpacks similar claims sometimes made by settlers in Appalachia. She observes that J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy describes Scots-Irish settlers finding belonging in the mountains that reminded them of home – and the way this belonging exists without Indigenous people, who were moved off of these mountains, and without Black people, whose labor made these states possible. Vance identifies with a white ethnicity that works to separate itself from the elite but doesn’t recognize its own participation in the erasure of others. Calling his people hillbillies allows them to take on the role of a downtrodden minority without taking responsibility for their role in colonization. Dunbar-Ortiz also describes ranchers in the West making claims to the land by virtue of working on it, living and dying on it. She contrasts the federal government’s treatment of the Cliven Bundy family’s occupation of Bureau of Land Management lands in eastern Oregon with the state’s response to the Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Bundys were handled carefully, while the Natives faced attack dogs and water cannons. This is not inconsistency; this is settler colonialism at work. This is not kinship with the land or with people; this is erasure.

Becoming good relatives, for settlers, is also not about becoming Native. Some white settlers seek belonging by looking for Native ancestry, which is another form of erasure. Race shifting refers to the act of people claiming Native identity based on an insubstantial, imagined, or invented connection to Native communities. They shift their racial understanding of themselves from white to Native. As DNA testing gains popularity, many scour their family tree for that one ancestor – that one of eight or sixteen or thirty-two or sixty-four grandparents, depending on how far back they need to go – who will make them Native, even though they have no familial relationship with an existing community. Maybe they heard a myth of a great-grandparent who was an Indian and wouldn’t talk about it, or somebody remarked on their cheekbones or some other physical trait that “looked Indian.” So like Elizabeth Warren was goaded into doing, they pay for an ancestry DNA test to tell them if the myths are true.

But the tests are flawed because, as Kim TallBear says in her book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, they rely on ideas about racial purity that have their roots in medieval Spain and the limpeza de sangre, a belief that intermarriage with non-Christians, or new converts, could taint the pure blood of those who had been Christian for many generations. This belief in pure blood eventually became racial purity, and TallBear questions how that purity gets measured from a genetic standpoint. For example, who are the “pure” tribal members who get sampled in order to determine the markers that will identify Anishinaabe or Cherokee or any tribal group? There is, TallBear writes, no such thing as Native American DNA.

DNA is very good at identifying family relationships. It will tell you if somebody is a parent or a sibling, and it can even identify cousins and other relationships. But it is not good at identifying race because race is not biological; it is not encoded in our DNA. When geneticists look at our DNA, they see patterns or markers. Then they compare those with people in a particular area and see what patterns or markers are common in the people who were tested and also live in that area. If you have enough markers, these tests claim, then you are probably from a particular area. Probably, but not definitely. This is a precarious and self-interested identity that lacks the solid grounding of relationship.

I know that my great-grandfather was Irish, so a DNA test would probably prove that I have markers consistent with Ireland. But I have no connection to any Irish community, let alone the one in County Clones, where his family was most likely from. It would be absurd for me to decide that, based on Isaiah, I am Irish.

A few years ago, an initiative sought to draw the Irish diaspora back to Ireland for a series of events. It seemed like a beautiful, affirming thing to me, and I said as much to a friend who is Irish. No, she said; it is marketing. This large-scale tourism push would actually displace the poorest Irish people, while people like me with family stories but no lived connection to Ireland – no connection to the political struggles and social realities of Ireland – came home and played at being Irish for a week or two. I thought about how they would certainly be welcomed everywhere they went, welcomed by those whose jobs or businesses relied on tourist dollars and the goodwill of those who are from away. And I remembered my own years working in the tourist sector. I remembered waiting tables and selling T-shirts, trading smiles and welcome for good tips. I also remembered being a tourist and how different cities look when you go one block away from the shining lights.

As Native peoples, we exist both as political and social entities. We have tribal citizenship rules that are set by governments and determine legal belonging. But we also have social relationships: family to whom we are connected or disconnected and the belonging those connections create. Those two ways of belonging overlap, but they are not the same. Belonging involves a reciprocity of claiming and being claimed, of responsibility to the community and community’s responsibility to me. Of seeing and being seen. An individual race-based identity built on a long-ago ancestor or family lore is not that kinship-based relationship that is central to Indigenous belonging. It is a move to innocence – a way of not being a settler. A way of trying to be one of the oppressed rather than the oppressor.

It isn’t wrong to think about your ancestors, to hear their stories and understand where they came from. And if your ancestors have been in the United States or Canada for a long period of time, it is possible that there is a Native ancestor back there. And if you have a Native ancestor – somebody who married or moved out of their community by choice or by force – it is understandable that you would want to know more about them, more about how they left and why, like Metoaka, they didn’t return to live among the colonists. Matt, a white Twitter user who goes by @Witch_of_SoCo, wrote about himself and his family tree: “Choices were made that put us on the side of the colonizer and we have to sit with that instead of pretending it didn’t happen.” He had found out that he had Native ancestry and “went through a phase” where he thought that made him Indigenous. But over time, he realized that although he had made friends within the Native community, he lacked that web of family relationships that connect generations. “Your ancestors are always your ancestors,” he wrote, “but their communities may not be your communities.”

In a similar vein, a coworker once started a conversation with me by saying that her great-grandfather was Native – possibly Mohawk, but she wasn’t sure. Nobody in the family had any relationship with a Mohawk community. As I braced myself for the self-Indigenizing that often follows these statements, she said that she tries to be a good ally to Indigenous people by supporting actions that restore them to land or return children to families. She said that she felt this was the best way she could honor him and his experiences. I agree with her and with Matt. Our ancestors’ communities are not always our communities, but we can build relationship with each other and honor our ancestors in that way.

This self-Indigenizing is not the same thing as the emotionally difficult journeys home taken by those who were adopted or stolen in child welfare scoops. For these children, now adults, their lived relationship is that deliberate policy of disruption. Their parents had relationships with others in the community, and their grandparents had relationships. There is an entire web connecting them with successive generations that they can reach out to. This is much different than scanning the horizon for a single relative many generations past.

My mother made a choice to raise me among settlers and apart from my Ojibwe relatives. Her decision wasn’t malicious, but the harm was real, and I have to sit with that. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen or that it didn’t insulate me from some things even as it failed to insulate me from others. Because of the way that others saw me – as the Brown child in a white family – I had identity without relationships. That combination – identity with no community – impoverished me. That impoverishment was a constant hum in the background of my life. My face told a story that the rest of me couldn’t articulate except as loss and absence.

So when people seek identity without relations, I find it baffling. Why would anyone seek that impoverishment? White people longing to discover a long-lost Indigenous ancestor likely don’t feel that isolated identity like impoverishment, however, because their impoverishment comes from the systems around them. Colonialism works in all of us, to destroy and replace: destroying relationships and replacing them with isolated identities we can move around the country. It tells us to be one thing or another and never gives any of us time to be at home with ourselves. It tells us to be ourselves but then clearly lets us know which selves are welcome and which selves are not. Whatever we are is not enough, so we grasp for something else, as if that will imbue us with meaning. And it’s empty because it isn’t truly ours.

When I and other Native writers talk about being good relatives, we don’t mean that you are distant cousins who somehow need to claim your indigeneity. Being good relatives means claiming your own ancestors – all of them. When you know who you are, when you are comfortable with who you are, you can enter into relationship with us rather than as us.

You can transform those ancestors who give you heartache, the ones who owned slaves or stole land, the ones who taught in residential schools or were members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Aurora Levins Morales writes often about rejecting family mythologies in favor of telling her ancestors’ true stories. Her great-great grandparents owned slaves, and the family mythology is that they were good to their slaves—kind slave owners. Aurora challenges this as there is no kindness in slavery. She is an abolitionist, and her parents were both activists. This, she says, is how you transform these legacies you would rather not think about. You transform them by fighting against the things they, and you, benefited from, the legacy they gave you, not by transforming them into somebody they are not. She describes that possibility as truly transformative and profoundly hopeful, one that frees us all to act in ways that liberate everyone.

Aanikoobijigan: ancestors and descendants.

Nii’kinaaganaa: I am my relatives, all of them.

Thinking more broadly of relationships, I want to turn to settler colonialism – that process that destroys in order to replace – and consider it as something that shapes and controls our relationships to each other, to the land, and to our history. Settler colonialism is the structure that has forced our histories into silos, that pulled us apart and created gaps so that we do not see the things that were happening at the same time. It also forces our identities into silos so that we don’t see each other. It offers us identity without relationship.

So we read The Grapes of Wrath, but we don’t understand how the earlier settlers pulled out the prairie grasses and replaced them with thirsty and shallow-rooted wheat and corn the same way that Indigenous people were removed and replaced with tenant farmers. We don’t realize that the displacement of the grasses and the people actually created the circumstances that displaced the Joads. We read the book or watch the movie Hillbilly Elegy and don’t think about the Cherokee and Creek, who were pushed out of the mountains so that these Scots-Irish could find belonging and roots. We forget that Grampa killed Indians so he could have land. Settler colonialism betrays relationship by atomizing our communities into individuals, constantly making us into strangers by the divisions and constant relocations in our society.

Sara Ahmed writes about this in Living a Feminist Life, in which she reflects on how strangers are those who are “made strange” by the structures and assumptions around them. To be identified as a “stranger” is to be identified as not from here. A stranger is somebody who endangers those who are from here; strangers are being made dangerous because they are made strange. Made strange because you are made a stranger.

Ahmed’s writing plays with words, using their multiple meanings to get at her point. Anyone who is racially marginalized has had the experience of being asked where they are from. If I say I am from Niagara Falls, the follow-up question is inevitably “Yeah, but where are you from?” I usually respond with “Thunder Bay,” because that’s where I was born. Often the questioner, who has read my ambiguously darker skin as meaning I’m not from “here” – not from Canada – gets increasingly frustrated. No, but where are you from? My darker skin makes me a stranger, not from here, possibly dangerous. People whose skin color or religion marks them as migrants, whether they are Black or Muslim, Asian or Mexican, often have a similar experience – but where are you from? – even though many in these diasporic communities have been “from here” for hundreds of years. Even though many Native people are also Black, or Muslim, or Asian, or Mexican and have been “from here” for a very long time.

At what point did light skin become an indicator of being “from here” and the skin of the original people become an indicator of strangeness?

The book cover of Becoming Kin by Patty Krawec, with the same beadwork design as in the article's banner image.

Patty Krawec is an Anishinaabe and Ukrainian writer and speaker from Lac Seul First Nation. She is active in the Fort Erie Native Friendship Center and is a member of the Strong Water Singers. She is the cohost of the Medicine for the Resistance podcast and cofounder of the Nii’kinaaganaa Foundation, which collects funds and disperses them to Indigenous people and organizations. Her work has been published in Sojourners and Canadian Living. Krawec is a member of Chippawa Presbyterian Church and lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario.