My maiden name is Murdock. Nicole Murdock. An Indigenous name, for an indigenous woman. Aboriginal. First Nations. Native. A full status Indian in the eyes of the Government of Canada thanks to the status card that I carry in my wallet. My dad is a Cree man from Manitoba; my mom, a half Ojibwe/half Irish woman from Ontario. This makes me three quarters Aboriginal and a quarter white.
But actually, I just feel white.
I was born in Winnipeg and raised there for the first few years of my life. I have fond memories of my mother showering me with love, affection, and joy right from the start. I was a happy child. I was always the centre of attention, and often blissfully unaware of what was going on around me. I had no idea that my parents separated for the first time shortly after I was born. My dad was in and out. My mom was there for me all the time.
That’s what I knew to be normal.
My parents’ divorce was finalized when I was six, and my mom moved our family to a small religious community in southeastern Manitoba. My dad didn’t fight for joint custody. Actually, he didn’t even show up for the custody hearing. He went back and forth between Winnipeg and the reserve for years, before permanently relocating back to his reserve where he needed to be.
I don’t blame my dad for leaving us. In fact, now that I’m a parent, I think I understand why he did it.
In our new home with our new life without him, we were alone. We didn’t know anyone in the community, and I remember thinking to myself, why here?
We quickly found a community in one of the many churches that anchored our new home. We were the only Aboriginal family in the congregation, and it sometimes felt like we were the only Aboriginal family in our whole town. For the first few years after our move, my mother was firmly rooted in her Christianity, but she was constantly riddled with Aboriginal guilt and shame as a repercussion from the harsh experiences from her childhood. So we tried to fit in with the other families because we needed a community. We needed a family. We forced ourselves inside a religious box, hiding from ourselves, and ultimately doing more damage to our spirituality than good.
Once I started the second grade, I really began to understand that I was different from the people in my new town. My hair was dark. My eyes were dark. Even my skin was darker than everyone else’s in my class. Most of my friends were blonde, and a lot of my classmates had the same last name but they weren’t related to each other.
I remember finding that very confusing at the time.
There was a filipino girl in my class for a second, but she moved away the following year. And in junior high, there was also one African American guy in my circle of friends.
Everyone always wanted to touch his hair.
But aside from being a little darker than all my friends, I felt like them. We’d tape our favourite pop songs off the radio, we had crushes on the same boys, we played softball together, and we fought over which one of us got to be Ginger or Sporty Spice. I didn’t feel different until I looked in the mirror.
It wasn't until I was a married adult that I found out about residential schools and what went on inside of them. Residential schools were religious schools, sponsored by the Canadian government, established for the sole purpose of assimilating Aboriginal children into white culture. Thousands of children died while attending residential schools, and countless residential school survivors have spoken out about the horrendous sexual, physical, emotional and psychological abuse that they suffered as a result of their experience. These schools existed from the 1930s, well into the 1990s. That means, they existed in my lifetime.
My dad was raised by a residential school survivor. I had no idea when I was younger.
Growing up, my dad had many half-siblings, but not one of them shared the same two parents as he did. He was raised on a reserve by his mother and another man. That other man was a residential school survivor. I can’t imagine the type of environment my dad was faced with everyday of his young life.
He left his home on the reserve when he was a young teenager and lived on the streets of Winnipeg. He fell into drugs, alcohol and hard, fast living. Keeping in tradition with the men that he was influenced by and the men that came before him, my dad had a reputation for being a philanderer and adulterer. This cocktail of my dad’s salacious behaviour and drug addiction would eventually solidify the end of my parents’ marriage.
Three children. Seven years. Divorce.
My mom and her older sister were raised by their Ojibwe grandmother in Ontario. Their own mother struggled with addiction and was in and out of their lives ever since they were little. They were two of the handful of Aboriginal children in their Catholic school, and since they were the minority, they were teased, ridiculed and made fun of on a daily basis. My mom was called a dirty little indian or squaw by the other children in town, and even by other adults in her life. Her bus driver used to call her sitting bull’s niece, and squatting bull and even fat Pocahontas. Every time the school bus came to pick her and her sister up, my mom’s stomach would plummet as she waited for the insults to come.
She was only eight years old. It went on for years.
I had a different experience in school. Right before I entered junior high, I took a choral field trip to sing with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. While we were backstage warming up, I was approached by another young girl who kind of looked like me. She also had darker skin; dark eyes, and dark hair. Her hair was shorter than mine, but I could tell that it had the same texture; thick and coarse, with baby hairs framing the shape of her face. She was also dressed in the black and white attire we were instructed to wear for our on-stage performance, but she must have been there from another school. I certainly hadn’t ever seen her before.
She came up to me and made conversation, probably because we both stood out among a sea of fair children. But she threw something at me that I wasn’t prepared for.
“So, how do you like your foster family?”
I felt my face redden. I remember looking around wondering if any of my friends or classmates had heard what she’d asked. Of course I didn’t live in a foster home. How could she ask me something like that?
Did everyone take one look at me and wonder the same thing?
I quickly felt embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t know how to respond, so I retreated back to my white friends that I felt comfortable around.
Once I hit puberty and developed into a woman, I began to receive bolder comments about what I looked like. I was often questioned what my “background” was, and people were always surprised when I told them.
“You’re so exotic looking.”
“What’s your ethnicity?”
“Where are you from?”
Whenever I’d share that I’m Native, I would receive shocked expressions.
“But you’re so beautiful! You look Spanish!”
Did being Native make me less beautiful? I began to associate the word exotic with being different. It was like somehow using the word exotic meant that it was okay for people to tell me that I didn’t belong, and that I wasn’t like them. Even if my clothes and hairstyle matched theirs, something about me was different.
But, thankfully, no one called me dirty little indian in the new town my mom moved us to.
When my - white - husband and I became pregnant, I had hoped for a girl. The thought of having a daughter and seeing her with my husband as her father was my dream. It was like somehow it would right all the wrongs of having grown up without a father myself.
When I was 20 weeks pregnant, I felt the first whisper from my Aboriginal spirituality, even though I had never understood anything about it. A baby visited me in my dreams. It was comfortably growing in my belly and I had been unaware of the gender until then. In my dream, I held and rocked a newborn in my arms. Rocking it; kissing it; running my fingers along its gentle forehead and down its soft little cheeks. It was the first time that I had ever dreamed about a baby.
I felt overjoyed, at peace, and filled with an incredible sense of security and anticipation for this little person’s arrival.
A boy. My own indigenous son.
When I woke from my dream, all I could think about was buffalo. I had this image of a strong and mighty buffalo in my head and I couldn't focus on anything else. Morning shower. Buffalo. Breakfast. Buffalo. Drive to work. Buffalo. Pregnancy cravings. Buffalo.
The image was so powerful, I felt compelled to find answers. Why did this buffalo want my attention? I decided to ask my mother’s sister, because she was the only person I knew and trusted who was spiritual. My aunt’s faith was also rooted in Christianity despite her strict upbringing with my mother and their grandmother in Ontario, but she had managed to remain connected to Aboriginal influences.
“You know what the buffalo represents in our Aboriginal culture, don’t you, honey?” my aunt asked me after I told her about my dream and my vision.
“No…” I said, sheepishly, “I don’t.” Because I didn’t know much about Aboriginal culture at all.
“The buffalo signifies strength, stability and abundance. The buffalo is a blessing.”
I looked around at the nursery I was preparing - the cheap craft feathers I bought to make a baby mobile with, the trendy teepees that kept popping up over and over as I scrolled through my Instagram feed, and the tribal artwork that I had already hung in his nursery. What did these things even mean? I suppose in some way, I was trying to find material symbols to reach out and grasp for anything that I thought would connect me - my baby - to my heritage.
But these stupid things I was buying didn’t mean anything. I knew nothing about Aboriginal culture. And I sure as hell didn’t have a clue about who I was as an indigenous woman.
Why didn’t I know these things? Why didn’t I know the significance or the stories? Why didn’t I know the language? The traditions? The symbols?
Why the hell did I feel so white?
After my son was born, he changed everything. There we were, me, my husband and our son. Our perfect little mixed family, complete. After I met my son, I knew that he needed to know about who we were. He needed to be exposed to these sacred traditions, and he needed to have the knowledge to embrace his culture right from the start.
Growing up in a predominantly white community, my husband and I will have to be intentional in teaching him about his Aboriginal heritage. We will have to work harder. My son needs to know about all the beautiful, traditional aspects of his indigenous culture, and he needs to be exposed to his culture from the start so that he can embrace it. Celebrate it.
So when he’s faced with comments about his dark hair and his darker skin, he can stand tall, and proudly proclaim his ethnicity knowing that no matter where he is, he belongs there.
I was taught from an early age that it was a good thing that I didn’t look Native - or at least, I didn’t look the way white people thought Native people should look. I didn’t wear feathers in my hair. I didn’t wear braids. I didn’t look like some wild, untamed savage. I wasn’t Pocahontas, not even a fat Pocahontas. I was taught that I needed to try to fit in with the people around me in order to be accepted. I didn’t want to be called a dirty little indian by my bus driver.
Besides, I didn’t know what it meant to be an Indian.
I was just me.
I’ve been so deeply immersed inside a culture that isn’t my own. It took a subtle gift from deep within my roots - the subtle gift of a buffalo - to reignite an indigenous spark within me; one I didn’t know I had. I don’t belong to the white culture I have identified with, and it doesn’t belong to me… but I don’t really know where I belong.
What if my dad had been raised in a healthy home with a white picket fence? What if my mom hadn’t been ridiculed as a child? What if she never felt the need to hide the Native in her, or the need to cling to the White in her blood? Who would I be?
Was the overwhelmingly white, religious community I was raised in squashing down my true roots, or did it protect me in some way?
I don’t have these answers, but I’m not sure I even need them. I don’t want to look back; I want to look ahead. But you know what really upsets me? I have no idea where to look in order to encourage an indigenous upbringing for my son. I’ve felt white for so long, that Aboriginal cultures feel foreign to me. I feel like an outsider; like a white person intruding somewhere she doesn’t belong. But I’m not white. I’ve often wondered if I’m indigenous enough to dive into my own culture, or if it would be better for me to retreat into the safety of white arms.
I need to know where I came from in order to better understand who I am, and to continue to evolve into who I am becoming. I crave a spiritual wisdom and sense of connection that goes deeper than what I’m currently surrounded by. Even if I don’t know what the stories are, or where they come from, the aboriginal stories are within me. They are part of my identity.
And most importantly, I need to learn about who I am because my son needs to know who he is.
Because he is my buffalo.
He is my blessing.
He is my indigenous spark.
Nicole Ryan is an indigenous woman, wife and mother who owns a small creative business. She enjoys curling up in bed with a good book, cooking plant-based meals and visiting greenhouses. When she's not chasing after her toddler, Van, she can be found watering her plants, rearranging her furniture or sneaking out on dates with her husband, Josh.