My First Indigenous Teacher
After making some big realizations about what it means to me to be an indigenous woman, I spent the majority of 2017 heavily immersed in self-reflection.
Who was I?
What did I want?
Who did I want to become?
It wasn’t easy for me to admit that even though the colour of my skin identifies me as an indigenous woman - inside, I just felt white.
My journey toward rediscovering my indigenous heritage started after becoming a mother. Motherhood was the catalyst that ignited my desire to learn about my past and my family, because I wanted to be able to tell my son about who we are. I wanted to grow and expand as a mother, but also as a woman. And to do that, I still needed to carve out a path for myself.
I needed time to reflect on my own experiences and where I came from, before I could share our story with my son.
So... I spent the entire year accepting and acknowledging the disconnect I feel from my indigenous culture. I often felt a pressure to take action on this new discovery, but I needed to process so much before I could make any sort of move.
As I've allowed myself to wallow through this self-awareness, I’ve become - acutely aware - of the grief that I feel for the lost traditional knowledge and teachings that were never passed down to me. No one told me about the traditional stories and history I should know as an indigenous person. The only stories I was told about were anchored around the church I grew up in.
There are so many rich traditions and indigenous knowledge and experiences that I am - quite simply - just lacking. I don’t even know what I don’t know. But the desire that I have within me to discover, connect and tap in to all that lies within my genetic memory, has never burned brighter.
Even though this pull and desire to connect to my roots exists, over this past year I felt mostly lost. Isolated. Unsure of where to begin. I had plenty of big aspirations, necessary distractions and day-to-day responsibilities keeping me preoccupied.
I had a new, creative business that grew at an incredible pace; a pace in which I often struggled to keep up with.
And of course, I had my busy toddler who evolved into an even busier preschooler. A young indigenous boy forming right before my eyes.
Then there was the sale of our home. The building and settling in to another one. A temporary residence in between.
Through it all, my marriage all too often felt stretched to its limits. I was grieving, busy, and struggling to articulate how I felt inside. My marriage would bounce back just enough to hold itself together for a little while longer.
I felt like I was completely unraveling, piece by piece. Forced open. Raw. Vulnerable.
I’m a sensitive person. I’m strong, and resilient, but I’m emotional. I feel things deeply, and sometimes I feel burdened by the level of passion within me. The weight of the acceptance and acknowledgement that I was working through often felt like more than I could handle. I took comfort in allowing myself the time and space to simply process.
But it was not easy. In fact, it's been one of the most challenging things I've ever gone through, because it has been so internal and so consuming. It has had a ripple effect on every area of my life. If I'm unsure of my identity - can I really be certain about anything?
Even if there had been a moment where I felt ready for action, I would have had no idea where to even begin. So I didn't do anything. I just navigated my life with a raw open wound, swelling and hurting each day.
The thing about our desires is, the brighter they burn the harder they become to ignore. It becomes increasingly impossible to shake the things that we crave despite our best efforts to bury ourselves beneath necessary or unnecessary distractions. The things that we long for most will always find a way to centre themselves within our universe. No matter how hard, whether consciously or subconsciously, we try to push them aside. And more often than not, the timing that these desires, cravings and things that we long for appear and make themselves known in our lives, is completely beyond our control.
In an attempt to create balance and separation between my business and chaotic home life, halfway through the year, I temporarily moved my business into a shared studio/retail space. This space, shared with a handful of inspiring female makers and creative entrepreneurs, provided me with the environment, accountability and motivation that I needed to work on and expand my business. It also alleviated the stress caused by trying to work from the cramped apartment that my family and I were living in while we built our new house.
I look back on this brief time that I spent in this shared studio space and I now see it as so much more than just a temporary solution to create order and balance in my life. A series of events and decisions had to be made to get me to this place. A place where I’d meet a woman who I may not have otherwise met.
On the first Friday of the final month of a long year, one of my studiomates introduced me to a woman: a friend of a friend of hers. This perfectly timed introduction would give me hope:
“Nicole, there’s someone that I’d like you to meet. This is the woman that I was telling you about...”
I turned around and met the eyes with the woman who stood before me. A middle-aged woman, short in stature. Dark hair. Warm eyes that sat behind her black rimmed glasses. Skin a similar shade to mine. Brown, but with olive undertones that consistently made strangers second guess our ethnicity and origins. The shape of her face reminded me of my Nana, round and heartshaped when she smiled. Red lipstick. The perfect shade. Classic.
I know this woman.
I’ve met this woman before.
This woman feels … familiar.
Before my outstretched hand even connected with hers, I felt like someone had softly touched me in the center of my forehead. It was a strange tranquil feeling. It was pure magic... and I had never felt anything like it before.
Who are you? I thought to myself.
“I’ve heard about your story,” she said. “Tell me a little bit more about yourself.”
A Cree father.
A half Ojibwe mother.
An “I’ve felt white for so long, that indigenous cultures feel foreign to me” chip on my shoulders.
I spiralled into a long winded ramble; my desire to reconnect (or perhaps connect for the very first time) to who I am as an indigenous woman. I explained that I’d been raised in a small community, where the population was as overwhelming religious as it was overwhelmingly white. I had grown up feeling removed from any traditional elements and influences from my culture.
I expressed my confusion about where to even begin. My feelings of isolation. Loneliness. Struggle. Overwhelm.
Despite my rambling, she stood steadily across from me. Her eyes were locked with mine. I felt like she was absorbing everything that I’d said - like an old tree; present for everything happening and changing around it, just downloading the air and plants and bees and other trees into its deep and vast root system. Memorizing. Remembering everything.
I tried to communicate all the different ways I felt over the course of the past year. But in that moment, while I was speaking to her, I felt as though I’d finally - for the very first time - begun to heal. That raw open wound I had been marching around with, felt like it finally stopped... aching.
There, this familiar-feeling-woman-healer stood, only a few feet between us. Black handbag slung over her shoulder. Gentle hands clasped together patiently - intently - while I spoke. Her presence. Her aura. I felt captivated and soothed all at the same time.
She began to speak in the softest, most gentle tone. Her voice was like an old song I knew but had forgotten; like I’d heard her voice countless times before.
Her last name was Murdock. The same as mine. She described her own journey of self-discovery and connection. A journey that mirrored mine. Only a few decades earlier, she had experienced the same stress, longing and confusion that I had. She had also been raised - white.
She had spent most of her youth disconnected from her indigenous culture. Whitewashed, and uneducated or familiar with her roots. She was unsure of where she came from and unsure of how to reconnect to her people and her culture. Upon entering her late-twenties, she began her journey towards discovering her indigenous roots with the help of a mentor and elder.
It felt like my exact story.
This woman, who currently appeared to embody all of the indigenous wisdom, demeanour and spirit that I desired to exemplify myself, had at one point years earlier, been me.
I felt a spark ignited deep down inside of me.
It was possible. It was possible to reconnect. Rediscover. This woman had done it - did this mean that I’d be able to as well?
That spark… was hope.
It was the invisible, gentle hands, kneading the sore, tired wounds I had been spiritually lashed with.
Not only did this wise, beautiful indigenous woman share the same last name as me, but she came from the same reservation that my father and his family were from. I’d never felt more connected to a complete stranger than I had in that moment. I found myself getting caught up in the logistics of our meeting.
How was it that we were in the same place at the same time?
How could it be that our journeys and experiences were so similar?
Why was I introduced to her?
How had she heard about me?
What cosmic universal magic was at work?
“Once you’ve made your desires and intentions known,” she said to me, her hands still clasped together gently, “the universe will put people in your path to help you along in your journey. You will come into contact with people who will help bring forth the intentions and desires that you seek to know and experience.”
I just needed to trust.
I knew this was my first lesson.
My first step toward action.
Patience; hope; healing.
I was instantly overcome with emotion. I’m an emotional woman. A feeler. And sometimes my feelings are overwhelming, because they’re so powerful and passionate. Tears streamed down my face - my vulnerability exposed in front of her. Her words, and the comfort that came along with them - was everything that I needed and wanted to hear.
I felt the weight of all of the uncertainty of where I needed to start, where to turn and how to begin the next lag of my journey disappear in an instant.
I just needed to have hope.
Trust in the universe.
Trust in myself.
Too overwhelmed to collect myself, we embraced. She just hugged me - like it was the most natural thing to do. I felt an incredible sense of security, comfort and peace in her arms. A warmth and understanding. I felt as though I’d been enlightened... and hit by a truck all at the same time.
I only spent 15 minutes with her, but in that short time this woman changed my life. She’d helped me take a step away from my idle state of acceptance. She comforted me. She lifted some of the loneliness I felt by sharing her own hopeful story of reconnection with me. Even the very sound of her words seemed to heal me.
And I'm ready to begin feeling like an indigenous woman in my heart.
Nicole Ryan is an indigenous woman, wife and mother who owns a small creative business. 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 son, Van, she can be found watering her plants, rearranging her furniture or sipping americanos in coffee shops.