One Foot In and One Foot Out

What does an Indigenous lawyer look like?

One Foot In and One Foot Out

I recall one of the first times I explained my ancestry; it was a school day in 1990 and I was in Grade 5. There were no formal classes that day, but rather every other classroom was decorated to represent a different country, and inside were opportunities to experience the unique aspects of that area of the world. I remember eating vegemite for the first time in “Australia” and doing origami in “Japan.” Near the end of the day, students were put in small groups to discuss their experiences and talk about from where their ancestors originated. I have always been proud of my Indigenous ancestry and never miss an opportunity to declare that -— I am from the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and am a granddaughter of Mary Gouchie (d. 2019)! So, when it came around to my turn to announce my ancestry, I proudly said, “I am Aboriginal!” I distinctly remember one of my classmates saying, “But you don’t look like an Indian.”

I still remember how those words made me feel. “But you don’t look like an Indian,” while only uttered by a 10-year-old who did not know better, they were enough to plant a seed of doubt. Am I Indigenous? What does it mean to “look” Indigenous?, to “feel” Indigenous?, to “be” Indigenous? This early childhood experience set me on a path of feeling like I was walking through life with one foot in and one foot out — one foot walking proud of my ancestry, culture, and family, and one foot walking confused that while I look non-Indigenous on the outside, I feel Indigenous on the inside.

Fast forward to September 6, 2011, my first day of law school. I again found myself in a small group of students. I got a confused look from one of my new classmates when I said I am from a First Nation near Prince George, BC. The words that followed were very similar to the ones spoken over 20 years ago, “I’m sorry, but you don’t look Indian.” Between Grade 5 and 1L, I heard those words many times. So, I came up with an explanation that I use for almost every interaction where my ancestry is questioned, “Well, if you want to get ‘technical,’ my grandma was 100% Indigenous, my mom is 50% Indigenous, so I guess that makes me 25% Indigenous.” This usually satisfies most people, and they simply remark, “Oh, that’s why you don’t ‘look’ Indigenous.” But I have never felt “25% Indigenous.” I was heavily influenced by a strong Indigenous grandma; I spent many summers at fish camp watching my mom, aunts, and uncles pull salmon from the mighty Fraser River while all the kids helped with gutting and smoking them; and after spending some of my childhood in Alberta, took part in many sweat lodge ceremonies and round dances, and attended many powwows. These things make me feel “100% Indigenous” inside, even though I do not look like it on the outside.

Thanks to the hard work of Sharon McIvor and many others, I finally felt a sense of validation (in an odd way) when I got my Indian Status through Bill C-3. I felt torn, because up to that point I attributed my Indigenousness to a sense of belonging to the Lheidli T’enneh community, the acceptance of my family, and the different Indigenous cultures and practices I had learned over the years, not through a piece of plastic from the Canadian government. It was a strange feeling the day I received my status card; it was one of excitement as I held the card in my hands and thought to myself, “ah ha, now I have proof!,” but also a feeling of questioning, why do I need proof? It brought me back to the feelings of 10-year-old me, sad that my fellow classmates did not believe me when I said I was Indigenous. Looking back to 1990, all the years in between, and even today, where I still feel the need to “prove” my ancestry, and sadly, we have a long way to go to acknowledging there is not necessarily one way to “look” Indigenous, to “feel” Indigenous, or to “be” Indigenous. I am happy to say that as I get older, I get closer to walking with both feet on the same path.