Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and fellow author Cherie Dimaline at the Canadian Museum of Civilization as part of its Indigenous and Urban series. We talked about her books and the common theme of balancing Indigenous identity and city life found in many of her stories. It’s a challenge for a lot of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people living in cities, especially those coming from distant, remote communities. Simply put, it’s about trying to maintain already-battered traditional ways of life in a rapidly-evolving, foreign environment. “Walking in two worlds” is an oft-echoed cliché. But at the event, an audience member brought up an interesting concept that I think can better define the experience: fluidity. She said the increasing ability of modern Indigenous people to balance both ways of life in the city is testament to our resilience. And I think that’s something we should try to achieve.
It’s a notion that hits home for me more than ever. This year I turned 34, and that means I’ve been an urban Anishinaabe for half of my life now. I left my community when I was 17 to travel to Germany as an exchange student. After that, I moved to Toronto for university. My career since took me to Winnipeg and now Ottawa. It’s a weird full-circle, because my parents were university students here in Ottawa when they found out I was coming along. They decided they wanted to raise a family on my dad’s rez and make sure their kids had a chance to eventually learn about being Anishinaabe (the culture wasn’t a major influence in the community at the time). So they dropped everything and moved home. It was major sacrifice and a brave decision, especially for my non-Indigenous mom.
That was the greatest gift they ever gave me and I’ll always be thankful for that upbringing. I learned a lot about ceremony and a fair bit about language, and those are two crucial elements I carry with me in my everyday city life to keep me grounded. But on days when the urban grind becomes two busy and overwhelming, I often neglect those gifts, and it’s not until I’m back in the community that I feel I can really reconnect with them. Hence, the “walking in two worlds” paradox perseveres.
So staying fluid in order to keep that balance is crucial. Whether it’s practicing the language or even smudging, I’ve found that those small defining reminders have comforted me on the busiest days. And it goes beyond simple posturing or regimen. Urban Indigenous communities are growing across the country, so there are greater supports than ever to keep the cultures alive and to stay proud of them. Here in Ottawa, some of my friends have even started an Ojibway language group that meets on a regular basis.
That’s not to naively suggest that we can solve all our identity issues by going through small motions. Indigenous cultures have been historically brutalized in this country and it’ll take a lot more time and effort to heal them. It’s an ongoing process. And every individual’s situation is unique. It’s not as easy for some of us to connect with the community or even feel comfortable taking part in ceremonies. But Indigenous identity is more prevalent in cities now than it’s ever been, and that’s something we can all be proud of.
I hope to return to my community for good someday, especially when it comes time to raise children of my own. Although it’s been half my lifetime ago since I lived there, I’m still fortunate enough to have a great connection to the land through my family and friends. And when my kids grow up there, they’ll be even prouder of the culture that will continue to reanimate and flourish around them. Hopefully it will be as natural and comfortable as water easing up and caressing a beach.