Some Recent Writings

Whoa! It’s been a year and a half since I’ve posted anything here. That has to be a new record since I started blogging a long time ago! A lot has happened since my last post. I quit my day job at CBC. My second son was born. I completed the first draft of the sequel to Moon of the Crusted Snow. I got vaccinated against COVID-19. And so much more! I’ll offer up more details on all of those things when I can. But I’ve shared a bit about my recent life events in some fun freelance writings over the past year and a bit. Now that I’m a full-time author/sometimes freelance journalist, I have the freedom to explore some more personal and introspective kind of writing gigs, which has been fun. So I’ll highlight a few of them here, in hopes of prompting myself to write in this particular blog space a bit more. Here goes:

As the pandemic was intensifying in the Spring of 2020, the Toronto Star asked authors to write about how COVID-19 was affecting their lives. I chose to write about the impending birth of our son Ayaabe, and they published my reflection a little more than a week before he was born. It’s hard to believe he’s almost a year and a half already!

When I left daily journalism around the same time, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police prompted widespread discussions about systemic racism in all realms and sectors. I couldn’t help but reflect on my career and experiences in mainstream Canadian journalism, and what I witnessed over the course of nearly two decades. I was invited by Robert Jago to contribute to a series he edited for the Walrus called Terra Cognita, so I wrote a letter to aspiring Indigenous journalists.

By last fall I was deep into developing the sequel to Moon of the Crusted Snow. I read and listened to a lot of Anishinaabe stories and history to keep my head in the world I was trying to create. And then I had a major revelation about oral storytelling and memory while watching an old video of an elder from my home community, and wrote all about it for the Globe and Mail.

Also for the Globe last fall, I got to interview my friends and mentors Eden Robinson and Cherie Dimaline about the genres our stories inhabit as Indigenous writers. It was a really fun conversation!

Another really fulfilling opportunity that came up since I jumped back into the writing world full-time is a regular column for Open Book. You can find all of my writings over the past year and a bit here, and for one specific and always timely example, here’s a column on Indigenous identity and the responsibilities of telling stories.

Just in time for their annual early exit from the NHL playoffs, I wrote about being an Anishinaabe fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Walrus. Despite the loss, I really enjoyed looking back on my lifelong fandom, and the impact of George Armstrong on all of us Indigenous fans. Fandom for us isn’t always so straightforward.

Finally, with Indigenous history finally starting to be properly reflected in the mainstream Canadian psyche, I wrote about falling statues and changing names after recent events at my alma mater. 2021 was a year of significant change in this country’s awareness, and I was honoured to contribute to that discussion.

Those are just some of the writings I published over the past year and a half with Canadian periodicals. I’ll add another post in the coming weeks with some of the other projects I’ve been involved with since becoming a free agent. It’s been very rewarding to share these ideas and experiences far and wide, so big thanks to you all for your ongoing interest and support! In the meantime, you can always check my Facebook page for other writings and news.

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Reclaiming our names

Our son’s full name is Jiikwis Dean Manoominii. There are many stories behind it, as with any name in any culture. He’s lived with it for more than two and a half years now, and we all echo it proudly amongst friends, family, and strangers. He can pronounce every syllable now, which are the sweetest sounds to a parent’s ears.

My wife Sarah and I put a lot of thought into his name before he arrived. It was important to us as Anishinaabeg to have his name reflect his culture, language, and family history. And as is custom in many Anishinaabe communities, we asked for help to determine what he would be called for the rest of his life. Naming him was a family affair, and we didn’t want it any other way.

Shortly after we found out a child was coming to us, I offered my father semaa (tobacco) to find a name. Where I’m from, elders are often asked to help name children. It’s a custom steeped in respect and ceremony, and we were proud to carry it forward. My grandmother named me after her father; an act that has firmly connected me to my family and community throughout my life. We wanted the same for our child.

He was born early and very traumatically. He spent his first days without a name because we weren’t ready for him. As he and his mother recovered in hospital, my father and stepmother visited us. It was then we learned from my dad that our son would be called Jiikwis, a word that can mean “first born”, “first son”, or “oldest brother” in Anishinaabemowin. It refers to Majiikwis, a key figure in immemorial Anishinaabe stories.

His second name, Dean, is an homage to his great-grandfather of the same name on his mother’s side. She and I are both of mixed Anishinaabe and Canadian heritage, so we felt a name in English was important to include as well. Determining his last name, though, was a more significant act of reclamation.

Manoominii is a variation of the word for wild rice in the Anishinaabe language, and it’s what his wild rice-farming ancestors on my side used to be called. In the mid-19th Century, they were among a group of Potawatomi people who fled the territory now known as Wisconsin, forced out by the Indian Removal Act signed by U.S. President Andrew Jackson years earlier. They settled around the Great Lakes, joining people who had established long-standing Anishinaabe communities in the region.

When the Indian Act was passed in Canada in 1876, the federal government forced Indigenous people to register as “Indians” under the state. My great-great-grandfather, known as John Menominee, was told he had to change what was considered his last name in order to do so. (Anishinaabeg didn’t traditionally use last names, and how he came to be called John Menominee is unknown.)

The Canadian authorities gave him the surname “Rice” because it was a translation they identified for Menominee (Manoominii), and it’s what that branch of my family has been known as since. Our wild rice heritage was thus erased in name, and would only be passed down in story.

In recent decades, though, some of my relatives have reclaimed that identity. Two of my aunts legally changed Rice back to Menominee, and one of my uncles registered his children with that last name at birth. That inspired us to do the same for Jiikwis, using a more modern spelling according to the now widely-adopted double vowel system. And it was fairly easy to do.

When we registered his birth online through Service Ontario, we had the option to give him a different last name. It was as simple as selecting an option from a drop-down menu and typing Manoominii into a box. There was no additional cost, and his birth certificate arrived shortly after with his name spelled out as such, for as long as he decides to carry it.

He’ll know the stories of his names as he grows up. Hopefully he’ll be proud of them. But he’ll be very aware of the history of his people, and how colonialism has attempted to tear down and erase their identity. Just speaking his name is act of resistance and reclamation. They’re words and stories the settler authorities didn’t want spoken on this land any longer. Yet here they are, echoing for generations to come.

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Keeping the circle strong

Me and my dad c. 1980
Me and my dad c. 1980

It’s by and large a Hallmark holiday, but I do like to proclaim my love and thanks for my dad on Father’s Day, even though I’m grateful for him every day of the year. He’s always fulfilled the criteria of a good dad according to the sentimental cards and pop culture. He taught me how to shoot a puck, always kept the fire going, and took all the driving shifts on those long family trips. But he went above and beyond those stereotypical traits to try to raise his children the best he could even though he had no template to follow.

He came to the drum when I was a little boy, so I was very fortunate to grow up drumming and singing our Anishinaabe songs. It was a crucial part of a long and medicinal journey that brought him to ceremony and a deeper understanding of his culture and background. My mother, brothers and I benefited greatly from his reconnection with the Anishinaabe way of life. He sought the drum and our old ways for healing, and it helped us all thrive.

His own father died when he was just 29 years old. He fell off a boat on a cold fall morning just off the shore of our reserve and never came back up. He left behind a wife and five children all under the age of seven. My dad was just five years old. He has little memory of my grandfather, and wasn’t able to share much about him throughout my upbringing. But it was always clear to me that he grew up without a dad, and from a young age I imagined it must have been tough for him to learn how to be a father without having his own.

There were challenges, of course, but he still did a wonderful job raising us. And that’s become much more evident now that I have a son of my own. Parenthood is the ultimate test of a person, and although my journey is really just beginning, I have a much greater appreciation of my parents and the sacrifices they made for us to ensure we grew up in a good way. My dad really did have to figure out fatherhood on his own, and my mom supported him and us along that path.

It was pretty neat to see him reflect on that experience in this video with other Indigenous men that came out a few years ago:

PERFORMANCE – First Nation Dad Roles from Brian Russell on Vimeo.

Although ultimately heartfelt and hopeful, these candid reflections illustrate the widespread, tragic challenges of Indigenous fatherhood on Turtle Island. Colonialism, forced assimilation, and ongoing oppression have severely damaged traditional parenting practices and ideals. Violence like residential schools and the enforcement of the Indian Act infected Anishinaabe masculinity with a brutal toxicity that lingers and continues to manifest itself in horrible ways.

As a result, Indigenous fathers are expected to neglect or destroy. And that happens. But it’s important to remember what’s at the root of that behaviour and why many of these men are struggling. Otherwise stereotypes of the violent or absent Native dad will persist and even become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many young men who become fathers. It’s ultimately up to them to break those cycles, but they need a supportive and understanding community to empower and enable them.

Being a father is the greatest joy I have ever known. My son is the greatest gift I have ever received. I love every moment with him; from teaching him to talk to tempering his tantrums. I walk proudly with him, whether it’s pushing his stroller or taking his hand in mine. Making it just a year and a half into this journey feels like my greatest accomplishment. He teaches me something new every day, and I can’t wait to keep walking on the rest of this path with him.

My responsibility as a father is to raise him to be kind and respectful. It’s on me to ensure that he grows up as a loving and humble person who treats everyone around him as he’d want to be treated. I want him to be patient and polite, and to try to be positive whenever he can. I hope he follows his dreams and never denies his feelings. These are some of the basic values that guide parents in all cultures and nations in raising decent human beings.

These are ideals that were embedded deeply in me thanks to my parents, my family, and my community, despite the intergenerational trauma of displacement and assimilation. Violent cycles were broken, but more importantly, a strong circle was maintained. Strong Indigenous parenthood is about creating and sustaining viable communities, and at the core, survival.

Me and my son Jiikwis, 2018
Me and my son Jiikwis, 2018

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