My sister stood on the dirt road, shoes caked in mud, the long dark strands of hair blowing in the wind, her 8-year-old fists clenched at her side. The fight with our neighbour had started with something small, I am sure. Perhaps it was over conflicting tree house construction concepts or whose dog bit who. Maybe it was a dispute over a contested bike race. I don’t remember how it started, but I remember how it ended.
“Well at least my sister isn’t white!” Our neighbour yelled at my sister. Silence. There was no rebuttal. The fight was over. The battle lost. My sister and I walked home defeated. I remember feeling like I had let her down.
This memory has become crystallized in my mind. Those words yelled between kids on a dirt road all those years ago has shaped me in many ways. It is one of my clearest memories. It was the first time of many times in my life when I would be told I didn’t look “Indian.”
I work in theatre, mainly as a playwright. My first play Salt Baby has done well for itself. It has toured across the country and had multiple readings. From the Yukon to Six Nations, the play has legs. The story wasn’t a hard one to find. Salt Baby is about a young Mohawk/Tuscarora woman from Six Nations who is struggling to fit in both on the Rez and in the city. She is told she looks “white” wherever she goes.
While writing Salt Baby I thought about the fight on the road, but I also thought about being in the city and the stories that I have collected there. Store clerks have examined my status card for authenticity so many times that I have just stopped using it. People have told me that they hate “Indians” straight to my face without knowing I am one. I used to think of myself as a spy or a double agent – an insider covertly slipping between worlds. I tried to find power in the hurt of being invisible.
When I was writing the play I really had to think about what I was saying or wanting to say with Salt Baby. Over the years I have struggled with the message, but the piece continues to be programmed and produced, so I know that there is something there that needs to be heard both by Indigenous people and non-Indigenous folks. I don’t look like the image of an airbrushed Indian woman on a t-shirt you can buy at the pow wow, I don’t have long dark braids, I tan unevenly, I was a vegetarian for ten years, I can’t ride a horse, I can count to ten in Cayuga, but that is it.
I am told that “I don’t look it” by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but both my parents are from Six Nations so isn’t this what it looks like? The answer is obvious to me. I hope one day the rest of the world catches up.