Rants For Thought

Like a Boomerang: Navigating Referred Trauma as a Native

Referred trauma is a relatively new science. It’s actually so new, most people don’t know what it is.

I can only explain it insofar as how it’s affected me. Referred trauma is the science of trauma changing your DNA. It happens when your parents, or grandparents, or their grandparents, undergo a traumatic experience that then changes who they are deep inside. It’s not just emotional. It’s actually in your DNA. And while you’re changed by it, you’re not the only one. Your children, and their children, generations on, will also be changed.

As an Ojibwe, I am affected by referred trauma. The only difference is, it’s not an echo of what went before. It’s a constant reminder beating in my ears, a constant nudge against my skin. Because when you’re Native, trauma happens all the time, and it will hit you when you least expect it.

Last year, I stood in front of a sculpture done by a Native artist, hundreds of toy planes whirling on strings in front of me. Each bore a tiny little figure inside. Each had the symbol of the Allies painted on the wing. And I felt like I was going to cry, because my 90-year-old grandfather’s basement is full of these planes, these winged machines of different sizes, each with its symbol proudly painted on the wing. What he doesn’t tell you is that he was proud to fight, but not for Canada. He fought for the States, because Canada would have stripped him of his status as a Native, even while they sent him off to potentially die.

I don’t know much Ojibwe. I’m learning it as I go. A word here, a phrase there. It’s a gorgeous language – it sounds like a song. But speaking it, knowing that so many of us don’t understand it, is hard. Because it’s hard to get past the fact that the schools beat it out of our ancestors, so that now, it’s dying. The elders speak it, sibilant sounds whispered back and forth, gentle sighs and vowels pronounced in long strings. My grandfather’s first language was Ojibwe. He doesn’t know any of it now; he tells me that his teacher beat them for speaking “Indian language”.

I watch my Indigenous artist friends as they paint, as they make jewellery and they talk amongst themselves about how the art is done. Some grew up on-reserve, with people to show them the ways. Others, like me, grew up away from the reserve, only being introduced as adults. And we watch as that art, those ways, are taken by white artists for their own gain – or worse, taken by companies to plaster all over their clothing and jewellery, to sell the painstaking handiwork, passed down from generation to generation, for $34.99 and less if you buy two.

It hurts in a place deep down, a place that others, white-skinned, sneer at, focusing on the colour of my skin, as if looks are the only valid way to feel generational pain. As if my face buys me a ticket to understanding the media circus surrounding the many dead and missing Native sisters all over the world. I see those women’s faces. They look like mine. But these critics laugh at me, telling me how I can never understand and should just stop trying. “White porcelain skin,” they jeer. “You know nothing about any of this. You’re not really Native. You have no right.”

And the trauma comes back – it hits me, hard, because we’ve been told for years that white people will tell us how Native we’re allowed to be. Our names are scrolled on registers, thousands of them, and next to them, our blood quantum. They even had names for us. “Half-breed”. “Redskin”. “Dirty Indian”. Yeah, we’ve heard them all. Or worse, we’re called nothing at all, because you’ve erased us completely – physically, and emotionally. Because if we don’t fit into your little box, well. We may as not be here at all.

I carry this while I explore the richness of my culture. The smiles of my people – their faces like mine. Green eyes repeat over and over in the Ojibwe faces. Green eyes exactly like mine.

The boomerang won’t be broken in our lifetime. It won’t even be broken in our children’s lifetime. But beyond the referred trauma, I focus on the identity and culture I was denied most of my life. And I grow in it. I am proud of it. And no one can ever take that from me.


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