Child’s leather moccasin (Blackfoot: Siksika?)
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
October 2, 2009
Over the last few years I have been recovering aspects of my peculiar North American inheritance. My most recent thoughts were prompted by a visit by the Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair to speak at the Harvard University Native American Program. Mr. Justice Sinclair chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, investigating and proposing corrective measures arising from the long-term acculturation of indigenous children through Indian residential schools. The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, formally apologized for this program in June, 2008.
My father did not go to such a school. My grandfather took him to England. The effect was similar. He lost all connection with the indigenous people of Alberta, where he had been born in 1917. Although I was brought up in England without any sense of an Indian connection from my father, I learned a little about this from my grandfather. My great uncle invariably sent me Indian things from Alberta when I was little. I remember the smoky smell of my moccasins.
I still habitually walk around the house in moccasins—many people do—but I place my weight on the ball of my foot before the heel. Jane told me she had long noticed this, but had dismissed it as just another of my eccentricities. But it isn’t. It’s Indian. I recently remembered that as a child I had a tendency to flat-footedness. To counter it, my grandfather taught me to walk as he himself had learned.
In one sense all this is ridiculously trivial, yet I have found myself writing and teaching more and more on indigenous North American topics, and wondering why. Mr. Justice Sinclair’s visit brought home to me that I am dealing with a sense of loss and confusion. He spoke of the cruelty of cultural erasure; of people living as whites who agreed to talk to the commission on condition that their Indian identities should not be revealed before their deaths, even to their own children, because of the sense of shame that residential schools had inculcated in them when young. I am a naturalized American who was brought up English, but despite my immigration record proclaiming me a relative newcomer to North America, I have been here longer than my entire life. Something of my grandfather lingers—and in more than the way I walk.