By Chloe Dragon Smith
My name is Chloe Dragon Smith. I am a Chipewyan-European-Metis woman from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
When I was a little girl, I thought I had more skin pigment than I do. Most of the women I loved were brown; ones who gave the best hugs and who I saw myself reflected in. The reality of my colouring really hit in high school and university - when I left the north. I regularly experienced: “…but you’re not really native” framed as some sort of compliment. My new friends would laugh affectionately when I would explain my race as non-Caucasian. It wasn’t funny to me.
I was often privy to shockingly blatant racism, from acquaintances and even those I called friends, when they thought they were surrounded by a like-minded white crowd. I felt, and I feel, deeply hurt as an Indigenous woman. At that time, I constantly felt the need to have my mom around for proof of identity in the company of everyone - white, Indigenous, and all other. If she couldn’t be present, it wouldn’t be long before a picture would surface.
Some genealogy: my Setsune’ (grandma in Chipewyan) is a full blooded treaty Indian. My grandpa was French. My mom is a mix of those two, while my dad has western European roots (mainly German).
You know how when a white dog has puppies with a brown dog; some turn out white, some turn out brown, and some turn out a kinda patchy mix? Right, well, that’s my extended family on my mom’s side. We look like paint palate from cream to chestnut. As a northerner, I am closest with this colourful clan, and grew up lucky enough to practice traditional ways of life. We lived with the land, hunting and fishing and enjoying all it has to offer. I come from a long lineage of strong, northern Indigenous mothers, and it shaped who I am.
The identity of an Indigenous northerner, although clear to me, has not always clear to others. In November 2014, I was set to talk at an international conference about being from the north, being connected to the land, and being Indigenous. Coming straight out of summer, my hair was sun bleached from its regular light-medium brown to a decisive dirty blond, streaked with the odd unruly feather of platinum. I went through a defining personal struggle of whether or not to dye my hair dark brown, in order to be taken seriously. Twice I bought the dye, and twice I threw it out. I wrestled my demons for three weeks leading up to the conference. Eventually, I decided on inaction. I did not beat my demons in that moment, but neither did I dye my hair.
Two years later, I walk a continual path towards peace. I can see in hindsight that I made the right decision for myself, and my demons (at least my hair demons), are mostly silenced. I take cautious pride in demonstrating that people don’t have to look a certain way to be authentically themselves. This is especially valid in creating depth of understanding towards Indigenous people, since much of Canada does not have the tools to see past a stereotype – a ‘dead Indian’ in the words of Thomas King (ref: The Inconvenient Indian). I am a dimension of Indigeneity in this country, as is every single Indigenous person.
I recognize the privileges I inherently have – passing as white, belonging to a family that did not suffer directly from the legacy of residential schools, and living in the north where Indigenous culture and people take up far more space than in the south.
Today, I choose to be mindful of these privileges, while ensuring they don’t define my own perception of who I am and my personal culture. Lately, I am working on learning Chipewyan. I am interested in issues of Indigenous communities, health, and governance, and I am always looking to learn more. I still get out to the bush to harvest and live with the land. These privileges have helped carve out my place in this world, and they have given me an important platform. I cannot diminish the contributions my grandfather and my own father made to my skin and my personality; they are both great men and role models for me.
My Setsune’ is a wise woman. One quote from her that I take to heart is: “Culture is who you are and how you live your life”. I am acutely aware of this difference between traditional culture and each of our own personal, evolving cultures. I am proud of mine. We can all be proud of ours. In the north, people from many different backgrounds come together and northern culture has evolved into a shared culture - with deep roots in Indigenous traditions. My hope is to see this mindset extend all across the country. Every Canadian can take pride in the traditional culture that is tied to this land we now live on together; this land we call Canada today.
I feel lucky to be Chipewyan-European-Metis. My roots enable me to understand (and on a good day, articulate) issues from different places deep within myself. Metis people can have a foot in two worlds, and I believe we are here to help reconcile differences between people, cultures, time, space, and deep hurt. There are endless stories, many I cannot speak for. There is confusion and pain from all sides and healing will take time. But I will never stop doing my part. I want to live in a world where we all celebrate the first people on this land and our beautiful, ever-evolving shared culture.