Stories have a way of finding us when we need them.
Fall, 2010. I sit in the board room at York Catholic District School Board. It is the first day of the Barrie Region Aboriginal Education Professional Learning Community (PLC). David Bouchard is our guest speaker.
Since I was a teenager I have felt a connection to First Nation and Metis culture. One summer in the early 1990s I bought a copy of Michael Robinson’s poetry at the French River Trading Post, The Freedom of Silence. The next summer I bought another, Touching the Serpent’s Tale. I read the books many times. Robinson’s words and pictures were treasures of my adolescence. Robinson’s poetry inspired me to feel connected to something greater than myself.
By the mid-nineties I was reading Tomson Highway’s plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Highway’s work is my greatest influence as a playwright. At Trent University I served on the Otonabee Council for a couple of years. One of my positions was Cultural Representative. The best perk of this position was that I was invited to amazing events. In about 1996 I attended a dinner (with 30 or so other people from the university) with Tomson Highway. I remember it was a magical evening. It was one of my first encounters with a real writer, one of my heroes.
Trent University invited me to dine with Thomas King too. He was my favourite novelist at the time. I was drawn to stories written by and about First Nations and Metis people.
I regret not taking a Native Studies course at Trent University during my undergraduate years. Trent’s Indigenous Studies department established itself as a leader in the 1970s. It continues to lead the way. While I write this post I am reminded of the cliché, “it is never too late.” I will add taking an Indigenous Studies course to my bucket list.
On the streets of Peterborough people would approach me at least once a week. They asked about my people. They wanted to know where I was from, who I belonged to–I could not tell them. I did not know. Other First Nations and Metis people saw something in me that I did not see in myself.
A hunger grew to metaphorically meet my grandmother. I think she whispered my name, calling me to find her through the poetry, the books, the art, the people on the street.
The Petroglyphs in Peterborough and a subsequent trip to the Whetung Gallery fanned the flames of my connection to the past, the lost stories of my ancestors. Whetung Gallery introduced me to Drew Hayden Taylor and Maxine Noel.
I began to ask questions, interview family members, search online, attempt to repair the broken links to yesterday.
In 2008 I joined the Aboriginal Advisory Circle in the school board. This work led me to the fall of 2010, to the circle in a board room, to the inspiring presence of David Bouchard. I had journeyed for 20 years to find my grandmother. As Bouchard read The Secret of Your Name my breath slowed, my heart drummed.
“But years have washed away / All signs that should have led to you / Years and miles have hidden / All the clues that would have told of you,” Bouchard read.
After the readings and the flute playing and the discussion of literacy, Bouchard signed books. I bought about half a dozen.
When I reached the front of the line with my pile of books and it was my turn, I thanked him: “That was awesome. I really enjoyed today. Thank-you.”
Bouchard was humble, gracious.
“I just found out last summer that I am Metis,” I blurted. I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks. I was not used to saying it aloud yet. I had not given myself permission to own this truth.
Bouchard smiled. His eyes met mine. It felt like he looked beyond my pupils, through my thoughts, and into a bigger, faraway, interconnected place. “What is your grandmother’s name?” he asked.
I gulped. “I forget.” I wanted to look away. Run.
Bouchard leaned in toward me. “Get a tattoo,” he said. “Tattoo your grandmother’s name.”
It is January 2012. I am too squeamish for a tattoo, but I remember my grandmother’s name.
Agibicocona. My great(x4)-grandmother’s name is Agibicocona.