We were honored to have Natasha Johnson, the Program Coordinator for an Indigenous Youth Employment Program in Vancouver, BC, as one of the esteemed presenters at our conference in Lille. In her deeply moving speech, Natasha shared her personal journey and unique perspective as an individual of both Indigenous and white heritage. Her emotional account shed light on the complexities of identity, belonging, and the challenges faced by Indigenous communities. Through her powerful storytelling, Natasha captivated the audience and provided a thought-provoking insight into the experiences and struggles faced by Indigenous peoples. Her speech served as a reminder of the importance of understanding and embracing diverse perspectives in our collective pursuit of social justice and equality.
Aaniin, boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog
Miskwaa Dibik Giizis idizhnikaaz.
Michi Saagiig, Mishiikenh Minissing nindoonjii.
What I just said was a traditional Ojibwe Introduction protocol greeting amongst the Ojibwe-speaking Anishinaabe people.
And now I will repeat in English:
Greetings, all of my relatives.
It is a good day.
Natasha Meryl Miskwaa Dibik Giizis Johnson is my name. Miskwaa Dibik Giizis is my Ojibwe name, and it translates to Red Moon.
Turtle is my clan.
Curve Lake First Nation #35, Turtle Island is where I am from.
And now I will begin. I’m honoured to be here today to share my story with you.
I am a program coordinator for an Indigenous Youth Employment Program in Vancouver, BC, which is situated on the stolen, un-surrendered, traditional territory of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (‘Musqueam’), Skwxwú7mesh (‘Squamish’), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (‘Tsleil-Waututh’) Nations, and people who have occupied the land since time immemorial. This is a land where 1000-year-old trees are not protected, but 50 years old buildings are.
There is so much work to be done on the decolonizing front across Turtle Island, to give the land back to the original occupants and to work with them to decide how the land is used. We are in a time now where this is a conversation that is starting to happen more frequently, in safe spaces, and beginning to pick up a bit of momentum, though it is still in early days, and some places are certainly more ready to do this than others.
On a personal level, as a person of Ojibwe Anishinaabe first nations ancestry on my Dad’s side, and a person of English settler ancestry on my mother’s side, my existence is a result of colonization. In fact, my Dad once shared with me that he now believes he married my mother because of his internalized colonization. Both of his brothers also married white women. He and his parents all went to Day School, and his grandfather went to Residential School. And now I have begun the process of assessing my life and ways I live to try and focus more of the Anishinaabe teachings that resonate much closer to my heart and soul.
I’ve been told it is a luxury to ‘be able to walk in both worlds’, although I do think that over-simplifies it and even minimizes my experience, even if it is well-intentioned. After all, colonization has affected us all. And I have something to say, too. On one hand I was more able to bypass racism growing up, although I also didn’t manage to get through unscathed. On the other hand, I have also experienced discrimination from people in the indigenous community for ‘not being native enough’. In my experience this can unfortunately be quite common. I blame colonization for this infighting, and I understand where it comes from. It comes from self-protection. And who wouldn’t be fearful of the other side if they’d lived through so much oppression and abuse?
All this said, there is no way I can apologize for my blood, or my existence – nor can anyone, in my opinion. I can’t apologize for being born only half native. I can’t apologize for being born half white. At times I have found myself feeling jealous of people who look more native than me, like my sister for example, however I do know that they experience more racism. I have always felt very proud of my Anishinaabe blood, and I feel more connected to that way of life. It makes more sense to me, and I feel safer and more whole living it and learning it.
I have been in my current role of Coordinator for an Indigenous Youth Employment Program with Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House now for almost 3 years. There are many things I really love about my job, but I’ll keep the list it short for your sake:
- Working with Indigenous youth aged 16-29 from all different backgrounds across turtle island, and blends of ancestry.
- Facilitating workshops for them to identify their skills & strengths, goals, build resumes and cover letters, and figure out how to get where they want to go
- Helping to build their confidence in themselves so that they can take next steps towards meaningful work, schooling, training, or a career; I believe the world is a better place when Indigenous, Black, and People of Colour are in all spaces, careers, and roles.
- Feeling like I’m in the job I have trained my whole life for.
One of the ways I feel that I’ve really found the job for me, is that the Association of Neighbourhood Houses of BC is really committed to doing the decolonization work. When I was invited to join in on a [decolonization] Strategic Planning session 2 years ago I had no idea it would eventually lead to me as part of a delegation of 5 indigenous people being invited to come to France. I am very grateful for this opportunity.
The more I do this work at the neighbourhood house, the more I am starting to peel away at the pieces that were never me; the pieces of me that told me I was to be ashamed of myself and the way I learned, looked, and spoke. All these silly and harmful rules that became words I thought were real and important, making me unworthy and a misfit. Now Unravelling. Now Evacuating my body. This opens space within me to learn more about Anishinaabe teachings; the ones that are connected to the land. I am learning to love more, and to fear less, although I will also admit that some fears hold on tight. I know they made a home in my body for protection reasons, and so I am trying my best to love those too. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge there is value in both sides of my ancestry, and also that I AM privileged to be able to walk in both worlds, despite the complexities that are not addressed in the simplicity of that statement.
One of the things I’m doing to reconnect to my Anishinaabe side is that I’ve started to flip through Ojibwe language dictionaries. From these I learn the teachings from the meanings of the words, and it brings context and a fuller understanding for the ways in which the Anishinaabe lived, and how they perceived their connection and relationship to the land, plants, animals, seasons, weather, people, places, and things; all their relations. And, from what I’ve learned, this is a common thread for those who lived in harmony with the land; their languages express and teach of these relationships.
I will share a word with you that I find expresses this connection: The Ojibwe word for medicine is ‘mishkiikii’. This translates to ‘strength of the earth’.
Mishkiikii, medicine, can be found on the ground or in the water, but it can also be carried on you, and, just as we are part of the earth, mishkiikii is carried within us. Mishkiikii can be a plant salve that you can put onto broken skin, it can be a plant that carries a message when burned as smudge or incense, or it can be something like a difficult choice or experience you learned the hard way, and alchemized into golden wisdom. You can look to different animals to learn the type of wisdom they carry. My dodem is Turtle, and invite you to consider the type of medicine a turtle would carry.
All these different type of mishkiikiiyag are valuable. I now want to encourage you to look at your story, and see what your mishkiikii is.
Apichiigo miigwetch bizindawiyeg. That is all I have to share for today, Thank you for listening.