I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.
Pope Francis July 25, 2022
Pope Francis is in Alberta on a ‘penitential journey’ — to recognize the damage done to Indigenous children who were taken from their families, banned from using their native language, forced to abandon their culture and in many cases abused physically, sexually, and emotionally.
This is a family story.
This is a picture of my Grandmother’s Grandmother, Marie.
Marie’s mother’s name was Neganasinokwe which may mean something like Singing Woman or She Sings. Or it could be something completely misrepresentative like Margaret. That’s what is on the censuses, Margaret. You see, the language was taken from them and that included their names.
Margaret’s mother’s name was listed as Catherine Chippewa Martin. Clearly a manufactured name designating that she was Chippewa or Ojibwe, that her confirmational name or Saint’s name was Catherine. And Martin? That could mean anything. It could mean that the Priest who took her and her child was named Martin or the church wherein she was baptised was St. Martin’s. That Margaret’s father is known at all is unusual. His name was Ginishtano which may mean ‘He Has Fine Hair’.
There’s an intriguing record that indicates that Ginishtano was much older than his wife whose Ojibwe name is lost forever and that he was well respected. He is misidentified as a Chief. What Whites failed to recognize was that there were many chiefs; one for hunting, one for war, one to negotiate with the colonizers. Ginishtano acted as a representative of, among others, the Lac Courte Oreille band of Ojibwe from upper Wisconsin and Canada in the process of developing treaties that were never honoured. His signature, marked with an X, is prominent on a number of documents. But gradually, whites defying those treaties drew a drawstring around the hunting places and strangled the ability of the people to move from place to place in the ancient ways until finally they were confined inland from the Southern shore of Lake Superior.
Eventually, almost as if it were planned, the people found they could not sustain themselves without the ability to hunt in their normal nomadic ways. They were forced to build their temporary birch shelters in a permanent spot on the reservation set aside for them and accept government ‘assistance’. In the 1840’s and 50’s part of that government assistance (insistence) was schooling for the children.
The record, written by an Indian Agent who was deciding how much food people were getting and what to do with all these children indicated that Ginishtano called Margaret, his very young daughter, ‘my third wife’s daughter’ or something that might have sounded like Neganasinokwe. The Indian Agent’s answer to the starving children? Remove them from their homes and ship them to schools, good Catholic Schools run by altruistic Priests and Nuns where the red would be bleached out of their skin and they could then make good citizens. Good subservient citizens. Oh, and by the way, erase their language, their names, their identifying clothes and habits and any connections they may have to their families and their previous lives. It was genocide by assimilation.
Catherine disappears from any stories. It’s highly likely she died very quickly. But Margaret is found married at fifteen to Pierre by whom she has several children including Marie pictured above. Pierre is French Canadian but he signs up to fight in the Civil War and eventually dies around 1863 at Andersonville.
Margaret remarries and though she is 100% Ojibwe, she is listed on all further censuses as white. Because, it is assumed, her husband is white and therefore… however, there is evidence her second husband was also likely at least part Ojibwe but well, being white was considered more advantageous.
My Grandmother told me story after story, many true and some verifiable. Some were clearly long in imagination and short on truth. For instance, she swore up and down that her Grandmother on her Father’s side was Agnes Lee, Robert E Lee’s daughter. Aside from the terrible heritage that would have followed that association, it seemed highly unlikely to me that a Private in the Northern Army would have had anything to do with the daughter of the leader of the Confederate Troops. But she insisted, so I went to the library. Agnes Lee daughter of Robert died unmarried and without children. Our Agnes Lee, daughter of John was from Delaware not Virginia. When presented with that fact my Grandmother made physical the phrase ‘sit tight’. That was her answer to many a confrontation.
But this fantasy was indicative of the ‘romantic’ racist nonsense of the ‘Lost Cause’ that permeated everything immediately post-Civil War and well in to Grandmother’s formative years. It was purposefully forgotten that the Civil War was fought over slavery except by those who wanted to make certain that slavery continued in more subtle forms, like oppressive statues and statutes to remind people that they were still looked down upon. These racist remnants still haunt us all in more ways than I can list here.
Why is this important? Grandmother was the product of ‘passing’. It was imperative to her that she be seen as ‘white’. She knew well enough what it meant to fail that test in the early 20th century. It wasn’t until I was an adult and the government in the form of the Indian Bureau of Affairs came looking that she fully admitted that her grandmother was Ojibwe. On almost every census Marie, who married that white man, and her children are listed as white. My Grandmother’s mother had blue eyes. Grandmother’s grandmother did not. It was explained to me that the reason for this was because Marie was ‘French’.
I always wondered why my Grandmother had such a prejudice against brown eyes. I am sure this was evidence of her racist beliefs but it was also out of fear. Being thought of as something other than white when she was born meant being threatened in Grandmother’s mind. She wasn’t wrong about that. She certainly had evidence in her own family where the brown-eyed half went to reservations, poverty, alcohol problems and early deaths while the ones that were blue-eyed and ‘white’ prospered. This is the way of an ugly world.
The apology that Pope Francis made is one that is aimed up at the matrilineal line of my family. Large portions of this line slithered down into the White world because they could and it was encouraged by the times and overt racism. It wasn’t always easy. They were found out several times, called ‘half-breeds’ and other even less savoury epithets. They faced prejudice and racism but it has to be acknowledged, not like that faced by black people. The worst thing for them was that they lost so much understanding of who they were. The connective tissue of culture and experience was severed and it will never now be repaired. We who are left are too white and most of the family have no desire to understand this loss. Some of us know it’s there, out of reach and shimmering but nothing we can grasp and call our own. Some of my family are wholly comfortable with the role they play in the world as white men of privilege, Republicans, Christians and proponents of the American Theocracy. This makes me very sad and a little sick.
I feel lucky to know as much about my family history as I do. Some of it comes from family stories, things written down by people who were taught to hide their origins as much as possible. Some of it comes from painstaking research. I only know a tiny portion of the truth but at least I have that.
I don’t know how to feel about the Pope’s apology. On the one hand it is about time. On the other, how is this going to help? What else is going to happen to right the many wrongs? Anything? I guess we’ll see if these are empty words said because it sounds good or something more. Perhaps words meant to move the world toward understanding ourselves and others better. And dare I say it, reparations for those who have suffered the most.