IN CONSIDERATION OF BELLY BUTTONS

by Sylvie Vigneux 

 

This piece emerges, in part, from the work I’ve been doing on my Master’s thesis, which takes up representations of violence against Indigenous women and the many ways in which they are made to go missing and to become smaller. I would like to acknowledge the hard work and activism of Indigenous women who challenge these violences and refuse to be made small.   

I have been spending a lot of time considering my belly button. It would be fair to say that, for most of my life, I never thought about it at all, never thought of it as something to think about. It has taken me a long time to recognize the question that inhabits this nook of my body. Yet, now that I am considering my belly button, I have found it to be a surprisingly uncomfortable exercise—not at all what I expected from such a disarmingly innocuous part of myself. In other moments, this act of consideration has made me feel warm and connected in ways I also did not expect but that, I imagine, were there all along.

I did not come to this act of consideration on my own. The questions have always been there, tucked away and out of sight, but the framework for asking them was gifted to me only a few months ago as I sat in a conference room in downtown Edmonton. I was there for the weekly meeting of the creative research collective of which I am a member. One collective member was sharing a story she had heard from a friend, a story of mistranslation and crossed wires. This friend had been introduced to an Elder who asked her, in Cree, where she was from. At least, that is what she thought he asked her. She responded, naturally, with where she was from and the places she had lived. “No,” he insisted, pointing firmly at her belly button and repeating the question. They went back and forth like this for a while until she realized her mistake. Tante ohci kiya? The Elder was asking her not where are you from, but who are you from.

Who are you from?

Cree scholar Dwayne Donald describes colonialism as “an extended process of denying relationship.” He argues that if you want to think about the future you have to work backwards, “[tracing] out the lineages that brought the current conditions into being.” As I try to do this work of looking backwards, I’m becoming uncomfortably aware of the colonial rupturing of relationality Donald describes in my own family. Asking myself the question Who do you come from? requires that I confront a history of state-mandated denial rooted in the legislative erasure of Indigenous mothers and the patriarchal severing of matrilineal kinship ties. I must reckon with the ways I am implicated in an erasure that takes shape not through physical violence but through the legal and discursive violence of legislating identities into non-existence. And so, faced with my own implication, I am considering my belly button and the relationships that it signifies.

“My family history is complicated,” I tell people. I say this, hoping that the vagueness of the phrase will leave room for my inarticulateness and hesitance. There is so much I don’t know, so much that leaves me conflicted and uncertain.

My mum’s family is Irish Catholic. Following their potato-famine-induced exodus from Ireland, they bought their land from the Canada Company and settled in Essex County, Ontario. From what I can tell, I am the first generation in my family not steeped in what my Aunt Helen calls a “particular brand of Southern Ontario Irish Catholicism.” Talking with her on the phone recently, I couldn’t scribble fast enough as she rattled off the names of all the priests and nuns to whom I’m related. A taste: of my grandmother’s five brothers, four were priests; my great-grandmother was given a plaque from the Pope and the “Mother of the Year” award from the Catholic Women’s League, presumably for producing so many mouthpieces of God.

Their lives, like those of my dad’s paternal family, are well documented. Growing up, I remember the book tracing the growth of the Vigneux family tree from its origins in France twelve generations earlier gathering dust on our shelf year after year. I flipped through it once or twice, but it did not seem to be pressing research. The information would always be there, should I need it.

As a kid, I was much more interested in the elliptically voiced knowledge that my father’s maternal grandmother was Indigenous. Her biography was certainly not written down anywhere and, although my dad shared this information openly with me, he did so without elaboration. When I asked about it, his response was, invariably, “You’d have to ask my mother.” Looking back, it is with a queasy sense of shame that I remember trying to “do the math” to figure out “how Native” that made me. Beyond this childish curiosity, though, the knowledge of Indigenous heritage had little impact on me. It just didn’t factor in.

In ‘Real’ Indians and Others, Mi’kmaw scholar Bonita Lawrence describes the impact of the taken-for-granted irrelevance of Indigenous identity in her own family:

Before her death, my mother … routinely distanced herself from her Native identity—acknowledging it primarily by deprecating it. On the one hand, she was not comfortable with being identified as Native. On the other hand, she also did not feel that she was a “real” Indian, since she did not grow up in a Native community and did not learn Mi’kmaq. Like her siblings, she had long since learned to see her Native identity as irrelevant. … Our generation in my family now lives with the repercussions of having been brought up to consider our Native heritage, at very deep levels, to be meaningless.

This passage has come to resonate deeply with me as I delve further into my family history. Now, as I consider my belly button, I realize that questions of colonization and implication are no longer merely an intellectual exercise. Who I am from is deeply inflected with overlapping histories of colonizer and colonized, histories that are alive in my family in ways I am only beginning to understand. But asking these questions also means pushing against the “profound silences” required by a dominant cultural context in which it is assumed that “Indianness will continue to die with mixed-bloodedness and urbanity.” In this paradigm, the gradual extinction of Indigenous identity is naturalized, which is precisely the calculated aim of a colonial government that needs Indigenous peoples to just disappear already so they can carry on with happy daydreams of terra nullius and “no history of colonialism.” The preferred Canadian way to achieve this aim? Legislating Indigenous identity out of existence. Start with the mothers.

I have spent a lot of time over the past weeks on the phone with my grandmother, my great-aunt, my parents, and assorted aunts and uncles. I knew I could not write this piece without them, not only because I wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about, but because it mattered to me that they knew what I was attempting. It has been in these moments that the knot in my stomach unclenches, that the fear that I am doing something wrong and selfish and arrogantly appropriative eases, and I feel warm and connected.

Over the course of these conversations, I have learned that I am not alone in my desire to learn more about this part of my heritage. I have learned that my dad’s brother did his degree in Native Studies in the ‘80s and that his sister used to bring her three kids to powwows. I have learned that at least one of my dad’s cousins is considering applying for Indian status. And I have learned that my grandmother, too, wishes that she knew more about her mother’s early life. Although there will always be gaps and silences, the conversations I have had with my relatives have helped me piece together a picture of our family, a picture that cannot be found on the internet or in a long-shelved book, but one that lives in vivid colour nonetheless.

My great-grandmother’s name was Katherine Peltier. Kate. She lived in Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. “Wiki” is one of Canada’s largest First Nations communities and is the only officially unceded reserve in the country. The Anishnabek peoples living there descend from an amalgamation of the Odawa, Ojibway, and Pottawatomi nations: “citizens of the Three Fires Confederacy.” Kate’s parents were Joseph and Sophie Peltier and she had three sisters and two brothers: Isabelle, Rose, Tom, Lawrence, and Mary. Also spelled Pelletier, theirs is still a common surname on the island.

As my grandmother tells it, Kate left the reserve and moved to Saskatchewan to marry Omer Menard, a French Canadian man from Ontario whom she had never met: my great-grandfather. Some of my family members use the phrase “mail order bride,” though that is not how my grandma characterizes it. He moved to Saskatchewan because the government was offering land as an incentive to those willing to farm it; he needed a wife to help him run the farm and start a family. Together, they had five daughters—Regina, Anne, Marguerite, Theresa, and Lorraine—and lived well enough until a drought hit their farm. For several years, they had no crops. Eventually, in 1935, when my grandmother, Lorraine, was only five years old, the family had to drop everything and walk away. They moved around Saskatchewan for a while, but finally returned to Ontario to live on Manitoulin Island near Kate’s family.

At this point, the daughters were split up, two of them (including my grandmother) going to live with their maternal grandparents and the others living with Kate’s brother and his family. Between the different members of the family, they lived all over the island: Wikwemikong, Little Current, Manitowaning, Sheguiandah, and finally together at Ten Mile Point. During this time, Kate worked as a nurse and Omer farmed chickens as well as doing seasonal labour as a cook at a lumber camp. My grandmother remembers having to go with her sister Theresa into their father’s barn at night to try to teach the chickens how to roost. She laughed when she told me about that. Generally, though, she remembers it as a hard time for the family.

After the Second World War broke out, the family moved to Toronto. They still visited the island sometimes, but mostly lost touch. For my grandmother, the one connection that remained strong was with Kate’s sister Mary. She would often come and visit my grandma after her marriage to my grandpa, Ulysse Vigneux, especially if a baby was on the way. Whenever my grandmother had another child, Aunt Mary would come down from her hunting lodge near White Fish Falls to help out. My Aunt Susan had a particular connection to Aunt Mary and remembers flying with her parents and Aunt Mary up to Wikwemikong in the tiny plane Ulysse owned to visit family members; Susan was airsick and had a miserable time. She also remembers that once, during another such visit, she overheard Aunt Mary and some other relatives speaking in a language she didn’t know: Odawa. Besides these erratic visits, however, it seems most connections to the island and any relatives there were lost.

I asked my grandmother about what she remembered of her time living on the island. “Not much,” she told me. But she does remember not being allowed to go to school on the reserve. As she recalls it, this was because she didn’t speak the language. Though she lived on the reserve, she didn’t feel very connected to the community there. It was a hard time, with the family moving around so much, struggling to recover from the Depression and the loss of the farm back in Saskatchewan. My great-aunt Regina confirms this, speaking to me about how hard it was to get to know people during that time, to make real friendships. Though Regina went back to Manitoulin Island a few years ago, it was more of a scenic tour than a visit. No one there would know her now.

When my great-grandmother left the reserve to move to Saskatchewan and marry a white man, she lost Indian status. Under the Indian Act of 1876, federal legislation explicitly designed to define and delimit Indigenous identity, the matrilineal social structures of many Indigenous nations were turned upside down and replaced by imposed European patriarchal political and social systems. As such, an Indigenous woman who “married out” —who married a non-Indigenous (or non-status) man—would lose her status. So would any children born after the marriage. However, in accordance with the patriarchal logic of the Act, white women who married status Indian men would be given status, ensuring that the status of their children would never be questioned.

As Lawrence describes, the Indian Act stipulated that Indigenous women whose statuses were revoked were no longer allowed to access band resources or live on their reserves, though many continued to “squat” nearby. This description seems to fit my great-grandmother’s experience. When she returned to Manitoulin, she did not live on the reserve, although two of her daughters—including my grandmother—did. The rest of the family was scattered across the island. As the child of an Indigenous mother and white father, my grandmother’s exclusion from the reserve school system may also have been rooted in the Indian Act. Drawing on Kathleen Jamieson, Lawrence notes that such legislation “was not intended to prevent white men from living on the reserve—it was to prevent their mixed-blood children from having any rights to community assets and to limit the abilities of community residents to support nonband-member relatives and others who would normally be welcomed to share whatever resources the community had.” While this reading of my family’s experience is conjecture on my part, it does seem to offer a possible explanation for aspects of my grandmother’s experience.

It was not only Indigenous women who were targeted with the “enfranchisement” policies of the Indian Act. Attempts were also made to forcibly enfranchise Indigenous war veterans and Indigenous people who attained university degrees. The government also opened up the possibility for “voluntary” enfranchisement. As Lawrence explains, however, the particularly gendered nature of the Indian Act has had ramifications beyond those of other enfranchisement policies in terms of the vast number of women and their descendents who have lost status as a result:

[The] “bleeding off” of Native women and their children from their communities was in place for 116 years.… If one takes into account the fact that for every individual who lost status and had to leave her community, all of her descendants (many of them the products of nonstatus Indian fathers and Indian mothers) also lost status and for the most part were permanently alienated from Native culture, the numbers of individuals who ultimately were removed from Indian status and lost to their nations may, at the most conservative estimates, number between one and two million. … The scale of cultural genocide caused by gender discrimination becomes visible [in these estimations].

Within my family, my grandmother and her four sisters are the first generation to feel the effects of this gender discrimination; factor in their children and grandchildren and the numbers begin to pile up.

In 1985 the government of Canada passed Bill C-31, legislation designed to rectify the gendered discrimination inherent in the Indian Act. It restored the rights of women who had lost status through marriage and allowed for their children to apply for status. Later, with the passing of Bill C-3 in 2011, this policy was extended to include grandchildren. However, both amendments are limited in scope, insofar as they only delay the loss of status by one or two generations, respectively.

As federally imposed legislation, these policies represent “yet another external, governmental interference in tribal affairs.” This disrespect for the autonomy of Indigenous nations, of course, is not new and, in the face of generations of such external interference, “Native communities are often highly concerned with setting boundaries as to membership.” Some individuals seeking to reaffirm their Indigenous heritage after one or more generations of social and cultural dislocation may be greeted with a well-founded suspicion. One tangible explanation for this suspicion is the scarcity of resources available to reserve communities alongside an instinct to preserve cultural traditions and practices that have been deeply threatened over many generations.

Compounding these concerns is the perennial threat of Canadian society’s fetishization of Indigenous cultures, as seen in the commodification and sale of “traditional” Indigenous “fashion” and other such appropriative practices. Although such fetishization has been well critiqued by Indigenous scholars, artists, and activists, it continues to manifest in popular culture, often passing unremarked except by those whom it purports to honour and represent. As Mohawk/Tuscarora poet Janet Marie Rogers writes:

this country
has a fascination
with the Indigenous
not one of respect
but like a grand experiment

This fascination manifests in different ways and, at its root, expresses a desire to absolve oneself of responsibility for a violent colonial history. Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang theorize this desire for absolution as one of a series of “settler moves to innocence.” One such move involves “settlers locat[ing] or invent[ing] a long-lost ancestor who is rumored to have had ‘Indian blood’ [in order] to mark themselves as blameless in the attempted eradications of Indigenous peoples.” Métis writer Chelsea Vowel writes that, these days, “claiming Indigenous identity [has become] hip, and edgy” and is often mobilized through the language of Métissage and a misrecognition of the cultural autonomy of Métis peoples. Lawrence documents a similar concern when she describes the trend of “virtually white” people attempting to “resurrect” extremely distant Indigenous ancestors for no apparent reason other than to “boundary cross [into] otherwise forbidden Native spaces.” This appropriative form of “obliterating difference and claiming connection” is not new and it is not benign.

It is precisely the fear of participating in such obliterative acts that can become a paralyzing deterrent for mixed-race Indigenous people whose ties to their communities have been severed. For these people, exploring these relational ties can be an important decolonizing gesture, but, when elided with the appropriative fetishization of difference and connection that circulates in broader Canadian society, it may translate instead into a hesitance or reluctance to even acknowledge their Indigeneity. As a result, many meaningful possibilities for mixed-race or non-status Indigenous people to engage with their history and culture are foreclosed. Yet, as Lawrence notes, “urban mixed-blood Native people are not extraneous to Indigenous communities…. [T]hey represent the other half of a history of ongoing colonization, the children and grandchildren of people removed, dispersed, and continuously bled off from Native communities as a result of ongoing colonization policies.” The possibility of being rejected by other Indigenous people, or perceived as “claiming” something to which they have no right, can prevent those people who live out this “other half” of colonization from ever reconnecting with the communities they lost. In this way, the regulation of Indigeneity and discourses of authenticity serve as a further tool in the continued legislative “disappearing” of Indigenous peoples and the success of Canada’s ongoing colonial project.

I recently asked my grandmother if she knew about Bill C-31 and its implications. She told me that, although she knew about the legislation, not only had she never considered applying for Indian status, the possibility that she could do so would not have occurred to her if it hadn’t been brought to her attention by her children. And I see her point. She grew up without a sense of closeness or connection to her family on the reserve, so why would she be inclined to embark on a complicated bureaucratic application process to affirm an identity that does not feel relevant to her day-to-day life? As a child, she had no idea that her mother was Indigenous, a silence remembered and echoed by her sister Regina. It was not until they moved back to Manitoulin that the sisters learned about their mother’s Indigenous identity and even then it was not something she explicitly discussed with them. Toward the end of our conversation, as we both trailed off in contemplation of that profound silence on the part of her mother, my grandma reflected: “It’s kind of strange, when you think about it. I have been wishing I knew more about her early life.”

Great-aunt Regina expressed a similar sentiment at first, saying: “I don’t know why she kept it so quiet.” But she was quick to answer her own implicit question. “‘Indians,’ as they would have been called, have never been respected. You know that.” My great-grandmother, on the other hand, was highly respected by her white husband’s family and in her life off the reserve. However my great-aunt may feel about it now, she understands why her mother would have chosen not to say much about it. There was a pause in our conversation and then Regina let out a big laugh because, as it happens, her own granddaughter had been asking her these questions just the day before. These things have a way of coming back, it seems.

While I might read regret into such creases in regular conversation with my grandmother or my great-aunt, that is my own interpretation. I cannot speak for them. On a tangible level, though, the loss is there, passed down another generation in the form of hard-to-break silences. In separate conversations with my dad and two of his siblings, they each expressed their hesitation to ask too many questions. While all of them share a sense of pride in their ancestry, they feel that it would be inappropriate—insulting, even—to claim themselves as Indigenous, whether by formally applying for status or not. I respect and relate to these sentiments, and yet I can’t help but feel that it is in these silences that yet another Indigenous woman is allowed to go missing. A part of my great-grandmother’s identity disappears and, along with that past identity, there also disappears the possibility for future relationships.

It is these relationships that I am learning to value and affirm. For me, this means considering the umbilical connections joining me to a line of mothers, tracing the twining, overlapping histories of my settler and Indigenous families and acknowledging how these complexities shape my own life. It means grappling with the knowledge that my maternal grandfather was responsible for inspecting residential schools on Manitoulin Island—the same island where my paternal grandmother was made an outsider to her own community. It means acknowledging the privileges that my grandmother’s family gained by choosing to leave the reserve, while also recognizing the ways in which this choice was not a choice at all, but a survival strategy shaped within an assimilationist colonial context that denied my family’s Indigeneity the moment my great-grandmother married my great-grandfather. It means trying to hold, side by side, my own experiences of race and class privilege and my real sense of loss when I think of the social and cultural dislocation experienced by grandmother’s family.

When I called my Aunt Helen to talk with her about my mum’s side of the family, the Irish side, she said she intended to speak frankly and openly: “It’s your story too.” I believe that she is right, even as I struggle to understand what this inheritance means to me. In writing this piece, I never intended to make it about myself—I had wanted to write a piece about my families’ overlapping and contested histories, the granular functioning of colonial systems, and the ways in which Indigenous women have been and continue to be the targets of multiple violent erasures. And yet, over the course of conversations with family, friends, and Elders, I have been continually reminded that this is—and must be—my journey; I can’t force anyone to come with me, however much I might like the company. I can invite them, and I can share with them my improvised map, but how I go forward is up to me. And, situated as we are “in the heart of a colonizing culture still predicated on the ‘vanishing Native,’” one thing I am certain of is that I reject my own continued complicity with government and settler society practices that required my relations to deny, hide, and discard parts of themselves in order to survive. I can honour my relations and be proud of them. I can reject designations of irrelevance. Because, as much as this is my journey, it will always be shaped by considerations of my belly button and the relationships it affirms, and those relationships cannot be irrelevant to me.

ABOUT

Sylvie Vigneux grew up in Ontario and is slowly making her way West before going home.

Art by Jaime Koebel, from the collection of the Métis Voyageur Fund. Materials: porcupine quills, porcupine hair, and fish scales.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A number of people have supported me at various stages throughout this research and writing process. I want to thank you for your kindness and generosity as I get started on this journey: Christine Stewart, Rebecca Blakey, Elder Pauline Paulson, Elder Bob Cardinal, Karen Pheasant, Keavy Martin, and members of the Writing Revolution in Place Collective. In particular, I’d like to thank Rob Jackson, who has been with me for every step.

Thank you most of all to my family: Lorraine, Regina, Paul, Susan, and Helen. Your warmth and openness with me has been so affirming and has made it possible for me to write this piece. Special thanks to my parents, Mark and Mariella, who always encourage me to ask the hard questions and never tire of asking them with me. Thanks also to my brother, Timothy, who I hope will journey with me.

 

Further Reading

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada,  Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act,  (2013)
Tanya Birkbeck,  “Kahnawake mixed couple subject of ‘marry out, stay out’ protest,” via  CBC News, (2015)
Sasha Houston Brown, An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day, via Racialicious (2011)
Dwayne Donald, “On What Terms Can We Speak?” via ULethbridge Faculty of Education (2010).
Helen Hoy,  How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Bonita Lawrence, “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Julie MacIsaac, “Deconstructing Pocahontas, ” via GUTS (2015)
Janet Marie Rogers. Unearthed, Lantzville, BC: Leaf Press, 2011
Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” via Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society (2012)
Chelsea Vowell, “The Mythology of Métissage: Settler Moves to Innocence,” via âpihtawikosisân (2015)
Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, “Our History,” (2010)

 

“In Consideration of Belly Buttons” is from our MOMS Issue (spring 2015) 

Thank you to Tracy Bear and Christine Stewart for offering me permission and encouragement to share this story, which has come to ground my thinking about these questions of family history.
My aunt, Helen Hoy, has been doing the difficult work of considering her belly button and her responsibilities as a settler person long before these questions ever occurred to me. I am only now realizing how lucky I am to have the chance to talk with someone who shares both my political concerns and my family history.
Bonita Lawrence, “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004)
Lawrence, “Real” Indians and Others
Enfranchisement refers the process whereby a person loses Indian status and gains Canadian citizenship. As Lawrence describes, enfranchisement “has been a central part of the Canadian government’s assimilation policy since the Gradual Civilization Act of 1875.” See Lawrence, “Real” Indians and Others.
Helen Hoy, How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)
Lawrence, “Real” Indians and Others
The divisive impacts of federally-imposed constraints on Indigenous identity and cultural autonomy continue play out in First Nations communities today, as can be seen with the recent conflict in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake. See Tanya Birkbeck, “Kahnawake mixed couple subject of ‘marry out, stay out’ protest,” CBC News (2015)
Julie MacIsaac, “Deconstructing Pocahontas,” GUTS, 2015; Sasha Houston Brown, “An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters on Columbus Day,Racialicious, 2011
Hoy, How Should I Read These?
Lawrence, “Real” Indians and Others

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Mariella Vigneux

Sylvie, bravo for asking the hard questions, for honouring relevant relationships, and for bringing yourself into the story.

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