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Hard to Place by Tasha Hubbard

Hard to Place

By Tasha Hubbard

A hard place.

Hardly a place.

Hard to place.

Media

Photo by Colleen Leonard

Hard to Place, 2011

Previously published and reprinted with permission from the publishers: A Heart of Wisdom: Life Writing as Empathetic Inquiry. Eds. Cynthia Chambers, Erika Hasebe-Ludt, Carl Leggo and Anita Sinner. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2012.

 

I was a ‘hard to place’ child, a First Nations baby given up for adoption, part of Saskatchewan Social Services’ “Adopt Indian and Metis” program. A pilot project from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the AIM program (yes, I’m aware of the irony of that particular acronym) strove to find homes that would welcome an Indigenous child with open arms. Photos of children were put in the newspapers to entice potential adoptive parents.

 

I was fortunate. My adoptive parents, at the age of 22 and 23, were thrilled to have a baby, and were even interested in my Cree culture.  But my new home, a farm in southern Saskatchewan, was far from any Cree community. The only other Indigenous people lived a half a mile away, and were also part of the child welfare system. And although my parents did their best to foster a sense of Indigenous identity in me, their Euro-Canadian backgrounds didn’t prepare them to teach a child about what it means to be Cree.

 

Isn’t that one of our first learning exercises? To learn about the self? For me, learning about myself seemed almost impossible when I was a child – when it felt as though my self was hidden away, part of a closed file in a social worker’s office.

 

I saw the same films and television shows that every one else did, the westerns featuring faceless warriors on horseback, or the caricatures of Indigenous peoples in Peter Pan and other Disney films. In well-meaning gestures, my adoptive family gave me Indian dolls that just seemed exotic to me. And my fair complexion made me feel like I didn’t measure up somehow to these little glorious brown-skinned babies, clad in leather and fur.

 

When I look back, I remember the times that I did connect to my self, it was always about the land: the lonely butte a few miles south of my grandparents’ homestead, or the dips and swells of the Qu’Appelle valley when we drove through on our way to visit family. It was in these places that I would feel a slight shiver, a visceral reaction, a sense of knowing that I belonged here, that this territory was my home.

 

When I turned 15, my adoptive mother suggested I start looking for my parents. I wrote letters to Indian Affairs and Social Services asking for my information, with no luck. Policy is policy and it said that no information was to be provided to me until I turned 18. My adoptive father stepped in with a suggestion: hire an Indian lawyer he went to high school with.

 

It took the lawyer a few weeks: my birth parents, both Treaty First Nations, were found. I spoke to my birth mother on the phone on my 16th birthday, and met her 3 days after that. She was a writer and a teacher, and had been a political activist in her youth. I found out that through her work, she interacted with the family of those other First Nations children who grew up beside me. She and their birth mother had shared the fact they had children somewhere out there, and wondered where we were and how we were doing.

 

I met my birth father 3 weeks later. The lawyer we hired was a good friend of my father’s, also a lawyer. As a result, he traveled a lot, and stopped in where I worked on his way home from some meeting. That night, we began a conversation that has continued on for 22 years.

 

I learned from both my birth parents. I learned about my family history, about the Treaties, the Indian Act and residential school, and how there had been a lot of hard times for Indian people in Saskatchewan. I knew some of this already, as I had seen the evidence of those hard times on childhood trips to the city, when I pressed my nose against the window of our family station wagon, furtively searching for my birth family. “Maybe that woman is my mother, maybe that kid is my sister.”

 

Now I knew who my other family was: a web of kinship that includes my birth parents, my 10 siblings, my kokums and mosoms and aunties and uncles and so many cousins I have never yet figured out how many there are. And yet I still didn’t feel like I had learned who I was yet.

 

 What of myself was from my upbringing, and what was from my blood?

 

I had spent 16 years with an identity that included a vague sense of “Indian” and being adopted. I had been a “farm kid” and after we left the farm and began moving to follow my adoptive father’s career path, I became the “new kid”.  But it was confusing to figure out who I was when I considered the new developments.

 

First of all, it took years to overcome the insecurity of feeling that I wasn’t wanted, and I still struggle with feelings of abandonment. During those years, I had thoughts like “you didn’t keep me as a baby, why would you want me now” that would permeate my visits with my birth family. Eventually, I came to realize that these thoughts were keeping me from my “self”. Our minds work to protect us, and I was building my defenses so I didn’t get hurt. The problem was, those defenses didn’t just work one way…they also prevented me from reaching out and truly connecting to my birth family.

 

Finally, in my 20’s, I needed a place to stay for a few months, and for the first time ever, my adoptive parents weren’t there for me. An exercise in ‘tough love’, a push out of the nest, whatever it was, it meant I was on my own. And my birth dad reached out to me and gave me a place to stay. For the first time, I lived with my birth family. I watched my little sisters and brothers go through their daily routine; I laughed at their crazy jokes; I slept and dreamt in the same space as them.

 

Next came a career move: instead of working on an international development project, I chose to work on a film about my people’s history, CBC’s Big Bear. My job was to find 400 First Nations people to portray Cree people from the 1870s and 80s. I travelled to many communities, meeting people and shaking hands. And because I put myself out there, people responded by taking me in.  I was told “you belong” and those words became magic to me.

 

“You belong” gave me courage to identify with my family, my community, my nation. And I learned that my “self” was part of a circle of interconnectivity that distance and time could not break. Those times I felt that sense of connection as a child was the land speaking to me. Our Cree teachings tell us that connectivity begins with the land, and I know now what my spirit knew then.

 

I am not hard to place. I have learned that I have a place in this world.

Hard To Place // 2011 // A Film by Tasha Hubbard

Finding Place in 2014

 

I wrote the essay “Hard to Place” in 2011, while I was living away from my homeland for my job. I had a position with the University of Manitoba in the Native Studies department. I loved my colleagues and my students, but I started to feel the pull of the home that I wrote about. I also found it ironic that I had struggled so much over the years to connect with my sense of place, and then here I was, raising my son hours from our family and the land that we belong to. I spent new year’s eve in Poundmaker with some family in 2012. Late one night, when asked what I wanted for myself in the coming year, one word resonated with me: home. I knew it was time to find a way to return.

I am now back in Treaty Six territory, and as I look back at the six months I have been home, I realize that the process of connecting with place never stops. It only deepens and becomes more complex. The essay and the film “Hard to Place” was my exploration of the past, and now I can look ahead and find new goals: learning my language, being on the land, and strengthening my son’s and my kinship ties.

 

Place is not just where we live. It is the way in which we engage with the territory we come from. It is in how we listen to the land and what it has to tell us, and come to understand ourselves in relation to others. It sustains us, and we have to do our part to sustain it too.

Media

Photo by Colleen Leonard

Media

Photo by Tasha Hubbard

Category: Communities

Created: January 13, 2014

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  • Marika Swan
    Marika Swan Beautiful Tasha! Do you think your journey as an adopted Native child has given you a unique voice within your birth family? I moved back to my home territory 3 years ago and I feel a sense of peace that I have yearned for my whole life but I also find th...  more
    January 25, 2014