I’ve been asked, “Are you a First Nations Artist?” I say, “No. I’m an artist and I am First Nations!” Everything I do contains a bit of my culture in it, not because I’m trying to tell the world that I am First Nations but because this is just who I am.
It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable with who I am. Growing up with green eyes, fair skin and light brown hair to most would be a nice way to begin a story. But if you grew up on the Six Nations of the Grand this is not what you expect to find here. Nor was this what was expected to be seen in 1975 at Caledonia high school getting off the bus from the reserve. My first day of grade nine, I got off that bus with all the other native kids. All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by “those kids.” I grew up on the reserve my whole life and “those kids” were the ones on T.V. and magazines. They were blond, blue eyed with skin fairer than mine. It hurt my eyes to see them standing in a large group. They were so bright in comparison to the kids from the rez who had dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes and mostly wore black. At this point I felt I fit better with the native kids. But just coming from public school on the reserve I recall that hadn’t been a good fit either. Remember I’m the one with green eyes and fair skin. I didn’t seem to fit into either group so this is when I decided it would be easier to just be unnoticed. Like a bird locked in a cage I was fully aware of what was happening around me but unable to participate. I began to shrivel inside for fear of rejection.
Today that anxiety is gone. However the journey to this point wasn’t easy. I had allowed the world around me to put my creative spirit to sleep. The awakening began when I was loved and accepted. Things were going along just fine. I was enjoying motherhood, being creative with my children, painting and making homemade playdough. Then one day the kids asked me the question that made me want to run back to that cage and lock the door behind me. They asked me, “What was it like growing up on the reserve?” They wanted to know what I ate for lunch and what games I played at recess and who were my friends. My husband freely shared the adventures of Marguerite Valley in Nova Scotia. The day he shot his older brother in the rear with a pellet gun. Stories of standing in line for hours with his 11 siblings, waiting for his mom to make french-fries from one pot. They loved those stories and would ask him to tell them again and again. What was I going to share? What could I let out of that locked closet of bad memories? I found myself sifting through the ruins. There must be something here that I can share with them. This is when I realized I hadn’t gotten over what happened in my past. In locking away all the bad memories I had locked up all the good ones too. I thought if you just walked away from where you came from then you could walk away from the painful memories of growing up. But I was walking away from who I was and away from my culture and traditions. I was walking away from all the wonderful things that my parents had taken time to be a part of all their lives.
So I went back to where I came from. I started with something safe. A day of celebrating Bread and Cheese. What a great holiday to celebrate, a day off from school and a parade all for a big slice of bread and a big chunk of cheese. I hadn’t been to Bread and Cheese in years. I decided to take my girls and let them be a part of a day that I have wonderful memories of. It was a success. I wrote a children’s book about this day and illustrated it for my girls. I filled it with things that anyone who has ever gone to Bread and Cheese would recognize. I got requests to read it both on and off reserve schools. Thompson Education Publishers asked to include it in a book package of Canadian Celebrations in the grade 3 curriculum. Who knew people would want to know what it was like for Little Lorrie to grow up on Six Nations! I began to meet First Nations kids who loved hearing stories about something they do and adults who fondly remember doing these things as a child growing up on the reserve.
A place that as a child I did not feel accepted was the exact place that I was being asked to go.
I feel good discovering things about my own culture. Just because you grow up on the reserve doesn’t mean you know everything about the reserve. I can tell you what I ate for lunch, what I did for recess and who my friends were. Culture is who we are as a result of our environment and traditions are the things we have celebrated all our lives. I work at the Woodland Culture Centre here in Brantford. I spend time discovering truths about my own history. I have gotten to know many elders of the Six Nations community and my life has become richer listening to their stories of growing up on the reserve. I have kids tell me they have green eyes and are growing up on Fifth Line. I go into classrooms, tell stories and sing songs. Kids proudly raise their hand and share that they have family living on the reserve.
My job gives me an opportunity to appreciate what I took for granted. Working at Woodland Cultural Centre allows me to use art as a medium to educate, celebrate and hopefully correct misconceptions of First Nations people.
Out of the treasures of my heart I remember and I am restored to the original purpose for which I was created, the gift of courage and the strength of spirit!