"I'm not perfect. But I'll always be real."
The residential school survivors gathered in the community center recited, "Holy Mary, Mother of God, blessed art thou..." I glanced at the box with mom's ashes, expecting it to topple. I thought, "She'd flip in her grave over Catholic prayers at her memorial." Mom abandoned this forced religion, but not all Natives do. Afterward, we sang Lil'wat prayers, and then family members spoke. The room was burdened with vanished opportunities and stolen familial ties.
Eight of us had traveled two thousand miles so Valerie could rest with her ancestors. Six decades earlier, she had been violently separated from her family and her tribe as part of the Indian Adoption Program. Today, she returned home: a beloved stranger. This exposed a heartbreak that had festered for a lifetime. Her eldest sister sobbed, recalling summers spent with her dad searching the U.S. for her stolen sister.
My mom, my sister, and I had reunited with Lil’wat family twenty years earlier. My wife and I agreed on a Lil’wat name for my son, and we’ve all formed relationships with Lil’wat aunts, uncles, and cousins. We’ve also built lives in New Mexico, so we live far away from British Columbia, and probably will never live with my tribe. But today, I am learning Lil’wat songs, and I’m starting to learn our language, along with my son. I hope that he might one day attend a University near the Lil’wat Nation, and work on language preservation efforts.
I hope that I can visit my people often, and visit my mom’s burial site. It’s painful knowing that she rests so far away. I cried as we crossed the Canadian border. I was leaving my mom in another world, located far away from mine. It was the right thing to do, and it brought some closure for a community traumatized by the theft of its children a lifetime earlier.
This experience is bittersweet. I grew up isolated in white America. The only Lil’wat Indians I knew were my mom and my sister. I’ve gained family who look like me, and I’m reclaiming my culture. It’s painful knowing my mom rests in such a distant place. But it also ties me to my people, my past. It is good.
For the generations who survived being hunted, who endured the theft and destruction of our people's lands, and who persevered through the theft of and indoctrination of our children, we are grateful that you survived and for the resilience you have passed on to us. Because you did these things, we are still here. For the activists who stood against corruption and who forced a spotlight onto our people's mistreatment, we are grateful for your commitment. Because of it, we are still here. For the people who never consented to the sacrifices that were forced from you, we remember you, we mourn your suffering and loss, we honor you as best we can, we do this, because we are still here. For the future generations, we ask that you remember. We look to you to keep our people's future alive, after we're gone. We ask you to find strength in your ancestors and use the resilience of your people to create your future and that of your children. We ask you to ensure that when we are gone, through you, we are still here.