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Who am I?

Over the past ten years, and more so since the inception of Culturally Committed, there has been a teaching that has been echoed repeatedly in my ears: the importance of knowing who you are and where you come from. (Thank you, George). Fluently reciting a family lineage and identifying connections is something I witness often. In fact, just last week I was happy to introduce two of our mentors to each other: Jared Qwustenuxun Williams (Quw’utsun) and Thomas George Jr. (Halalt), and I watched as they effortlessly recalled further and further back into their family trees until they identified their connection. It was incredible to watch.

I vividly recall the first time I was asked to state the names of my grandparents. It was during my first time attending an Elders Gathering in Victoria, around 2014, and I was asked if I would like to participate in a cultural activity. This was the first time such an offer had ever been made to me, and I was uncertain whether it was appropriate for me to engage as a non-Indigenous person. Intrigued, and after being assured that it was okay if I wanted to participate, I went into the private room, wherein I met a kind woman. We stood facing each other, and she asked me the first and last names of my grandparents. I recall feeling a moment of panic, and then embarrassment for my falter; it took me a moment to recite the maiden name of my paternal grandmother, Betty Neufeld. This was a moment of realization for me, that I did not have a firm connection to my roots.

As I began learning more about the cultural importance of introductions, I started considering that I needed to understand more clearly where I came from. I grew up on a farm in Treaty 2 Territory, colonially known as Brandon, Manitoba. What I knew was that my grandparents immigrated here and established a family farm. My dad only spoke German when he first went to school, and so I assumed that on his side of the family, that was where we were from. He never talked a lot about our family’s history, and periodically relatives would pass through and decide to stop by, however, as a child, there were no close relationships I recall from those brief visits.

When I moved to Vancouver Island in 2013, my dad reminded me that he had an aunt and a couple of cousins who lived in Victoria. Recently, his cousin Sandra and I started reconnecting in earnest, and I had the opportunity to meet her for lunch. We ended up sitting at a table in a restaurant in Victoria’s inner harbor for four hours, during which time she shared stories about our family that I’d never heard, punctuated with names that were mostly unfamiliar, recounting incredible lives and a legacy that left me awe-struck. I left that lunch and called my parents - I was bubbling over with excitement about all that I had learned, although there were so many details, stories, and names, and all the information was hard to recall in detail. I could see the tendrils of understanding beginning to come into focus.

I recently celebrated my birthday and was happy to share the week with my mom and dad, who were visiting from Manitoba. Dad’s cousin and I determined it would be good timing to connect again and give her and my father an opportunity to get together. When Sandra walked into the restaurant, she was carrying a gift bag: a birthday present for me.

Again, we sat for hours, with Sandra retelling some of the stories that I had heard during our preceding lunch date, and I enjoyed witnessing my dad hearing about the events for the first time. At the end of the lunch, Sandra invited me to open my gift, and I was overwhelmed to see what she had put in the bag: an anthology of our family, focusing back to my paternal great-grandparents, Sarah Neufeld (née Loewen), born September 30, 1882, in Olgafeld, Ukraine, and Wilhelm Esau, born July 16, 1883, in Kherson, Ukraine.

Now, as I sit on my couch and pour over the photos and stories held within the pages of the family-made compilation, I find myself with the opportunity to better understand who I am. That is such a gift. Within the anthology introduction, it is written that “there is a tendency to think of history in academic terms, that it is about people and events we read about in school…for those of us of Neufeld and Esau ancestry, the history of our grandparents affects our lives because they have prepared the “path” of the future for us.” I am grateful for a link to this path, and an opportunity to pass what I learn onto my own children. It is also a reminder to me that the journey towards understanding who I am and where I come from is an unearthing. All this time I have introduced myself as being descended from Germany on my father's side, and England and Ireland on my mothers. Just like every aspect of my cultural humility journey, I am pursuing this work imperfectly, guided by the information I have access to. Always, always learning.

I look forward to discovering more about who I am and where I come from.

~ Kim Trottier, Settler (England/Ireland/Ukraine)

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