Alert Bay / British Columbia / Canada
There are many stories within me. There are many stories within people I know. We get together and shape our relationships with the stories we share with each other and what we decide to disclose. Stories that reinforce who we are or ones that jerk us into a different reality that we did not know we possessed. Most importantly, there are stories that define who we are and how we came to be ‘us’. Stories that have shaped our identities and continue to negotiate them as new stories take us to different destinations. This story is about ‘someone’ within me that I did not know even existed. A story about coming to Canada. A story about an unforeseen collision. A story that continues to weave its threads to this day.
Canadians always have questions. Specifically, ‘white’ Canadians always have questions that come with pre-packaged answers. Everywhere I go, I frequently get asked, “Where are you from”?
I generally reply, “I am Indian”, which is usually received with great confusion.
“You are Indian”!!!?
I can see the wheels of identity categorization churning in their heads and to avoid awkward silences and bring the conversation to an end, I follow up with, “Yes, Indian, as in from India.”
“Oh! So you are East-Indian. Why didn’t you say so”?
When I came to Canada, I had no idea that I was East-Indian. All my life I had considered myself to be Indian. I suddenly felt the weight of my new identity on my shoulders leaving me wondering if I was in the right temporal location. The identity of East-Indian comes from the time of British colonialism in India. They had established the East-India Company to manage trade affairs and it eventually became a part of the colonial enterprise. When I hear the term East-Indian, it automatically inscribes upon me the identity of still being a colonized subject. It seems like no one informed my interrogators that India gained its independence some seven decades ago.
I am a colonized time-traveller in Canada.
After spending some time in Canada, I started hearing horrendous comments about the ‘backwardness’ of Indians.
How they were lazy.
How they were drunks and unfit parents.
How they were living off welfare and spending the money on alcohol and drugs.
How Indian women were loose.
All of this infuriated me to no end and I wanted to find these Indians that people were talking about. Where are these Indians you speak of? Maybe if I could find them, I could find out what all this talk was all about. They are making all of us look bad. And then it all came crashing down.
In my first year of university (my third year in Canada), I had gone out to a restaurant with some of my dorm-mates. All of them ‘white’. We ordered our food and drinks and paid casual attention to a hockey game going on. As the evening progressed, my friend Tom introduced us to his friend Jared (who is ‘white’) who had come to join us. We had the usual introductions and as I said above, he asked me where I was from. To which I replied, “I am Indian.” We sat down and enjoyed our meals peppered with light conversation. After that, I got up to have a cigarette. As I put on my jacket with a cigarette dangling from my lips, Jared looked up to me and said,
“You must get cheap cigarettes, huh”?
I had no idea what that meant. He thought that I hadn’t heard him properly and went on to explain himself.
“I mean, cigarettes must be quite cheap on your reservation.”
For a nanosecond, I was completely dumbstruck. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, two different worlds collided without being asked.
He thought I was aboriginal.
My being was abruptly intertwined with aboriginal peoples’, without our consent, and a mistake of six centuries of colonial hubris was shaping who I was/am.
Let us rewind for a minute. The story of Columbus is well known. He sailed the high seas to search for India and landed in what is known as the ‘Americas’ in modern day linguistic currency. The peoples’ he encountered were labeled ‘Indian’ and Columbus continued to believe he had landed in India till his death bed. The identity of ‘Indian’ was/is violently inscribed onto the lands, bodies, languages and a multitude of aboriginal nations that were/are richly diverse.
Fast forward to present times and the label of ‘Indian’ is still being upheld by Canadian institutions and modern day racist vernacular. Aboriginal peoples’ are still being dehumanized and defined by the colonial legal framework of the ‘Indian’ Act. The immigration of ‘Indians from India’ threw a wrench in this neat tidy category of Other. There could not possibly be more than one ‘Indian’. A whole new twist to the ‘Indian’ problem was afoot.
No worries. An easy fix.
The ones coming from India are ‘East-Indians’.
Aboriginals are ‘Indians’ or ‘Red-Indians’ depending on the grade of racism one subscribes to.
‘East-Indians’ taken from India to the Caribbean during colonialism as slaves and/or indentured labourers are ‘West-Indians’.
Done and done.
My alleged East-Indianness is derived from two different colonial projects. One through the direct subjugation of my people’s and the other through the subjugation of aboriginal peoples’ of the Americas. It might not have been apparent above, but I was not offended that I was mistaken to be aboriginal.
I was, and still am, upset about the superimposition of a history of a diverse group of aboriginal peoples’ on my being to which I have no authority to represent.
I was, and still am, angered by the fact that my being was not under my control, and with the careless utterance of a label I was asked to bear the weight of pain that was not mine and could never be even if I wanted to shoulder some of it.
I was, and still am, enraged by the fact that I am continuously portrayed as a colonized subject and forced to fit within a colonial category of individuals that my forefathers died fighting against so that we could be free.
I was, and still am, disturbed to see that the only type of aboriginal person that can be imagined is one who lives on a reservation apparently living off the largesse of Canadian tax payers.
This seemingly benign account about identity-politics is one of the stories that has shaped me. It is one that has sharpened my senses to how colonialism still affects our lives in overt and covert ways. It is a story about ‘becoming Canadian’ and the swallowing of colonial baggage required in the process. It is about immigrants and aboriginal peoples’ caged in stratified colonial spaces that overlap at the behest of colonial masters. It is about the inextricable alliance between us in the anti-racist/anti-colonial struggle that needs to be nurtured and brought to the forefront.
I refuse to be East-Indian. I was never East-Indian and I never will be. I was born Indian and I will die as one. If these colonial labels are discarded by state institutions and in daily discourse, then maybe I will die as a Canadian.