I could not see myself in Caleb; so, often, being a father to him felt like having to take my best guess.
We are a blended family with five children - four daughters and one son. Usually, my wife or I could see something of ourselves in the girls.
I remember saying to my wife, about one or other of the girls, “She is like Wiley Coyote - off the cliff and legs still churning. We have to do something before the drop!”
And my wife would respond, “No, she’s going to be alright.”
To which I would answer, “How do you know that?”
She based her assessment either on recognition of something similar to her or the history of her family.
Many examples - when to push a child, when to comfort, when to say “shake it off. Get back in the game.”
Would one of the girls benefit from a team sport or were they better running long distance events? A prodigy in dance, in the pool, on the track or arguing - we could trace the lineage.
All the little, and some of the big, decisions of parenting the girls we felt as if instinct and history were reliable guides.
Perhaps many adoptive parents experience a sense of dislocation when adopting children of different cultural backgrounds. And possibly taking a child from various cultures and races, distant from the North American stereotypes, makes a profound difference.
I wonder if my parenting suffered from its own form of racism.
Not on the side of inferiority - never did I think that Caleb was not as intelligent or capable as our other children. When teachers or social workers would comment, “but he’s such a bright and personable boy,” we would nod. “Tell us something we don’t know!”
Errors on the side of sentimentality or romanticism drew me.
Every spring Caleb struggled more than usual with the demands of having to go to school. Was that because his patience had been exhausted over the winter and he wanted to play in the sunshine? Or, was it because deep within him lay the DNA of a nomadic people craving movement with the changing of the season? Was something within him calling for action, adventure, replenishment of the body and spirit?
Caleb has always done reasonably well in the highly structured environment of prison - the odd stretch in solitary not-withstanding.
Was that because he was adaptable and smart enough to develop survival skills? Or, did some deep part of him need to know his place in the tribe, the kinship lines and the responsibilities of his location and role?
I was never sure what was the greatest truth and what was a yarn I spun for my comfort.
My work with The United Church of Canada compounded the problem. We had a history of engaging the land question, particularly with the Gitksan - Wet’su’weten peoples.
In British Columbia, the United Church had been at the forefront of pushing the national church to apologize for our involvement in residential schools.
We sat in the courtroom and heard many horrific stories from the Arthur Plint trial and our participation in the Port Alberni residential school. And since the church was present in many reserves in the province we knew first hand some of the devastating effects of poor housing, the Indian Act and other historical and systemic instances of injustice.
One implication was that early on, as a church, we sought to listen, stand alongside and demonstrate, in whatever ways we could, that we acknowledged and honoured the decision-making and spiritual practice of First Nations.
The slippery side of this intention to be respectful and supportive often led to easy deference. As time passed, we did not seem to develop the hard practice of disciplined conversation but slipped into an easy deferral to “this is what the native people say they want or need.”
The slippery side of the intention to be supportive often led to easy deference.
Caleb now names his own experience with this as “white guilt.”
Whatever the complexities were pertaining to institutional or organizational systems, with respect to parenting Caleb, I too often deferred. The silent soundtrack was, “Maybe I don’t understand because I’m not First Nations, but he may need this.” The assumption too often was not upon what he, as a person might need, but upon my inference of what it meant to be a First Nations person.
Ever since his late teens, particularly when he was in prison, we have been able to talk. In the last couple of years, the conversation has been both honest, direct and often fun. To hear his experience of “coming home” to his reserve in Saskatchewan, the Native American church, the Sun Dance and other ceremonies reveals a much more nuanced and rich view of aspects of indigenous life than just inferior or romantic.