I remember the exact moment I learned I was an Indian.
It was a summer afternoon when I was about ten. My softball team was playing in Topham Park, just around the corner from our home in Toronto’s East York, and I was coming up to bat, crossing the infield dirt to take my place at the plate.
The league was a local one, both teams made up of kids from the neighbourhood. I’d played in it from the time I was five, starting out in T-ball on the smallest of Topham’s three diamonds and working up to the big field, which had dugouts, a scoreboard with an announcer’s booth, grandstands, and makeshift bullpens where the pitchers could warm up. I’d walk over to watch when the men’s teams played there at night, the big lights turning everything a bright, washed-out yellow. The ball would almost glow when hit into the air and, if it carried far enough, would fade into the darkness as it sailed beyond the reach of the light poles.
Baseball was big for our family then. My dad, who’d grown up a Cubs fan in Chicago, had embraced the Blue Jays when the franchise was born, in 1977. He’d listen to games on a transistor radio he carried while doing work around the house or watch them with me on the little Zenith TV in the living room. Occasionally he’d buy the cheap outfield tickets you could get at the grocery store during the summer, and we’d see a game at Exhibition Stadium, in seats that were angled a little bit off so that you had to turn slightly to take in the action. Dad played third base and some outfield in a slo-pitch league for a while, too, and would later coach both me and my sister. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of spending time with him at the batting cage or playing catch at the park.
In our softball games, it was common for players to make cracks at the opposition, refrains that tended to max out at the “we want a pitcher, not a belly itcher” level. That bruising psychological warfare was mostly directed at the better players because, hey, they were good. I would classify myself as just okay all around but bordering on good at the plate; I’d make consistent contact and was patient enough to take a walk if the pitcher couldn’t find the zone, which happened regularly. And, when I did catch hold of one, I could hit it far, a combination of decent technique and being fairly big for my age. So getting jeered at wasn’t unusual and was maybe even expected. It was something you laughed off or ignored, just a part of the game.
What I heard that particular afternoon was something different, though. Not one of the rhymes or cracks, repeated to the point where they lost all meaning, that rang out when other kids went up to bat. This was a sound reserved for me.
It started all at once, as if they’d met up to plan it before the game, all the opposing players flapping their hands in front of their open mouths to make the noise: “Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah.” They were war whooping.
It was a sound I’d heard before, but I couldn’t place it immediately, or maybe I didn’t want to. Later, when I was old enough to get stopped by the police, I would become more familiar with that pattern of thought: pushing aside the certain knowledge of why this was happening to look for some good reason, some reason other than the fact that my identity alone could incite in another person a desire to do harm. That my simple existence could be seen as a provocation or offence.
I knew the noise, though; I knew what it meant, and that understanding could be delayed for only so long. I knew it from Saturday morning cartoons, watched from behind a bowl of cereal, the last of the milk disappearing to reveal the sugar clumped at the bottom. It was the noise made by the Indians Bugs Bunny killed, counting them off on a chalkboard and singing as he went: “One little, two little, three little Injuns. Four little, five little, six little Injuns—oops, sorry, that one was a half-breed,” scrubbing a mark in half as he corrected himself. It was made in the movies I watched on TV by the savages who besieged the good settlers on their journey of destiny, the savages who had to be vanquished to set the world right.
The kids on the other team knew what it meant too. They’d seen the same cartoons and the same kind of movies. Their parents, who would have known my parents, also understood. As did the coaches, though no adult stepped in to put a stop to it. It meant I was an Indian. The bad guy. The savage. The loser.
Now, it certainly wouldn’t have been news to me to be identified as Anishinaabe or Ojibwe. I had known myself as both for as long as I could remember, not unlike the way I knew that my dad was American. My family didn’t drape itself in our ethnic background, but it wasn’t hidden. It was just what we were. It’s why we occasionally ate frybread and corn soup. Why sometimes we drove for hours to visit our family in Serpent River. Why I had a middle name that no one else did. That’s what being Ojibwe was to me at the time, a collection of unremarkable and ever-present givens. I had never known anything else.
But I’d never thought of myself as an Indian in the way it suddenly seemed everyone else did. Nor had I imagined that my Indianness made me significantly different from any other kid in the neighbourhood. It did, though, and those kids wanted me to know it. They wanted me to feel what it was like to be reduced to a caricature in less time than it took me to step to the plate. To feel what it was like to have my interests and passions, my love of baseball and movies, my family’s history and my hopes for the future stripped away and replaced with a sound I’d never made, a sound I’d never heard any First Nations person make—except on a screen.
I’d love to say that the whole thing ended with me crushing a ball beyond the left fielder’s head, but I can’t even remember what happened next. It’s only the whooping that has stayed with me.
Sadly, it has stayed with Canada too. In late May 2018, a news story about a AAA youth hockey tournament in Quebec City caught my attention. After a bantam team called the First Nations Elites, made up of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys from several nations in Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, won the opening game of the Coupe Challenge Quebec AAA, the opposing players raised their hands in unison and made the same sound.
This was just one of several racist incidents the Elites would be subjected to over the course of the competition. They would face unfair treatment from tournament referees, taunts from spectators that included calling them “savages,” and according to Christina Gull, the mother of a boy on the team, the playing of powwow music by the arena DJ.
“I was thinking, ‘Does this still exist?’” Gull said to the CBC shortly after the tournament. “‘Are we in the eighties or nineties?’”
At the time of that softball game in Topham Park, residential schools were still open. If I’d lived in a more remote community, I could have been in one. And, when the Elites took the ice in that youth hockey tournament, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was already nearly three years old. Still, despite taking place more than thirty years apart, the two incidents shared intention, effect, and origin. They were intended to demean, distract, and dehumanize. They hurt and they lingered. I still vividly remember that sound, and I suspect that the boys of the First Nations Elites, and everyone else who’s ever heard that sound on the field of play, remember it too. It’s always there, a reminder of who is us and who is them.
That lack of progress across three and a half decades should be shocking, something Gull highlighted in the thoughts she shared with the CBC. To many First Nations people, though, the shock at a racist act can last only so long and run only so deep, even if the pain lingers. We simply face this shit too often to be surprised by it—a world weariness we surely share with other marginalized communities. And, really, we know better than to expect these attacks to stop when so many of their underlying causes remain unchanged and barely addressed.
To be clear, before the other kids made that whooping sound at that softball game, I’d never heard it outside of movies or cartoons. Since then, I’ve been around the world and visited many Indigenous nations, and I’ve still never heard it anywhere else. There are, of course, nations who whoop. But they sound nothing like the movies and certainly nothing like what I heard on the diamond that day. The sound those kids made is an invention of Hollywood.
In fact, most non-Indigenous people’s entire understanding of Indigenous life and personhood is an invention of Hollywood, from the war whoop to the sense that colonialism is inevitable, that the land and its original inhabitants are simply impediments to the birthright of the newcomers, that we are objects to be either used or destroyed on a white man’s path to destiny. This has been the dominant portrait of Indigenous life at least as far back as the birth of moving pictures. Our expendability on screen is so written into Hollywood that it was common for many years for a group of extras to be called “a bunch of Indians” by those on set. A group of Star Wars stormtroopers waiting in the wings is a bunch of Indians.
The kids who whooped at me that day were weaponizing one of the only things they knew about First Nations people. That it was entirely a fiction speaks to the incredible power of media representation, of storytelling. That it could hurt me so deeply despite being a lie also speaks to that power. And the fact that the same sound is still employed to mock First Nations kids decades later indicates that little has changed around the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in media and education. This is still a sound that represents much of what people think they know about us, even if the cartoons don’t play on Saturday mornings anymore and Hollywood now seldom makes westerns.
The misrepresentation is a purposeful one. Its aim is to undermine the value of Indigenous lives and the value of Indigenous claims to the land stolen from us, and its consequences stretch far beyond taunts and jeers. It is the narrative used to justify genocide and its tools: residential schools, forced separation of families, violation of treaty rights, indifference to the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lack of access to education and safe water. Storytelling is one of the key methods used by colonizers to explain and obscure their lawless treatment of the lands and peoples over which they claim dominion.
But storytelling is also one of our best weapons in the fight to reclaim our rightful place.
For much of my professional career, I’ve worked toward making space for Indigenous storytellers. As a film critic and festival programmer, I strove to bring attention to the work of Indigenous creators. As a radio columnist, I continue to highlight major issues facing the First Nations community and to act as a medium for larger messages when I can. As founding director of the Indigenous Screen Office, I work to build a new ecosystem for Indigenous filmmakers that may one day allow them to realize visions as big as any of those of Lucas, Cameron, Spielberg, or Scorsese.
I champion these artists’ work for the same reasons any great art is celebrated—because it is beautiful, honest, brave, and any number of other wonderful and affecting things. But I’ve dedicated my life to it because of my unwavering belief in the power of Indigenous representation to improve the quality of Indigenous life and make Canada, as a whole, a better place.
Colonial systems have always pushed assimilation and exploitation as the only way to survive and succeed, the only way forward. My own family made great efforts and greater sacrifices as we were forced into that narrative. If we gave up our land and culture, our communities and identities, we could become Canadian, the story went. But the myth of that path to progress was so flimsy that it could be exposed by a group of ten-year-old softball players. Even when racialized people do exactly what Canada demands of them, their Canadianness and the protections it supposedly affords can be stripped away in a moment. No matter what they tell you, you can still be reduced to your most obvious physical traits.
Progress built on a lie is not progress. A lie cannot improve this country or the lives of the people in it. But I still wonder how the truth could have changed things that afternoon in Topham Park. Would those kids have whooped that way if they’d known that no real Indian ever did? Would their parents have stopped them if they themselves hadn’t been conditioned to think of First Nations people as worthy of scorn and erasure? Would anyone have singled out that aspect of my identity at all if they’d seen real representations of Indigenous life?
I can’t say for sure. But I have conviction about the ways truth can change Canada. If we ever hope to see a functional relationship between this country and its First Nations people, it has to grow from honesty and understanding—the basis cannot be a lie. Laying that foundation will require Canada to face up to what it is, what it has always been. It will require this country to listen to the stories that Indigenous people have been telling for more than 150 years. It will require truth.
Excerpted from Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente. Copyright © 2021 by Jesse Wente. With permission of the publisher, Penguin Random House Canada. All rights reserved.