What It’s Like To Be an “Urban Indian”

In a weird way, it took moving to a big city to feel more connected to my Ojibwe roots

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what it's like to be an urban indigenous person: christian allaire wears leather jacket and sunglasses

The author (Photo: Christian Allaire)

He was being stalked by an owl. The owl, to his people, signified a bad omen. It signified death. The owl accompanied him to his corner coffee shop. The owl sat on tree branches in the park, or at the next table for Sunday brunch. The owl hid in corners at museums, where the man’s ancestors are on display in enclosed glass cases. Wherever he went in the city, the owl was armed with its steely, sinister gaze. He couldn’t escape it.

The owl was following me. In my dreams, that is. These recurring nightmares—a surprising series for someone who never dreams, thanks to the five giant dreamcatchers pinned to my wall—started infiltrating my sleeps last year. I believe it was the Creator’s way of telling me I was becoming disconnected. Disconnected not only from my people, but from myself. He was telling me that I was beginning to neglect my culture and identity—a death, in a way.

I am what is often referred to as an urban Indian. And I’m not the only one. The population of Indigenous people in urban cities is on the rise: of the 1.6 million Indigenous people in Canada, a recent report by the United Nations found that 50 percent of us now reside in major cities, many of us having left our quiet reservations on traditional land in favour of bigger job opportunities in large metropolitan hubs. After a brief stint living in Toronto, New York City has become my land of opportunity. 

But I wasn’t always city folk. I was raised around traditional Ojibwe practices on the secluded lakeside reservation of Nipissing First Nation, in northern Ontario. I watched relatives skin and butcher moose for winter stews and meat pies. I revelled in the colourful regalia seen at powwow dances. Following the deaths of family members, I witnessed sacred fires burn for days, meant to assist their souls up to the spirit world. Though I grew up with a divided outlook on my culture—my dad is French-Italian, which lead me to believe I was too white-washed to be truly Indigenous—I was indeed raised as a regular ol’ rez kid.

In 2010, I abandoned it all. I moved to Toronto to study journalism, and it was my first experience living in a major city away from the rez. Slowly, I began making Indigenous friends there. Other people like me existed! They were real. I had begun to think that I had grown up in a strange bubble.

The more I met people like me, the more comfortable I became in my culture. I began attending more Indigenous events, including powwows, fashion shows and film festivals. My new Native friends and I shared stories from our traditional upbringings, and our experiences brought forward a newfound appreciation for my culture. (Up until the end of high school, I often omitted the fact that I was Indigenous all together—mostly because I thought of myself as a half-breed, and I felt like a fraud.) In a weird way, it took relocating to a big city to feel more connected to my roots.

Then I moved to New York. Being an urban Indian here has forced me to put in the extra effort to connect with my heritage: I’ve lost most of my Indigenous friend circle that I had in Toronto and, oddly for such a big city, there are fewer Indigenous events here than in Toronto. Due to the distance, I also travel back to Nipissing First Nation less frequently, and every missed powwow has a sneaky way of making me feel further and further away from my community. Instead, living in New York has forced me to  look past my former solutions—travelling back home, attending Indigenous social events—and, instead, find new, more personal ways to practice my Indigeneity.

Instead of looking outward for cultural fulfillment, I’ve started adopting small daily rituals that are essential to my well-being. When I’m stressed, I burn sage (with the windows open, so my neighbours don’t get mad). I speak to the Creator often. I practice the four directions teachings, which represent living a balanced life based on the concept of the medicine wheel. These new solo practices may seem minute from the outside, but have instilled a sense of identity and grounding in me that I have never felt before.

The emotions Indigenous people experience while moving to a large, unfamiliar city are unique, and certainly not all-encompassing. Andrea Landry, a 30-year-old Anishinaabe woman from Pays Plat First Nation in Rossport, Ont., has lived both on-reserve and in cities such as Ottawa and Nanaimo, B.C. Though she has experienced difficulties in urban centres, such as enduring racism and a sense of loneliness due to a lack of events and tribe-specific traditions to connect with, she has also seen the benefits of breaking from the traditional mold. “It’s not about being an ‘urban Indian’ or a ‘rez Indian,’” she says. “An Indigenous person living in the city may not be as connected to Indigenous systems compared to those who live on their homelands, however, who they are and where they come from is often reflected in their values and morals. Indigenous peoples who live in the city are finding ways to highlight who we are and where we come from, free from the confines of colonial ideologies and rules. It is here where we are seeing our people truly thrive.”

Meanwhile, Gina Metallic, a two-spirit woman from Listuguj Mig’maq First Nation in Québec, says moving to Montreal led her to discover, and find comfort in, her sexual identity. (Two-spirits are Indigenous people whose bodies house both masculine and feminine spirits, and are able to move fluidly between both genders.) “Moving to the city allowed me to explore my sexuality privately,” Metallic says. “ I felt that I was able to explore what I needed to, without anyone knowing. I was nervous to come out in my community because it was not something that people did. It was not until I took a Queer Studies class at McGill University that I heard of two-spirit people. The historical significance of it caught me by surprise, knowing that these individuals were highly respected and stood next to the warriors.”

Regardless of the various experiences Indigenous people have while living in the city, one cannot deny that inhabiting a concrete jungle goes against our beliefs, specifically when it comes to practicing a connectedness to nature. It’s hard to live off the land when that land is now dirty concrete. Land that covers years of massacring and swindling. Manhattan itself was originally inhabited by the Lenape tribe—the original New Yorkers—whose homeland, called Lenapehoking, covered what is now New York City, New Jersey, Delaware and other parts of New York State. (Like many, their land was eventually stolen by European colonizers.) I do often question if I, as an Indigenous person, am a traitor for embracing a colonial way of life. Am I watering down what my ancestors have perfected over generations? Am I truly living authentically as an Indigenous person if I’m enjoying Westernized luxuries? Created by the same Western people who almost obliterated my people from the Earth?

These questions don’t necessarily have answers. As urban Indians, we ultimately have to create our own rules. There is no guide book for transitioning our cultural traditions into modern times. But it is up to us to find what works, and to keep the traditions alive. And I would argue doing it in a way that feels right is better than not doing it at all. Making use of modern advancements is essential to our survival—and, in a way, using Western tools such as social media advocacy to further progress our Indigenous community—is delightfully subversive, too. It says we’re still here, and you’re going to help us

Plus, since I began channelling my culture in my own way, the creepy owl hasn’t paid me a visit.

Related:

What Does It Mean to Identify as Two-Spirit?
Five Indigenous Creatives on the Current State of Indigenous Fashion in Canada
 
Rihanna’s ‘Savage’ Line Brings Up a Complicated Discussion About Language

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