I grew up in Misipawistik (Grand Rapids, Manitoba), an Inninew village of about 400 people. The village was separated by the Saskatchewan River, the reserve was on the south bank and the Métis community was on the north side. But at that time, we never identified as status, non-status or Métis. We were Inninew, Cree-speaking people. Our language identified us.
In all the time I spent with my nookum (grandmother), I never once heard her say a word in English. People who dropped in to see her, spoke to her in Cree. She would not acknowledge a visitor if the person didn’t speak Cree to her. That was how she was: her home, her terms, her language.
There were two families in our village that were Caucasian: the store owners. In those families there were three boys, blond as blond could be, and they spent as much time with us as they did at home. They all spoke Inninew, Cree with us. To us, their friends, they were just a whiter shade of Inninew.
We never knew that outside of our isolated village we were different, until Manitoba Hydro arrived to build the Grand Rapids Generating Station. Manitoba Hydro created a tiered system in which they were on top, the workers they brought in were second, the Métis third and at the bottom were status and non-status people. The dam flooded more than 200,000 hectares of our land. Worst of all, we nearly lost our identity, our language.