This week on The Trip podcast: Nakuset on her incredible life story, surviving the 60s Scoop and intergenerational trauma, and fighting for Indigenous peoples’ rights and dignity.
In the center of Cabot Square in downtown Montreal, there is a high column topped with a statue of the spice trader John Cabot, who landed on Canada’s coast more than 500 years ago. Sitting on the benches all around the statue—unloved, unheeded, unhoused—are the descendants of the people Cabot landed on, a semi-permanent population of homeless, mostly indigenous, mostly Inuit, people who live in or around the square.
This episode was recorded on Canadian Thanksgiving, a holiday that is all too similar in its origins and implications to the U.S. version. What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for a holiday that, in its sheer gouty revisionism, offers at least a chance to raise a question that all non-native people in the Americas should ask of ourselves more often: what the fuck? What have we done? What the fuck are we continuing to do?
Canada may have a cuddly reputation down in the States, but there’s blood on this corner of the Commonwealth. And even, as you’ll hear in this episode, in those moments where the country has flashed good intentions, they’ve often been built on the backs of some deeply racist shit. The land theft, the political pillage, the cultural erasure, are an ongoing multigenerational trauma, as my guest on this episode puts it.
Her name is Nakuset, a name that she had to reclaim after growing up as an adoptee in a Jewish family in Montreal. She not only has a profound and moving life story, she is also the longtime Executive Director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. Together with one of her collaborators, David Chapman, whom you heard delivering McDonald’s like some kind of hamburger Santa Claus of Cabot Square, Nakuset is also the driving force behind the new Resilience Montreal center.
That center will be right across the street from the statue of John Cabot, and it is no less a monument. A monument to community, a monument to older and better values than settler capitalism, a monument to the incredible survival skills of native Canada, a monument to Resilience.
All of this plays out in Nakuset’s professional life, and it plays out in her personal life. So I should also warn that we are going to laugh and joke and drink our mocha and coffee and we’re also talk a bit about a suicide. If you, or someone you are close to, are in distress, please reach out for help or just a conversation: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Nakuset.
Nathan Thornburgh: All right, here we are. Tell me what day it is. I mean we’re going to date this podcast because it won’t be out a little while.
Nakuset: Today is Monday, but in Canada here it’s officially Thanksgiving.
Thornburgh: It’s Thanksgiving. And you’ve chosen to spend at least some part of holy festival with me talking instead of gathering around turkey and so on, but as an indigenous person, as Cree, as someone who works with these populations and these politics, what is Thanksgiving? What is Canadian Thanksgiving to you?
Holidays for Indigenous people in general are tough because one thinks of Thanksgiving where you get together as a family and you sit around a table and you share food. But what if you don’t have family and what if you don’t have food?
Nakuset: Wow. You know, it’s funny because my son’s friend came by the other day and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to go to like six Thanksgivings.” I’m like, “Well, you better not kill any Indians when you do it.” He’s like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “Well that’s pretty much what it’s all about, right? Settlers arrived here, we you know, fed them and then they had enough of us and you know, sort of like everything changed.” The whole dynamics of Canada changed. And you know although the settlers are still being thankful, I think you know, for indigenous people this kind of holiday is very difficult on so many levels. Right? So they call it anti-colonial day or whatever. There’s so many different names for it, but I mean I think holidays for Indigenous people in general are tough because one thinks of Thanksgiving where you get together as a family and you sit around a table and you share food. But what if you don’t have family and what if you don’t have food and you can’t actually be participatory in this holiday. And I did make a turkey. Now of course I grew up a Jew, right?
I was adopted by a Jewish family so it wasn’t really our thing. We have Yom Kippur. So anyway, my son wanted turkey, I made a turkey, and then after I ate the turkey with my kids and I was feeling super guilty. I got Jewish guilt. But afterwards, I just like, what about all these people in the street that are hungry? What about them? What are they doing? So you know, we carved up the turkey and David Chapman came with me and we went down to Cabot Square and gave it out. You know? And it’s kind of funny because that’s having the Indian show up and give it to the homeless. I mean there was two Inuit and three other non-Indigenous people, and it’s like look at us, we’re still doing it.
Thornburgh: Have we learned nothing?
Nakuset: But it’s a good thing.
Thornburgh: So when it’s kind of it’s a good story because it’s kind of about reclaiming what could otherwise just be a full-on, imposed piece of bullshit and just making something that’s actually genuine and good out of it.
Nakuset: My thing is that, I mean honestly you should see how their faces light up. You know? Would you like some turkey and mashed potatoes? And they’re, “Yeah! I would love that.” And what is the impact of that? If we go by the next day, they’ll remember that. Yeah, you’re the one who came by with the turkey. That was really cool. Thank you. Right?
Thornburgh: Especially on this day. You can feed them, and their needs are 365, but on a day where the picture is that everybody is around the table. Canadian Thanksgiving falls on Columbus Day in the United States, which is now increasingly—and this is true in New York in my kid’s school calendars—and I think they have five states now that for the first time this year are celebrating Indigenous people’s day instead of Columbus Day. New Mexico for the first time, which is super crazy because you think it might have occurred to them by now. Maine, Washington DC, Minnesota, I think Vermont. So it’s, I don’t know, is that symbolic and empty? Or is that a good start?
Nakuset: Oh, for sure it’s a good start. I mean I think that there has to be sort of somebody who pushes for that to happen. Right? I mean even in Canada, we have an Aboriginal day or Indigenous day, whatever you want to call it, because they keep changing our title or whatever our name is. But that’s June 21st.
People don’t understand where we came from and everything that we’ve been through. People don’t know about the Indian Act. They know a little about residential schools. Almost nobody knows anything about the 60s Scoop, and the fact that it continues today. It doesn’t just end because the policy was removed. The actions continue.
Thornburgh: It is a constant theme. Just a constant source of astoundment and bewilderment for me that we have these same issues in the states with race just on the African American side, and just how people think, well, because everybody’s equal before the law now and not realizing that this shit is like yesterday. And it’s also going to be tomorrow if you don’t even stop to look at it.
But that seems like a good moment to talk about your story which began not in Quebec, but like 3,000 kilometers away in Saskatchewan.
Nakuset: I was in Thompson, Manitoba, that’s where I was born. My community is in Saskatchewan, but you know that’s where my band is. But my mother moved around a lot so she ended up in Thompson, Manitoba.
Thornburgh: So tell me about your life story and particularly that early beginning because it runs into all these policies that people don’t know about.
Nakuset: Okay, so first my mother went to the Prince Albert Residential School. And that really affected her so she wasn’t really able to bring up children, but she had like seven children.
Thornburgh: And these residential schools, and again just for me as an American knowing far less about this than I should and far less even about the Canadian version of these things, but describe what the residential school system was, and what was its aim?
Nakuset: That’s a long story. It’s a government policy that the government and churches implemented, really, I think they started in the late 1800s. So after they started creating all the treaties with all the different nations and started taking all our lands and basically through the Indian Act, we weren’t allowed to actually be Indians. You’d have to read it to see. The last thing that they decided to do was create residential schools. So these schools you have to go to and if you didn’t give up your kids you were arrested. And they would basically go in with buses and just grab all the children and bring them far away to schools. Not like schools that were close by, but super far away because it’s harder to run back home.
Nakuset: Yeah. And there they weren’t allowed to have anything to do with the culture. They were given new names, you know cut off all of their hair, given really crappy food. It wasn’t really about education. What it was about was assimilation because when you finish residential schools, you lost your Indian status.
Thornburgh: It’s just an absolute erasure.
Nakuset: Yeah. Totally. Now the thing is I’m from treaty six, so I get $5 a year for being an Indian, that was the agreement with my chief and, you know, the Queen. And because I get $5 for being an Indian, it means that everyone in my band is allowed this money. There’s a pot of money that the government is supposed to hold onto and slowly dole it out to everyone, but if you go to residential school you lose that $5. You lose your land. You lose your title. You lose all your sort of benefits that we get. Like I get my teeth cleaned and I get eyeglasses. I get ten sessions with psychologists.
Thornburgh: And these are ongoing benefits.
Because I was three and didn’t have baggage, I was considered adoptable, and they took my picture and brought it here to Montreal and Jewish Family Services. They put me in a catalog.
Nakuset: Yes. Basically we took everything and you get your teeth cleaned. Isn’t that a great deal? Yay. I also get post secondary education. Right? So I was able to go once I got my Indian status I was able to go back to school and get an education, but back to residential school. Once that was really it was assimilation policy. So you lose your title of being Indigenous, or you lose your treaty rights. You get rid of the language, the culture, and everything else and it was basically beaten out of the children. There are horror stories among horror stories that happened at residential school. And they lasted almost 200 years. So when we talk about inter-generational trauma, this is the generation.
So even though I didn’t go to residential school, I was inter-generationally traumatized and my mother wasn’t able to bring up her kids because of what happened at residential school, and her coping mechanism was to drink and party and to not have any healthy relationships so we all had pretty much different fathers. And I was in Thompson with my older sister, Sonya, and my mother used to leave us for days to ourselves, and Sonya was really cool because she was able to find a way to feed us and make all these crazy foods. Like crackers and like condensed milk and egg and I don’t know. It’s amazing I’m alive.
Thornburgh: And you say older sister, but she was three years older. She was not much older.
Nakuset: She was six and I was three.
Thornburgh: That’s still a very, very young child.
Nakuset: Yeah. But she felt very responsible for me. And then eventually the police came with the social workers and took us away and brought us to a foster home. And I think we moved around from foster home to foster home and we were always together which was great. You know? But they started creating the AIM, Adopt Indian and Métis program, and because I was three, and didn’t have much baggage, I was considered adoptable, and they took my picture and brought it here to Montreal and Jewish Family Services. They put me in a catalog.
I was put into a Mikvah and I was an instant Jew. Went to Hebrew school. I can speak more Hebrew than I can speak Cree.
Thornburgh: Which is where somebody could shop visually.
Nakuset: Well, all of the Jewish community would go because they got rid of all the other children and were only giving out Indigenous kids. It was a policy that happened across Canada. So everyone in the 70s, that was the new policy. We’re only giving out Native kids. Forget the white kids for the moment, only Native kids. And they did it through like newspaper clippings and all that.
Thornburgh: I can almost feel, as a white man, the self-congratulation that they must have felt while adopting this progressive policy of Indians only.
Nakuset: It was considered a mitzvah. You take the kid, you’re doing a good deed for them. You’re going to give them a good life. We’ll have clean water and they’ll have food and you know sort of they bought into that whole aspect, but they never actually addressed the cultural differences. So when I was taken away and brought [to Montreal] overnight, it was like, Don’t tell them they’re native. Don’t tell them anything about where they’re from. Don’t tell them anything. I was put into a Mikvah and I was an instant Jew. Went to Hebrew school. I can speak more Hebrew than I can speak Cree. And brought up, but looking very different. Right? I had a blonde brother and a blonde sister. It was super obvious that I wasn’t part of the family. And for whatever reason, I already had a cultural pride at the age of three, where I was telling everyone I lived in a teepee. And I’m not sure where I came up with that, but anyway.
Thornburgh: But your adoptive parents told you to tell people that you were Israeli.
Thornburgh: As to explain your dark hair. We have one Sephardic child and two Ashkenazi, or something. But even at that age, at least in your telling, you were like, No thank you.
Nakuset: No, no. Because I had some memories. I didn’t have a lot of memories. Right? But I had some. Whereas my sister woke up the next morning and saw that I was gone and it destroyed her. She was like, “Where did she go?” She thought that maybe our mother came and picked me up and brought me back home and left Sonya in the foster home. But later on when she was reunited with my mother and noticed I wasn’t there, she kept looking for me. And my mother didn’t seem to know where I was and my sister ended up bouncing around from one place to another, whether it was a foster home, group home, back to my mother, on the streets, foster home, group home. That’s how she spent the next, I don’t know how many, 12 or 13 years of her life before she was just sort of autonomous and was on her own. But always searching for me and even writing letters and you know trying to find me. Whereas I had a small inkling of her, but no real memories.