This is the second in a two-part series (you can find part one here) on the experiences of Dr. John Andrew Morrow (Imam Ilyas Islam) on his journey towards finding himself, his roots and becoming both Métis and Muslim. The Métis are people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, and one of the three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada; the use of the term Métis is complex and contentious and has different historical and contemporary meanings. For more, click here.
One of the most moving moments in my life and one that drove me with greater determination to document my native ancestry was the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that I attended in 2009. As the dancers entered the ring, as part of the Grand Entry, and the chanting, drumming, and circling commenced, I entered a trance, the most profound of spiritual states. Overwhelmed, in ecstasy, with tears uncontrolled flowing down my cheeks, I became at one with my people, and at one with the One, the Creator, the Provider, and the Great Spirit. I may have embraced Islam at the age of 16, finding spiritual similarity between Sufism (Tasawwuf/’Irfan), and the Right Path of Life found in Native American spiritual teachings; however, for me, the Grand Entry at the Gathering of Nations was comparable to making the pilgrimage to Mecca and circling the Holy Kaaba.
Although I have visited my spiritual forefathers, Idris I and Idris II, in Zerhoun and Fez, in Morocco, along with other saintly figures in South Africa, and have derived great benefit from performing pilgrimages to their holy sanctuaries, and while I would eagerly visit other sacred personalities in North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond, the Earth itself is a masjid, a mosque, a place of prayer, and a site of prostration.
“Some Muslims may travel to Arabia, Iraq, and Iran in search of spiritual satisfaction: I find mine here, on my land, the land of my ancestors.”
Although I have been offered employment in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Iran, I refuse to leave Turtle Island. I would rather perform tawaf or circumambulation with the Miami Nation, the Chippewa Nation, and the Métis Nation than performing it in Wahhabi-occupied Arabia where Islam merely exists in name.
It was the will of God that I was brought from North Dakota, traditional Métis territory, to Indiana, traditional Métis territory. I spent two years conducting research at the Genealogy Center, at the Allen County Public Library, in Fort Wayne, the second largest institution of its kind in the United States. As an experienced academic and university professor, with decades of research experience, I painstakingly prepared the ancestral tree of my family, in all directions, going back over 500 years and, in some cases, even further back in history, with each link supported by birth, death, and marriage certificates, and supplemented by other historical documents, photographs, and paintings. Although many modern-day Métis and Indians trace their ancestry back to a single indigenous ancestor, I confirmed my descent from hundreds of aboriginal forefathers and foremothers.
I vividly remember the moment in which I discovered a document confirming my descent from Roch Manitouabeouich, a scout and interpreter for the French, and his wife, Oueou Outchibahabanoukoueau. If these identifiably indigenous names were not enough, historical documents described them as “savages,” the French term that was used to contrast them from the “civilized” Europeans. Roch appears to have been Huron whereas Oueou appears to have been Abenaki. Their daughter, Marie Olivier Sylvestre Manitouabeouich is listed as being an Algonquin who lived with her father who was the Chief of the Hurons.
Not only was I a direct descendant of Manitouabeouich and Outchibahabanoukoueau through various family lines, I also confirmed that I was a direct descendant of Chief Membertou, the leader of the Mi’kmaq Nation, as well as Gisis “Jeanne” Bahmahmaadjimiwin, the wife of Jean-Nicolet de Belleborne, who belonged to the Nipissing Nation. These are only a few of the most prominent of my indigenous ancestors. There were hundreds more in an unbroken chain from the past to the present. Some of my French ancestors married Native women. Some of my French ancestors adopted Amerindian girls. Their mixed-blood descendants virtually always married other mixed-bloods. The fact that Métis typically married other Métis for centuries indicates that they shared a common Aboriginal culture. Although there are Métis with roots in a single region, my indigenous ancestry is varied and comes from Acadia, Québec, Ontario, and beyond. They were Huron-Wyandot, Mi’kmak, Abenaki, Penobscot, Algonquin, Innu, Abekani, and Nipissing. The ethnogenesis of the Métis or and Michif Otipemisiwak, did not take place in the prairies in the 19th century. It dates to the 17th century and took place throughout New France.
Like many Métis, my parents and grandparents did not speak openly about our indigenous ancestry. We were proud Francophone Canadians. We would canoe and kayak. We would harvest, trap, fish, and hunt. We passed down knowledge of medicinal herbs. We transmitted the songs and music of our ancestors. We were intimately connected with our environment. Our language was Métis. Our food was Métis. Our traditions were Métis. And our culture was Métis. We did not, however, openly identify as Métis. When I told my lifelong Jamaican-Canadian friend that I was indigenous, he could not comprehend why my family failed to tell me: “Your commitment to social justice and your solidarity with the oppressed has always been remarkable.”
Since the Métis have no specific phenotype and range from blue-eyed people with blond hair to tanned people with black hair, they can be racially ambiguous. Although some Métis moved onto reservations with their First Nation cousins, others continued to live with their French-Canadian cousins. Since it was bad enough being Francophone under English domination in Canada, professing to be Aboriginal was an added burden. Louis Riel, the revolutionary leader and martyr, who holds the same position to the Métis as Imam Husayn holds to Shiite Muslims, warned his people against being placed in reservations. Louis Riel wanted the Métis to maintain citizenship and the right to vote. As reservation Indians, the Métis would become wards of the State: their way of life would also suffer.
If my parents and grandparents did not openly speak about their Indigeneity, it was because the State literally came after our children. Inuit, First Nation, and Métis children were rounded up by the Canadian government and placed in residential schools to supposedly civilize, Anglicize and Christianize them. They were humiliated, degraded, physically abused, and sexually assaulted. The Aboriginal people of Canada still suffer from the scars that were inflicted upon them in residential schools. Our parents and grandparents did not assimilate to seek privilege. They were already second-hand citizens, subject to racism and discrimination as Francophones. They did what any sensible parent would do: they stressed their French-Canadian side as opposed to their Native Canadian side for the sake of survival. Call it strategic dissimulation. They lived as Métis people. They just did not use that dangerous word.
Since the documentary confirmation of my indigenous ancestry was an overwhelming experience, I was concerned as to how my father would react when I revealed to him the result of two years of genealogical research. My mother reassured me that I had nothing to be concerned about. After I presented the fact to my father, he smiled and said: “Son, you are right.”
The secret was just below the surface. All I had to do was scratch.
He had suspected it all along and, as my mother suggested, my paternal grandfather of Irish ancestry, was certainly aware of it. My grandmother, after all, was a Beaulieu, a family of noble French ancestry. In New France, the men from the Beaulieu line married indigenous women. Many of them lived in Québec but travelled throughout New France. Some had spouses in Eastern Canada and spouses in the Mid-West and prairies. Some settled in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota, among other places. Others reached the West coast of North America.
When I presented my 5000-member circular genealogical chart to my mother, with all the Métis and First Nation ancestors highlighted in yellow, she was amazed at my work and accepting of my findings. Although they never described themselves as Métis, due to the dangers of racism and discrimination, she recognized that the Drouin and Bisson families were of mixed ancestry. When I presented my findings to my aunt, who looks stereotypically Indian, she acknowledged that we were indeed aboriginal people. Like a well that had been held back, and that suddenly burst, she started sharing information about her kokum or great grandmother, who was a big Indian woman and the head of her family clan. I reached out to another branch of the Drouin family in the Beauce and found that they openly identified as Métis. In fact, a relative of mine, François Beaulieu recently assumed the leadership of the Métis Nation of Québec. One cannot fake being Métis. All Métis descend from a small number of common ancestors. They are all interrelated and interconnected. Métis families are famous for keeping meticulously detailed genealogical trees. We have all found each other and in so doing we have all found ourselves. My family, which lives in Québec, Ontario, and Indiana, all fly the Métis flag with pride. In fact, my father, who is nearly eighty, insists upon it: “Son,” he said, repeating words he told me when I was but a boy, “Be proud of who you are.” I say the same to my sons who are being raised openly and proudly as indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. We are proud to be Métis and we are proud to be Muslim.
Click here to read Part 1 in this series.