I left the United States in the summer of 2016 to begin a new life in Finland. I graduated from college, quit my job, traveled overseas, got married, and lived two years abroad before my marriage crumbled and I needed to come back home in the winter of 2018. The time spent away from home has come with a great deal of self reflection and soul searching.
I am used to navigating two worlds: white and Ojibwa / Anishinaabe, but living abroad as both an indigenous woman and an immigrant woman revealed new roles in my search for identity. I realized very quickly that because I am white passing and can speak English that my life in Finland was going to be very different from the lives of my new friends who moved here from Afghanistan, India, The Philippines, Iran, and Zambia.
My friends have their own stories and reasons for moving here, but what was it like to navigate a foreign country as an indigenous woman who was also an immigrant, living in a country with its own history of colonialism against its’ indigenous population?
When I left the country, the NoDAPL resistance at Standing Rock was beginning to gain international news. And there was nothing I could do but watch live feeds, follow Twitter activists, donate to the cause with what little money I had. Nothing ever felt like it was enough. Flooding my social media with images, videos, and news outlets never feels like it’s enough even if it’s all that you can do. It is agony to just sit there, waiting, hoping and praying that this wasn’t going to turn into a third Wounded Knee.
When I heard that several Sami activists were arriving in Standing Rock in solidarity, I knew it was important to also be informed as to what was happening in the country I was currently living in. I needed to learn the history of Finland but also of Lapland, of Sami people, and of the historical and current issues that shaped this country. I learned of the Ellos Deatnu moratorium from Aslat Holmberg’s Youtube channel, but finding reliable English sources about Sami people and their struggle was very difficult.
A substitute teacher for my Finnish language courses explained how the hardest thing about living in Finland was holding onto an identity that you were slowly losing. In order to build a life in this country, some degree of assimilation is expected: I would have to be more Finnish in order to live in Finland. There were aspects of myself that I would have to unlearn or let go of in order for life to be easier. And unlike what my grandmother went through as a survivor of residential schools, that assimilation would be of my choosing. Somehow that choice started feeling more and more like a betrayal.
Because of this, I made a conscious choice every single day to make sure that my indigenous heritage was part of my identity. Of the belongings I brought with me, the prayer bag that my uncle made for me was always nearby. I started a blog and created both The Aila Test and Does The NDN Live on Tumblr to bring a Native lens to critically analyze mainstream media. I wrote two articles for Indian Country Today and did my own research on the history of Pocahontas. It became a goal of mine to help people from other parts of the world learn more about who she really was as well as what Native people are going through to this day.
But what about my experience as an immigrant?
As long as I kept to myself and knew just enough Finnish to get by, I was met with little to no harassment or bigotry from the Finnish people. My friends, with their darker skin, heavy accents, and some with limited English, would not have it so easy. A knife attack in the city of Turku came with both Islamophobic and xenophobic backlash from far right and Finnish nationalists. Although none of the backlash (to my knowledge) was taken out on my friends, fear for our safety was always in the back of my mind.
Despite the troubles in my marriage, I was completely dependant on a decent man. He wouldn’t steal my money or keep me from visiting my family and friends. He wouldn’t abuse me or throw me out on the street with nowhere to go. How easy would it have been to end up abused or abandoned by a lesser man with so much power over you? How many people endure such atrocities because reporting it would risk deportation or worse? How easy would it have been for him to say, “I don’t love you anymore. Get out.” and leave me stranded in a foreign country? Every time I passed a homeless person in Helsinki, I knew that could easily be me. If I had euros to give, I gave it to them.
Relying on the kindness of strangers is a dangerous necessity in that situation. I’d rather be kind than cruel, especially when not everybody will be. Compassion is the only thing that can truly save the world.
Above all else, as a white passing, English-speaking American woman, I knew that I was allowed to fail if things didn’t go as planned. I knew I had a country and a home to return to should the occasion arise. I could go home, find a job, speak the language, build up my savings, have my own means to travel, and be independent in ways that I couldn’t be when I was depending on my ex-husband. Could my friends say the same? Would it even be possible for them? Did they have that luxury? Would they ever see their home again in this lifetime?
So what does all of this have to do with the internment camps for undocumented children? What does my search for identity have to do with undocumented children at all? Obviously my taste of immigration differs quite a bit from the people currently being detained and deported in this country. What I experienced was more of a long vacation considering I could always go back home and return to my normal life at any given time.
I always knew that as hard and as lonely as my experience in Finland occasionally was, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to not be white, to not know English, and to not have a college education. I couldn’t imagine being a refugee, forced to live here because it’s too dangerous to go back. I can’t imagine being a child with brown skin, separated from my parents, unable to speak the language of this new country, unable to go back home, relying on the mercy of complete strangers armed with guns while I had to live in a cage.
But once upon a time, my grandmother was one of those children.
I see pictures of these “kiddie prisons” and I see my grandmother and her sister taken away from their family and put into a residential school. I’ve read about how the guards laugh at the crying, screaming children and I wonder how many tears Grandma and Auntie must have cried, and how none of the adults around them cared. I think of little girls in cages and wonder who are the men guarding them? What are they putting them through? What are they allowed to get away with?
I look at those pictures and see my father and my uncle and what could have happened to them had they not been the sons of a white American man. They were children during the 50s and 60s. They could have easily been taken to a school like their mother and auntie were. They could have easily been abused and murdered like so many Indigenous children in the schools.
I look at those pictures and I see the memorial at Walpole Island with names of my relatives that died in captivity from residential schools. Relatives I will never know. Relatives who died as children, who had hopes and dreams and their whole lives in front of them only to have it taken away. I can’t imagine the cruelty they must have known before they died. Was it anything like what these children are facing right now in these prisons?
But for me, it goes a step further than generational trauma. I look at those pictures and I think of my Latino and Mexican friends and how much harder life in this country has become for them. I look at those pictures of children in captivity and think of my friend Miyako, and how Japanese families were rounded up and held in places like this only a few generations ago. People who had nothing to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Entire families. Children. Forced into cages, forced into camps. I look at those pictures and think of my friend Fattum, and how easy something like this could happen to the Muslim and Arab population in this country. How so many people are already on board with that decision and want to make it real. I think of my friend Taylor and the history of black families being ripped apart and thrown into cages. How young black children are more likely to be charged as adults and serve longer, harsher sentences at such a young age and the country just goes along with it.
A lot has changed since I left the United States two years ago. Or rather, a lot of deeply rooted violent thoughts and beliefs are resurfacing like a bad case of PTSD. It wasn’t easy watching everything go to hell from afar, knowing what my friends and family were going through.
Even before my marriage started to deteriorate, I knew I was going to have to come back here. I’m not sure what I can do, but this is my home and this is my fight too. I cannot sit here, as the descendant of a residential school survivor, and be quiet as the same thing is being carried out right now for these poor children. I cannot be quiet when my brief experience as an immigrant was met with more patience and tolerance than what the United States has offered hundreds of children.
If history is going to repeat itself, it had better be met with resistance and not silence.
If compassion is the only thing that can truly save the world, extending it to frightened children and pulling them out of those cages should be the first step.
In closing, do not forget that this isn’t the first time this has happened in this country. Do not forget how easily it happened in 2018 and how easily it can happen again. And then stop it from ever happening again.
Ali Nahdee, Anishinaabe, is the founder of The Ali Test blog.