“His story. My story. . . . It’s our story,” writes David A. Robertson about his father, Don. And so it is in Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory, a family history embedded in a memoir that shimmers with love and pain.
As a child born in 1935, Don didn’t have official Indigenous status, despite his heritage. He spent nine months of the year camping with his family on their trapline in the far north of Manitoba, Canada. Then the Family Allowances Act of 1945 changed their way of life. The act provided financial support for every child with a permanent address, so Don’s family was forced to give up their trapline, except for brief spring runs. Don went to a public school, where he had to abandon his native language, Swampy Cree. He later devoted his educational career to ensuring that Indigenous people’s languages and culture were respected and preserved, earning the government’s support as he established programs across Canada. Black Water begins and ends with the story of the Black Water traplines that meant sustenance, survival and community for generations of Swampy Cree.
Yet Don and his European Canadian wife decided not to tell their three children that they were “First Nations kids,” believing that knowledge of their Swampy Cree roots would be a burden for them. This decision left their son David feeling like a puzzle with a missing piece. As a teenager with dark skin, Robertson grew up far from a trapline, in a mostly white neighborhood in Winnipeg, Manitoba, denying he was “Indian” and laughing along with racist jokes. When his parents separated, he spent 10 years without his father, except for weekends and golf games. Hurt, angry and increasingly anxious about everything, Robertson eventually confronted and reconciled with Don. With that came the revelation of his Cree heritage. Many journeys to Norway House along Lake Winnipeg followed, revealing his family’s roots, his “blood memory” and stories to be passed down to his own children.
Claiming one’s heritage, learning where “home” truly is, is an oft-told tale, but Robertson infuses his story with a wisdom that binds his own discoveries to the common experience of sharing family legacies with future generations. Memory is a gift we owe our children, he says. Listen to your own storytellers and hold them close while you can.