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Redefining Belonging: Marlene's Tenacious Story

Marlene was born In Burns Lake BC to an Indigenous father and a white mother. Her father joined the military when she was 18 months old and she was raised in a variety of towns and Air Bases throughout Canada and Germany. In this episode Marlene tells us about what it has been like to embrace her Indigenous AND Christian identity.

The following is a transcript of Season 7 Episode 4 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hi there friends and welcome to another episode of Do Justice. Today our guest is Marlene Wolters. Marlene was born in Burns Lake, British Columbia to an indigenous father and a white mother. Her father joined the military when she was 18 months old and she was raised in a variety of towns and air bases throughout Canada and Germany. Currently, she resides with her husband in Frankfurt, Ontario. She is a retired nurse who currently works as a church administrator and bookkeeper. She has 4 grown children and 9 grandchildren and is passionate about bringing education and reconciliation to all. To that end, she's currently working on a master's of theological study through NAIITS. Marlene, you're busy, you're awesome, we're excited to have you. Welcome. Thank you for joining us today.

Marlene: Thank you for having me, Chris.

Chris: So, Marlene, we're grateful for you, because you've been very open with your life story in order to help the church grow toward reconciliation. Could you share some of your story with us today?

Marlene: First, I'm going to share an introduction of myself in my language, which I am trying to learn. [Speaking in Wet’suwet’en] So that is giving my name and then I'm a member of the [Socasco] band in BC and that I'm Wet'suwet'en. 

So yes, grandmother was native. She grew up in reserve lands in BC. She knew how to live off the land. She was an avid trapper. She made fur coats, sold them at the trading station. She was totally self-sufficient on the land. When she was 18, she married my grandfather. Who was a 42-year-old white settler. I've heard many stories about how that marriage came about. Which story is true? I do not know. But what is true is the minute that that marriage happened the government took her Indian status away. And when that status got taken away, she was no longer allowed legally to be on reserve lands. And so that essentially cut her off from her family at the age of 18. She was very much indigenous, very dark skin. So at the same time, she was not allowed into any establishments on the white side of Burns Lake into the stores, things that my grandfather actually owned. She wasn't welcome in those because of her skin color. So she was cut off from family friends, culture, everything. She would try to canoe across to see her family. But the RCMP or even the game warden had permission, she’d be fined and she’d get turned around and she wouldn't be allowed to see them. So, my grandparents went on to have 15 kids and my father was the ninth. Because of the age difference, my grandfather died a lot younger – or, a lot earlier – than my grandmother, so she was left with a lot of small kids. When he passed away, she can't access her family, she can't access town. And I think that is when alcoholism entered the family picture. 

So my dad, he didn't go to residential schools, but they tried to take him to school. My grandfather had the white privilege. He met the Indian agent on the front porch with a shotgun, and the kids did not get taken. However, nor could they attend the local public school because from there they could get taken. There was one cousin living with my dad's family at the time and my grandfather didn't have proper papers for her. She did attend residential schools. So as far as I know, my dad only had a grade 2 education. Until he joined the forces and somebody along the way helped him to attain grade 8. Side note from that: I also have family who, same age group that I am, could not start school until after the age of 9 when it became safe to go to school. So at age 9 would have been starting in either kindergarten or grade one. 

And aunts and uncles, so my dad's siblings, as they got older and people were no longer taking kids to the schools, some of their kids, which be my cousins, they remember that other kids would write on their hands FP. And that would keep the white classmates flea-proof in case they happened to touch one of my cousins. So it was that kind of prejudice that caused my mom and dad to decide to raise us outside of BC and that's when my dad re-enlisted in the Air Force. And we were raised outside of our culture. To the extent that we're now realizing my siblings and I that my dad passed nothing on, not from his indigenous culture, not from his own recreational life. He was a ski jumper. Competed against some people who were of Olympic quality. Didn't have any funds, of course, so he never got off the hills, the local hills. But he didn't teach us to ski. And we're looking back now, with my siblings and I, and realizing that anything that happened in his growing up years, he was going to make sure didn't happen to us at all costs. But what that does is it leaves you growing up without a culture. And so through my earlier years, I was naive to most of this. But then as a teenager, things become a little bit more aware. You start being a little more aware of the jokes that are going around. 

And then in 1975, I started dating my now husband. And his Dutch, Christian Reformed family. And there was already an issue because I was Canadian, so I certainly wasn't going to add the indigenous piece to it. And we were considered to be unequally yoked because of me being a Canadian. Nobody ever asked me about my faith life. And then you hear, if you're not Dutch, you're not much. And you realize very quickly on that if this relationship is going to continue I needed to assimilate into the culture of the Christian Reformed church. The very first Sunday I attended happened to be Indigenous Sunday – called Indian Sunday at the time. The collection was for Indian missions. The prayer was in the form of: please pray for the missioners as they work among the pagans. So now I've got the pagan label on me as well, which just silenced me more. So: Canadian unequally yoked, pagan, clearly indigenous is not the cool thing to be. 

I taught Sunday school, I did VBS, I did all the good church girl things that you're supposed to do. And nobody, including my husband, knew my internal struggle. I put my game face on and continued. And never really, really feeling solid of who I was in God, because if the very people – meaning the ones in the pews – don't fully accept you, and they are representing on Earth, God, it's not a far stretch to think: do I belong? And, of course, if you ask that question openly, “Oh, of course you belong.” It's always followed: but… Then you hear all the things you can't do. We can't have a drum, can't ever smudge, all the rest of that. And Indigenous Sunday is recognized in the Christian Reformed Church. But many, many churches – and ours was one of them – don't celebrate Indigenous Sunday. It always got pushed off. It's Father's Day, it’s Sunday School Graduation Day. Many other things took precedence over it. It just wasn't important to anybody. 

Then in 2019, because I was sitting in the admin position of the church I saw the invitations that came out for the 2019 Canadian national gathering. And they were looking for a diversity of age, ethnicity, and gender. And I thought, “Whoa, this is me”. Maybe here's an opportunity for me to let the Christian Reformed Church know that there's something other than white and Dutch out there. So I asked for my name to go forth as a nominee. It did. I was nominated and I went. Did all the homework we were supposed to do beforehand. But still got on that plane thinking: equally excited and equally fearful, because my past would tell me that I'm going to meet brick walls, I'm going to meet resistance. 

We're staying at Kings University in Edmonton. This part always makes me cry. Came down the stairs the first morning and heard the beat of the powwow drum. That is my first and strongest feeling of: I belong. That was my heartbeat, that was my creator's heartbeat. And I didn't need to do anything to belong – I already did. And that was powerful. That changed the inside of me. Made me trust myself more that the voice that I always thought was God talking to me was. I can ignore the naysayers a whole lot better now. I can speak out a whole lot better. And then at that conference, I was able to just absorb what was coming. I no longer had my agenda of letting the Christian Reform Church know I was here. And so that conference was really life changing for me. 

But then I came home. Where the brick walls remain in place. Where the resistance remains in place. I have told my story multiple times. Sometimes it's received – the majority of times it's received – just as a personal testimony. “Yay, Marlene got her moment to Jesus” kind of thing. It's being missed for the broader implications of what it is. It's not always heard in the right light. I always had Jesus in my heart. The story is that other people wouldn't let me live my reality. And that's a part that keeps getting missed. 

I did bring my hand drum to church. One service, we had a November service that was going to celebrate Indigenous people. But I felt very uncomfortable bringing my drum for a number of reasons. First I decorated it. Put the 7 grandfather teachings on it and the corresponding scripture verses to it. And then kind of made me sad. Why did I feel like I had to kind of mask the drum almost – make sure it was received as a Christian drum? And then I also mentally prepared in my head and had a few names of people who were likely to walk out because this drum didn't belong in church. The people I thought would walk out didn't attend that day, so it was fine. 

And then in June, when the Kamloops graves were discovered, I was asked specifically to put some content in our church for the month of June. And I thought “Wow.” I was quite honored at that, so I immediately said yes. Giving due credit to the people who organize worship services, this was a Thursday I was asked, Sundays only 4 days away. All I gave them was a land acknowledgment. The next Sunday, I gave them a prayer piece to add and a litany. The third Sunday I had a video prepared. And on the Saturday night, I received a call that there were too many complaints. This was too political. Didn't belong in the church. This wouldn't happen again next year, just fair warning. And I’m thinking, “This wasn't even my idea.” And that really was a big moment of being cast back pre-national gathering. So I pulled my video and I didn't put any more content in for June. I joined Shannon Perez in Winnipeg via Zoom for her church service that Sunday and that CRC put back in my heart “I belong and all indigenous people belong.” I was quite astonished to see how different two congregations could be over the same cause, the same justice issue. Both CRC denominations. So that part is hard. But I still have a lot of support, a lot of people who know me, who provide that support, who encourage me to keep going. I've been told “Don't let people silence your voice. Continue to do what you're doing.” And so that's where I'm at now. I continue to plug away. Continue to reach out. Continue to try to bring the message that: yes, Indigenous people are in a hard spot and many do need to be witnessed to about Jesus. But there are a lot of Christian indigenous people who need to be embraced as full believers and needed people in the body of Christ. And that's kind of where my passion lies right now with reaching the other people who have felt silenced sitting in the church pews, feeling second class. My heart is after those guys.

Chris: Can you tell us about a time when you did experience what it means to be reconciled or where you've seen reconciliation in action?  What has that looked like for you? What's that experience been like? 

Marlene: So the first one was the powwow drum at the National Gathering. And then a lot of it is from individual people I received a phone call from a congregational person basically apologizing for having stayed naive and wanting to borrow books to read. I had a friend that helped… she's a seamstress and she knew I wanted to make a ribbon skirt. And she put as much love and care into that ribbon skirt as was humanly possible, because she knew it meant a lot to me. That's reconciliation. Friends who have come alongside and are offering to facilitate Hearts Exchanged courses. That's reconciliation. So it comes in little, – as I call them – puffs of oxygen that keep going. The reconciliation pieces – if you look at the whole it can be very discouraging – but when you find individuals, a friend Jasper that writes poetry, that is reconciliation. So those are, for me, the pieces that are reconciliation.

Chris: And you've been involved with the Hearts Exchanged program, which is the learning and action journey. It's for Reformed Christians to engage with indigenous people as neighbors and fellow image-bearers. What was that experience like for you? 

Marlene: The first time I took it, I stayed fairly quiet the first couple of nights, because I felt like the audience for Hearts Exchanged was the white Christian Reformed person. I wanted them to be able to say their voice, to say what their reality is. When I did speak up finally, the third week, somebody actually said in the chat that they were really glad I did, because they had already decided that if there were no indigenous people on the Zoom that they were going to be done, because they didn't want to talk about Indigenous people without Indigenous people. So that was pretty powerful. That was pretty powerful. And then just being able to share my story again and to add the indigenous perspective. And to see and hear and witness long-time CRC folks opening their minds, opening their hearts, asking questions, just being open to cross-cultural ways of being? It is very powerful. It's very powerful.

Chris: Where do you find your tenacity? We've been on a call together trying to figure out how to do an interview and –  I'm kind of breaking the fourth wall here, folks – but what I sense from you is just this tenacity you just are pushing and where does that come from?

Marlene: My husband would call it my stubbornness. I think It comes from my grandmother, my mom's mom. Who raised 4 kids on her own as a young woman. Ultimately became the manager of a credit union at a time when women didn't even work. And just constantly saw her get knocked over, stand up, keep going, bring her best foot forward. And I've always just admired the way she did life. Things would get her down, not to say we don't have our pity parties and our moments, we do. But she would never let herself stay there. She also practiced self-care before it was a buzzword. And so having people that support you, learning to step back when you need to. And then that feeling of: I belong. I said to my husband, I said jokingly, I said I was like the little thing in the jack in the box. Round and round the mulberry bush, pop goes the weasel and I'm out now and I'm not going back in that box. The difference. The feeling of the freedom. I can't afford not to be tenacious because I do not want to be back in that box waiting for somebody to maybe turn the handle for me. If I want to keep this relationship that I have with God the way it is now, I have to stay the course. And knowing what it felt like to be silenced for so long, I can't in good conscience not do something if it's leaving somebody else in the position I was in. 

Chris: During this season, we're talking about reconciliation. I think one of the things that we always try to do is to come up with an action or give something tangible for our listeners to do, because we anticipate that question: “Well, what do I do?” Someone's listening to our conversation and they're asking themselves, “Well, what do I do? What can I do?” What action would you have people take next in the space of reconciliation?

Marlene: I have some actions they should not take. They should not take it on as a project, because nobody wants to be a project of somebody else. Because that immediately puts one person elevated above the other. Listening I think is the biggest thing: listening to stories, sharing stories, finding the commonalities, and approaching things with curiosity. So when somebody sees my art and, “Ew, I don't like that.” Learning to say, okay, what is it about it that you don't like and approaching… so for the white settler folks approach with curiosity the Indigenous ways of being. Don't make assumptions. And I don't think it always needs to be a big thought-out thing. Frozen II would tell you, just do the next right thing, and God places the next right thing in front of us. And I think sometimes when we try to make reconciliation plans, we get in the way of what God wants us to do. Just look for the opportunities. Ask questions. Show respect. Be curious. And don't place yourself above any one other people group, of any sort. To me, that's reconciliation and that is what I would like to see people do. 

Chris: Yeah, and I would encourage folks if they haven't considered doing the Hearts Exchanged learning opportunity to prayerfully consider that. I also had the opportunity to do it. I did it twice. The first time my wife got sick and I had to sort of pull out very near the end and then the second time I was like, “No, this is something I want to want to do and dive deeper in.” So that's something that's available something that folks can really just consider. But consider it. Don't just jump in; it's something to commit to.

Marlene: And there's books to read; there's movies to watch. I would caution people as to what movie and what books in the sense that some are written with a very stereotypical slant to them, and that's not going to help. But if you read Richard Twiss, renowned authors like that, and start to understand the indigenous perspective and where we've come from and to realize it's not history, it's now. This is still me, this is still now. It's not some historical thing. Yes, it started historically, but it still continues now. Yeah, reading, asking questions, taking Hearts Exchanged. And for every person that's going to be different. Some of my friends who took Hearts Exchanged, it was extremely overwhelming. Too much reading. That type of thing. Others it caused them to dive in deeper. Neither one is right or wrong. It's whatever your capacity at the moment is. Whether that's to attend a powwow. Any little thing that causes your heart and your mind to open just a bit more is reconciliation.

Chris: Hey, Marlene, thank you for being with us. What I love about our conversation today is just you model curiosity and tenacity and the love and the way that you live your life. You just do it so loudly. And I'm thankful for the time that you shared with us today. Thank you for being with us.

Marlene: Thank you for having me. 


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