Kaitlin brings Mac a mes­sage from the trees

Vale­dic­to­rian with ‘a foot in each ca­noe’ wins stand­ing ova­tion with in­spir­ing plea for heal­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JON WELLS

She hiked a trail in the Dun­das Val­ley and, like she of­ten does, talked to her­self, and to the trees.

Kaitlin De­bicki felt it: pres­sure. She would soon ad­dress an au­di­ence of about 1,500 at Mc­Mas­ter Univer­sity’s fall con­vo­ca­tion.

De­bicki, grad­u­at­ing with a PhD in English and cul­tural stud­ies, had not even planned to at­tend the cer­e­mony, but ear­lier in the fall, a pro­fes­sor urged her to. She agreed.

“OK, good,” he replied. “Be­cause you’ve been nom­i­nated for vale­dic­to­rian.”

And so she sought in­spi­ra­tion from the land at her feet, and weath­ered bark at her fin­ger­tips, so she could tell a story. Her peo­ple’s story. And her own. Her birth name was Rachel. She was given up for adop­tion as a new­born at Mc­Mas­ter hos­pi­tal. Her birth mother, who is Mo­hawk, left a let­ter for a so­cial worker to share when the girl was old enough: I can­not give you the life I want you to have.

She was named Kaitlin by her adop­tive par­ents, Wendy and An­drew De­bicki, a cou­ple who met while at­tend­ing Mc­Mas­ter, and mar­ried, and set­tled in An­caster.

Wendy had a de­gree in de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chol­ogy, An­drew in so­cial work.

The cou­ple adopted four kids in all and en­cour­aged each to em­brace their own cul­tural

roots. Each sum­mer the fam­ily at­tended pow­wows camp­ing in Al­go­nquin Park, but Kaitlin’s fam­ily was not al­ways wel­comed by na­tives.

Through one lens, it was beau­ti­ful, two de­voted par­ents rais­ing the girl. Through an­other: a white cou­ple had taken, what­ever the cir­cum­stances, an In­dige­nous child from the nat­u­ral mother.

“I don’t have those feel­ings,” says De­bicki, “but my mom of­ten ex­pressed guilt about that, feel­ing I should have been with an In­dige­nous fam­ily.”

As a child she was proud of her back­ground, played it up, made-up sto­ries about na­tive ways for friends. In her teens she wished her skin was darker to re­flect her her­itage.

The more press­ing chal­lenge was her health. She had de­bil­i­tat­ing asthma that kept her at home for three years of high school. An­caster High School ed­u­ca­tors reg­u­larly vol­un­teered to teach her at home.

Mean­while, when she was 13 her un­cle gave her a loom and she took up bead­ing, which helped off­set the sad­ness of be­ing home, and taught her to fo­cus.

In her 20s she got stronger, health­ier, and be­gan the long road to­ward con­nect­ing with her past, in­clud­ing learn­ing the Mo­hawk lan­guage at Six Na­tions Polytech­nic.

She grad­u­ated in English and In­dige­nous Stud­ies at Mc­Mas­ter, earned an English MA at York Univer­sity and, at her fa­ther An­drew’s urg­ing, en­tered the PhD pro­gram at Mac.

Her dis­ser­ta­tion was about “read­ing” trees, and us­ing these read­ings as a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work for in­ter­pret­ing In­dige­nous lit­er­a­ture.

“I have a thing with trees, a con­nec­tion,” she says. “I spend time hug­ging trees, too, and I’ve had peo­ple come up and ask if I’m OK.”

Her mother told her sto­ries of how, when she was lit­tle and they would walk in the woods and come across a bro­ken tree, Kaitlin would tear up, touch it, yearn to help it feel bet­ter.

Her daugh­ter’s em­pa­thy was a beau­ti­ful qual­ity, Wendy thought, al­though in some ways a painful one to bear.

De­bicki mar­ried in 2015, and in Fe­bru­ary 2016, when she was 31, they had a child, a girl they named Wren.

She as­pires to a ca­reer as an ed­u­ca­tor; ide­ally teach­ing at Mac, or not too far from her home in Dun­das and Six Na­tions.

She dreams of pub­lish­ing a book based on her dis­ser­ta­tion.

And she hopes to one day to find her birth mother. (She has lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about her birth fa­ther, other than he was non-In­dige­nous.)

It was Nov. 16 when Kaitlin De­bicki stood on stage at Hamil­ton Place at con­vo­ca­tion in her black gown, bathed in stage lights.

She was not ner­vous. She knew her words were hon­est. Be a messenger, she thought.

“She:kon se­wakwe:kon,” she said, which sounds a bit like say­gosay-waygo. Hello ev­ery­one. “I am Mo­hawk Wolf Clan from the Six Na­tions of the Grand River. It is an hon­our to wel­come you here to­day to The Dish With One Spoon ter­ri­to­ries.”

Ap­plause from the au­di­ence, that in­cluded an­other PhD grad­u­ate and two Masters grad­u­ates who are also In­dige­nous stu­dents.

“I’ve come to con­grat­u­late you, to

cel­e­brate our shared suc­cess, but also to tell a story.”

She in­voked the oral his­to­ries of her peo­ple; of The Peace­maker who brought to­gether na­tions en­gaged in bloody war, who had “for­got­ten what it means to be hu­man,” and helped them re­cover their rea­son — their “Ka’nikonhri:io” or “good minds.”

She spoke of the Six Na­tions con­fed­er­acy that en­dures through “chal­lenges in­clud­ing at­tempted geno­cide.”

De­bicki had strug­gled de­cid­ing whether to use the g-word. She felt it needed to be said, and also: “This, then, is a story of hope. A story that says na­tions who have fallen into seem­ingly un­break­able pat­terns of ha­tred, trauma and grief, can find a way back to peace.”

As some­one who grew up “with one foot in each ca­noe” of two cul­tures, she found strength in sev­eral com­mu­ni­ties, “both the In­dige­nous ones into which I was born, and the non­indige­nous ones in which I was raised as an adoptee … I am con­nected to an ex­tended web of kin­ship that buoys me.”

Two rows from the stage, her mother, Wendy, fought back tears.

“It was the most in­cred­i­bly mov­ing thing I have ever ex­pe­ri­enced,” she says.

And bit­ter­sweet. An­drew De­bicki, Kaitlin’s fa­ther, died last year, at 62.

He had been in­spired by Kaitlin to work with In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer­ing from poverty and con­tam­i­nated wa­ter. He con­tracted a virus and be­came sick. He died, sud­denly, two weeks be­fore she had her baby. Wendy kept think­ing: he would have been so proud.

Their daugh­ter con­cluded is­su­ing a plea to stu­dents, to “join the con­ver­sa­tion about In­dige­nous peo­ple in Canada. None of us can sit this one out if we want to build a healthy, vi­brant fu­ture to­gether.”

In academia, she said, learn­ing of­ten fo­cuses on crit­i­cally de­con­struct­ing, tear­ing down.

“But equally or per­haps even more im­por­tantly is build­ing up … Please, please do,” she said, clos­ing her eyes as she spoke, as though in prayer.

“Be­cause our com­mu­ni­ties, our na­tions and our world need heal­ing.” And fi­nally: “Thank you.” Nyawen’kowa. She smiled. The lights were blind­ing, so she heard, but could not see, the stand­ing ova­tion, and for one mo­ment, the tree-lov­ing, re­silient wo­man with many names, cre­ation of the an­cient past and yes­ter­day, of blood and love, had brought them all to­gether.

Kaitlin De­bicki sits amid the trees near Mc­Mas­ter. “I have a thing with trees,” says the wo­man who gave a vale­dic­tory ad­dress at Mac’s fall con­vo­ca­tion.


Kaitlin De­bicki com­munes with the trees near Mc­Mas­ter.

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