Metis-Cree student digs through history to rebuild his life

Addicted, homeless and in trouble with the law. By the time Jesse Thistle was twenty his future seemed bleak. Now a mature student at UWaterloo, Jesse is thriving in his graduate program and is using his past to assert his future.

Jesse Thistle standing on Plains

Thistle’s journey to higher education was beset with obstacles. During childhood, he knew very little about his family history except that he was “somewhat Indian”. Jesse grew up with his grandparents in Toronto after being let go by his parents at age three.  By age twenty, he reached his lowest point, finding himself homeless, substance-addicted and eventually in prison. Yet that is also where his steps to higher education began.

Years of not knowing who I was formed resentments within me and by age 20 I ended up in trouble with the law. I first taught myself to read in jail, and then I got my GED in rehab. I then took a bridging course at Carleton University, then my undergrad at York University and finally my Master’s here at Waterloo. The whole process has taken about eight years and it has been dogged hard work.

During his undergraduate studies, Jesse probed into many painful aspects of Prairies history, such as the Metis’ persecution and dispersal in Saskatchewan. Yet academic research also allowed him to understand how historical trauma affected his parents’ circumstances and their personal lives before he was born.

My family fought against Canada in 1885 and we lost our lands and sovereignty, becoming wanderers living on the side of the road in public spaces known as road allowances. Because my Metis family were stripped of our Indian Treaty Status, we became dispossessed of our lands and from participation in Prairie society. My family lived on the road allowance until I was born.

Along with injustice, Jesse also discovered stories of strength and indigenous resistance that made him proud of his people. Through his research, he discovered that he had ten ancestors who fought colonial rule in the 1885 Battle of Batoche.

While at school I uncovered my family history which has allowed me to forgive my mother and father and, most importantly, myself. Researching my family history brought my maternal family back into my life. It gave me back my indigenous identity.

After graduating from the Masters of History program, Thistle dreams of pursuing a career in academia where he can contribute to our historical knowledge of indigenous peoples and colonial history.

Bison skull hanging in Jesse's office

I plan on going back to York University to study Metis history under Dr. Carolyn Podruchny. I want to continue working with her as I do my doctorate and plan to be a professor of Great Plains indigenous history.

Researching indigenous history and his family background has been crucial to Thistle’s triumph over adversity, allowing him to embrace his heritage and repair many wounds from his past.

 

History saved my life and gave me purpose. It helped me find my identity as an indigenous person and it healed my family. I plan to help other people reconnect with their history so they can heal and move forward.

To hear Thistle tell his story in his own words, listen to his December 2015 interview on @CBCUnreserved– a CBC radio program featuring indigenous stories from across the country.

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