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Native ancestry called into question

Author: 
Jackie Bissley, Windspeaker Contributor, Timmins, Ont
Volume: 
14
Issue: 
1
Year: 
1996

People: Shania Twain

Page 8

Shania Twain's Native ancestry has been brought into question after a

series of stories appeared in the singer's hometown paper, the Timmins

Daily Press.

Front page headlines such as "The father Shania turned her back on" and

"Grandma waits for call" grabbed readers attention as estranged family

members revealed certain facts about the singer's personal life.

At the heart of the revelations is that Shania's biological father is

Clarence Edwards, an engineer with the C P Rail who lives in Chaplea,

Ont. Shania has previously stated in press interviews that Jerry Twain,

a full-blooded Ojibway, was her father.

In a statement issued to the press, the 30-year-old country singer

acknowledged Clarence Edwards as her biological father but explained her

parents separated when she was two years old. Edwards and Shania's

mother divorced four years later. The statementt goes on to say that

Jerry Twain is the only father she has ever known and that after he

married her mother, her step-father legally adopted her.

One of the questions on everyone's mind was why the singer previously

failed to publicly acknowledge Edwards as her biologial father.

"My father (Twain) went out of his way to raise three daughters that

weren't even his. For me to acknowledge another man as my father, a man

who was never there for me a a father, who wasn't the one who struggled

everyday to put food on our table, would have hurt him terribly. We

were a family. Step-father, step-brothers, we never used that

vocabulary in our home. To have referred to him as my step-father would

have been the worst slap across the face to him," Shania commented by

phone from her home in upstate New York.

What has the Native community most concerned is the sing;ers comment

about the uncertainty regarding her actural percentage of native blood.

After her ste-father adopted her, Shania (born Eileen Regaina Edwards)

was legally entitled to be registered as a "status Indian". Shania

currently holds a status card and is on the official band membership

list of the Temagami First Nation.

In 1991, the singer was offered a recording contract in Nashville and

applied for immigration status into the United States. At that time, by

virtue of her step-father Jerry Twain being a full-blooded Ojibway and

the rights guaranteed to native Americans in the Jay Treaty (1794),

Shania became legally registered as having 50 per cent Native American

blood.

Shania said that as a child she was told by her mother that there was

Native blood in her biological father's family. The Edwards family

denies this claim and say that they are of French and Irish descent. In

a phone call to the singer's step-aunt who has known Shania since she

was four years old, Karen Twain said she remembers hearing the same

story from Shania's mother.

Shania said this whole experience of having to defend her identity has

left her feeling extremely vulnerable since her parents are not alive to

answer to the allegation that she has deliberately lied about her Native

ancestry. In 1987 both Twain's mother and step-father were killed in a

car accident, leaving behind two sons and three daughters.

"I feel like I've been this tree with good sturdy roots for 30 years,

then all of a sudden someone comes along and is trying to cut me down,

cut a part me off," she said.

A former co-worker of Jerry Twain's from 1978, who wishes to remain

unidentified, remembered him as a devoted father.

"He always claimed his daughters were Native. We had these posters in

the office, photographs of different Native people that had become

successful. Jerry always said he knew that one day his daughter would

be up there with all those other Native people. He was so proud of

her," the person commented by phone from Sudbury, Ont.

Shania's step-grandmother was unavailable to be interviewed due to

illness, but Willis McKay (her step-father's first cousin) spoke on

behalf of heir family and voiced the feelings of their community.

"Speking as a Native person, we treated her a Native, raised her as

Native,. We accepted her as part of our family, no questions asked", he

said.

There have been speculations to possible motives for the Edwards family

coming forward at this time and McKay said he also has his doubts.

"Three years ago, when her first album came out, she did a big concert

here in Timmins. Everyone from the reserve went and most of the pople

from town were there. She brought her (step) grandmother on stage and

acknowledged us as her family. Nobody said anything then, said McKay by

telephone from his home on the Temagami Reserve.

One of the attacks that the Edwards family made, accusing Shania of

using Native ancestry as a ploy to further her career, she finds

particularly offensive and considers it an insult to Native people.

"My success came from hard work. The non-Native community sees me as a

recording artist, not someone who is Indian. For the Native community

it is different. What would I gain from lying about being Native? The

reason I've been discreet or low key about my Native ancestry is out of

respcet for my father, it's the way he raised us. My father felt so

strongly about not exploiting the culture. He never wanted to get a

break based on that," she said.

Given Shania Twain's high profile in the entertainment industry and the

recent awards she has won, the question of is she or isn't she will

likely be the hot topic of discussion. The Firtst Americans In The Arts

(FAITA) organization who recently presented Shania with an award for

Outstanding Musical Achievement this past February says FAITA has been

struggling internally with this issue of criteria for some time.

"Based on the information that we were provided with at the time by

Mercury Records that said her father was Ojibway and that she has been

issued a Canadian reserve card we had no reason to question her official

published bio.The award was given in good faith. We feel that Ms.

Twain has not intentionally misreprested herself and that she has

celebrated her Native Amercian heritage without capitalizing at the

expense of the Native American community", said Roger Ellis, FAITA

boardmember from his home in Los Angeles.

The argument of what and who determines "Indianness" is a complicated

and an emotional one. There are strong feelings about the use of blood

quantum as the sole mean of criteria. However, there is a least one

consistent opinion shared by all in First Nation communities and that is

- whether or not Shania Twain or anyone else is Native, will be

determined only by First Nation communities.

There appears to be no argument when it comes to recognizing that the

singer may be unique when it comes to talent. But Shania Twain my be

just one of many who, as children and now as adults, find themselves

caught in the crossfive between the political and social exercise of

nation building and the legacy of the Indian Act.

Foremost in Shania's mind is not the Edwards' family saga but that the

Native community may feel she has misrepresented herself and that native

youth, who look up to her as a role model, feel betrayed and

discouraged. Both issues she takes to heart.

"I have never played an active role in the larger Native community,

just my own Native family, that's all I've ever know. My success as a

country singer has brought me into that larger community. I'm aware of

that now. The most important thing to me is that the community,

expeciually the Native youth, understand that I have not lied to them.

I have never promoted myself as a Native artist. I've never flaunted it

or exploited it. I would never do that. This is tearing me apart from

my family--robbing me of my identity and I won't let anyone do that to

me or my family."

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