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Shania Twain: Native ancestry called into question.


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 Chapleau, 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 statement 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 biological 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 as 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 singer's comment about the uncertainty regarding her actual percentage of Native blood. After her step-father adopted her, Shania (born Eileen Regina 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 says 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 their family and voiced the feelings of their community.

"Speaking as a Native person, we treated her as 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 people 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 respect for my father, it's the way he raised us. My father felt so strongly about not exploiting the culture. Henever wanted people to treat him differently because he was Indian, 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 First 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 a 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 misrepresented herself and that she has celebrated her Native American 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 means of criteria. However, there is at 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 signer may be unique when it comes to talent. But Shania Twain may be just one of many who, as children and now as adults, find themselves caught in the crossfire 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 known. 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, especially 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".
COPYRIGHT 1996 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Jackie Bissley
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:May 1, 1996
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