The folllowing biographical story was written by Charlotte Miller and shared with Native Hope by Wayne Smoke-Snellgrove.
Wayne William Snellgrove stepped off the tiny duel prop plane in Wadena, Saskatchewan, close to his Native homeland of Fishing Lake First Nation Reserve. His head was pounding after a 16-hour flight from Miami. His mind was reeling with issues of the past and hopes for the future.
The former USA National Swim Team champion could barely contain himself. This was the first time he had been to the Reserve in 32 years. He recalls a gripping in his chest and butterflies in his stomach. He stepped off the plane directly on to the tarmac, and from where he stood he saw a small sea of Indian faces surrounding the one woman he had to see: his Native mother.
This was his first face-to-face ever. The day he was born, Snellgrove was scooped up by Canadian social workers and placed in an orphanage nearly 800 miles away. They did this without the consent of Snellgrove’s mother or the rest of his family. While Nora Smoke, Snellgrove’s birth mother lay in a diabetic coma, one from which she would fully recover, her son was in the first phase of assimilation to white culture.
Assimilation into White Culture
He spent the first four years of his life in state-run facilities until he was adopted by a white, middle-class New England family. From state run foster care where kids were stacked in bunk beds and where he was routinely moved from facility to facility, the concept of “family” was foreign. So sure that he would once again be taken from his environment, young Snellgrove kept a “go bag” tucked underneath his bed. In it was a jacket, a bag of M&Ms, and a couple of GI Joe action figures. It took years for him to unpack that bag. “They were wonderful in every way,” says Snellgrove of his white family. “They gave me wonderful opportunities, but my entire life, I felt like I didn’t belong.”
Little wonder. Snellgrove looks Native. He was tall for his age and dark in a predominantly white society. On top of that, he was born with a cleft palate causing him to dislike immensely what he saw in the mirror and a speech impediment that was reason enough to make him fail first grade. Soon after, he tried killing himself by holding his breath. He recalls that during his fifth grade Social Studies class, the teacher taught a section on "How the West Was Won" and referred to the “savage Indians.” He tried to become invisible, he recalls, by slinking down into the already too-small desk as far as his lanky frame would take him.
“And that’s when the fights began,” said Snellgrove with the humor of a man who survived the ordeal. “The kids asked what kind of Indian I was, and I didn’t know how to answer. I just didn’t know,” he said.
Discovering His Gift for Swimming
But Snellgrove had a gift. He was tall with a slender tapered body and an enormous wingspan. He didn’t much like the pool at first, but he wanted to swim like the rest of his classmates so he kept at it. Before long, he had far exceeded his own expectations. To the delight of his swimming coaches, he excelled. By the time he was in high school, he was the national record holder for every level age group. By the time he was in his twenties, he was on USA Swimming National Team and went on to become a two-time USA Swimming National champion. He is the first and only Native American to hold this honor, a fact largely ignored in sports world.
Shoulder injuries sidelined his career. “One minute I was getting full scholarships to some of the most prestigious universities in the country. After I was hurt, the phone stopped ringing right away.” He took a summer lifeguard position on the Jersey Shore, and slowly got himself in shape again with salt water and ocean waves. Later he began work for the Hollywood Florida Beach Patrol and soon, he was asked to compete once again – this time in open water marathon swimming. And once again he excelled, winning competition after competition.
A Man of Two Mothers
Regardless of the successes, Snellgrove carried an underlying sadness. While he became respected and well liked, he remained a loner. To deaden the yet to be identified pain of his existence, he turned to drugs and alcohol.
During this time, his white mother died of cancer. Snellgrove returned to New England to attend her funeral. “I stood looking over her in her casket and it came to me. This intense feeling of mourning at this moment was what I had been feeling my whole life. Not only had I lost one mother; I had lost two.”
At that moment he knew that his spirit would not rest until he found the story behind his adoption. He secretly searched his father’s files for his birth records. He learned he was born Duane Ivan Smoke on the Fishing Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. One night while perusing websites, he came across mention of Native Canadian adoptees of the Sixties Scoop, and the name of an investigator who matched Scoop kids with their birth families. He followed the lead that ended with two names and two phone numbers of Nora Smoke.
The next day, the investigator called Snellgrove. “I have just spoken to the most wonderful woman in the world,” she told him. “That woman is your mother.” She too, had been searching for her son. She never forgot him and never gave up hope that she would one day find him again.
As Snellgrove stood on the tarmac in Wadena 32 years later, he spotted his mother immediately. “What do you say to your mother for the first time,” he wondered. It didn’t matter. He hugged her and told her he loved her and that he had never forgotten about her. Their bond was immediate.
His Red Road Journey Continues
This meeting was not only the missing link Snellgrove had longed for his entire life, but it set him on the Red Road journey of forgiveness, kindness and compassion. He became reunited with his heritage and his culture. For the past 17 years, he has worked with Deleware Nanticoke tribe medicine man Tony Stonehawk. Together they take ceremony to Native inmates at Florida’s state and federal prisons. Snellgrove teaches Introduction to Native Spirituality classes at south Florida spiritual centers and is a fire-keeper for inipi ceremonies.
He is an artist, writer and public speaker, using these mediums to educate about Native heritage, culture and spirituality. You can learn more about Snellgrove and his work through his facebook pages, Wayne William Snellgrove and The Wayne Smoke-Snellgrove Salteaux.
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