During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Shubhneet Sandhu’s Medium.
Helen Knott writes a gut-wrenching memoir which bravely recounts her struggles with sexual violence and addiction. She explores themes of losing herself to the trauma of being raped, which leads to self-destruction through drugs and alcohol. Ultimately she finds herself by looking to the women and family around her to see herself clearly. Becoming whole means incorporating Indigenous culture back into her life. Knott condemns Canada and settler colonial violence and narrates her journey to healing by overcoming the shame and guilt they both inflict.
Helen Knott’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, tells the story of her trauma, survival and healing. She is an Indigenous women of Dane Zaa, Cree and European descent. Knott writes honestly about her sexual assaults and addiction to tell the story of her journey to healing. She opens the introduction remembering the often forgotten or ignored Indigenous women who experience sexual assault, addiction, and violence, writing, “I wrote this for you.” Most importantly, she writes for herself. She grew up moving around British Columbia, from Fort St. John to Prince George. She also shares the story of her destructive episode in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently an MA candidate at University of Northern British Columbia.
In the opening chapter, Knott immediately drops the reader into the midst of her addiction. She candidly writes about her mental headspace and feelings of needing to disappear. Throughout her memoir, the difficulty in coping with trauma is apparent in her ultimate desire for self destruction. She continuously tries to outrun her demons and places of trauma, hoping to start anew, but she finds you cannot escape your own mind. Themes of intergenerational trauma, settler colonial violence, and decolonization are explored as she unravels her story. Ultimately she finds herself through her interactions with the many strong women in her life, as well as her son.
Knott writes, “My body pulled into itself. I wondered what it would be like to go through withdrawals somewhere pretty, somewhere clean. Somewhere where the outside didn’t match my insides.” (Chapter 1) Immediately, the reader is invited into her mind as she goes through withdrawals. She wishes she was somewhere else, which is a coping mechanism that Knott has used to escape trauma throughout her childhood and young adolescence. More importantly, she reveals how she feels about herself: the opposite of pretty and clean. Her self hatred which causes her to seek self destruction through drugs and alcohol distorts the way she views herself. She begins to view herself as inconsequential as her abusers make her feel. She writes, “the memories haunted me so much that I ran away to Edmonton — leaving my son behind. Thinking I could appease them with my complete self-destruction.” (Chapter 2) This illustrates the immense harm settler colonialism and violence can cause.
After being raped and assaulted, Knott’s bodily autonomy was attacked and she felt her value as a person was diminished. She begans to carry a heavy guilt within her that is firmly attached to self-blame. In Chapter 5, she continues, “there is something wrong with me and I brought all this upon myself. When the anxiety threatened to push me to an emotional place I was sure I wouldn’t come out of I would tell myself, It will be like the other times, Helen. You have been raped before and you survived. Just shut up and move forward. Shut up. Move forward.” She measured her survival as strength but it also became the new threshold for all she could endure. She felt she did something that warranted the sexual assault and this guilt brought shame. These feelings manifested into an inescapable darkness that followed her.
She felt that disappearing was the only path to spare her family from any further harm: “I had no more fight left in me and I had convinced myself that everyone would be better off without me. My mother, my dad, my son. All of them would be better off with my absence rather than be scarred by my self-destruction.” (1) Her sense of self value had become so warped that she could not envision the great grief that each member of her family would experience in losing her.
These feelings may have also been caused by the lack of national attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. She felt that if she was no longer around, she would just another faceless statistic. Knott writes, “I could easily slip into line with the nameless, the faceless, and the voiceless. That’s why I went there. To erase myself…Native women like me disappeared every day. Becoming an invisible Indigenous woman was a goal of manifest destiny that I was no longer willing to fight against.” (1) In chapter 3, this is reiterated in the lines, “Us Native women know how to disappear. It’s an art, really — we can disappear even when we are right in front of your face. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes out of safety, sometimes by force, and sometimes because we can’t see ourselves anymore.” Knott explicitly refers to manifest destiny, the justification for colonialism. The disappearance of Native women represents the destruction of Indigenous cultures, and she recognizes that was the ultimate goal of colonialism. The fact that this is a prevalent issue is directly linked to the colonial desire to erase and destroy Indigenous cultures.
We see sexual violence become inherently linked with colonial violence. Knott bravely recounts sexual violations at the hands of men who take advantage of her youth and disrespect her autonomy as an Indigenous woman. By voicing the pain, she learns to let go of the shame.
Knott is strong in her indictment of Canada when she writes, “it all stems from history. Colonial oppression of Indigenous people did not stop a century or so ago. It continues today. The wielding of power and privilege is reaffirmed by the media and the majority of society. It is no wonder so many of us have forgotten our true power.” (16) To rise above settler colonialism, a decolonization must take place and there is a need to remember the true strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples. She later writes, “we came to say that Canada is failing Indigenous peoples…Canada has been, and still is, failing the Indigenous people.” (6) This relates to themes of reconciliation but also Indigenous sovereignty. Under the control of Canada, Indigenous communities struggle with addiction, lack of access to resources such as the basic human right to water, and high suicide rates. Indigenous peoples within Canada have the right to self-govern themselves but their sovereignty is highly policed by the Canadian government. Indigenous people are restricted from empowering and uplifting themselves because of the government and its regulations seek to assimilate Native people.
Themes of Indigenous feminism are also very strong within her memoir. Not only does she make note of the times Indigenous men have failed to protect her, but she highlights the importance of the women in her life and seeing herself from their perspectives. Knott’s feelings of self were especially affected by her mother’s addiction. When her parents would fight, her dad would leave and she would be left alone with her mother’s anger. She writes, “my dad would cuss a few times back at her before I would hear the clinking of his keys and the slamming of the front door. I always wondered where he would go. I would wait to hear the door open again and to hear his voice calling us, so we could leave with him. But, he never did come back for us and it always hurt to be abandoned by him and left with my mom.” (3) She writes about feeling abandoned by her father when she needed him to help her with her mother.
This lack of protection by the men in your own community also adds to how patriarchal systems fail Indigenous women. Indigenous women become twice victimized: once by racial systems of power that look down on Indigeneity and once again by men who are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The lack of male support is also highlighted when she is hanging out with an Indigenous boy and begins to be harassed by “cowboys”: “They made obscene comments and grabbed themselves and grabbed at me while calling me names. The boy I was with had lost his voice. Finally the cowboys tired and walked away laughing into the darkness while the boy stood still looking at the ground. With my face still flushed and stinging with shame I walked past him and knocked the beer out of his hand.“Bastard,” I said. I started to hate Native men that night.” (10) This highlights the effects of settler colonialism on Indigenous men and how their own experience effects Indigenous women. Her friend is unable to stop the harassment, and this may be due to his own internalized feelings of self worth when measured against white men, but Knott finds this an inexcusable flaw as she writes about her growing hatred for men from her own culture. It becomes evident that settler colonialism is pervasive in different ways for different people but it ultimately creates a rupture in Indigenous communities.
Knott often expresses her complicated relationship with being Indigenous and how she felt the need to repress this side of her identity due to her parents. She was raised as a Christian, and religious colonial ideologies were passed along with the religion. Knott writes, “I was raised with the knowledge of the darkness and yet I was told that Native spiritual practices are evil. It’s what the Church taught. I was raised to fear any Native spiritual beliefs. It wasn’t Christian. All these heathen practices will only get you sick, hurt, or haunted, or will land you in hell. These were lies that my mom and dad still believed. Mom pleaded that I pray to what she knew as her God.” (7) Being native was positioned as the direct opposite of being Christian and that meant having to repress Indigenous culture, practices, and teachings. She continues, “we didn’t talk much about being Indian. I didn’t even know what kind of Indian I was. The idea of being Indian was very much like saying I had brown hair, ten toes, and two ears. It was a feature.” (7) This further shows the disconnect from the actual meaning behind Indigenous practices. It was no longer a complex culture with its own customs and ceremonies. It became a descriptor as arbitrary and meaningless as having brown hair. She recalls being part of a Native community at school and bringing home a medicine bag that her father immediately threw away, “I stood in the kitchen crying. I learned that there was something deeply wrong with being an Indian.” (7) We see later in her memoir that being so far removed from her culture only hurt her more. Repressing her Indigenous side meant devaluing herself because she refused to acknowledge such a huge part of who she was. She needed to find a way to incorporate her culture back into her life to feel whole, and truly understand the strength of her ancestors within her.
Ultimately, she found healing through themes of Indigenous feminism and kinship. As the chapters progress, she shares stories of her friendships with the Indigenous women in her life. The reader is introduced to friends who she names Her, Ellie, Kyla and Kat. Through her interactions, she finds a feeling of belonging and unconditional love. This feeling of kinship can also be extended to her reconnecting with her mother and son in a healthy way. Indigenous kinship is a complex system of relationships but it is also how Indigenous laws and teachings are passed along. The women in her life remind her of who she is underneath the fog of addiction. They help her reconnect to her own Indigeneity.
Helen Knott writes about these women with love and admiration. In the midst of her self-destructive trip to Edmonton, she contacts her friend Ellie. About her she writes, “another important relationship in my life was my friend Ellie…Her love came without condition.” (3) Ellie realized the trouble Helen was in and immediately “put a call out for people to bombard me with love and light-filled messages because I needed them. She had seen the me that existed under all of the pain I hid myself under.” (5) The women in her life love Knott for who she truly is, nothing that she does or that is done to her can change that. One friend she cannot reconnect with but remembers, she refers to as “Her.” She writes, “but no one told us being pretty and Native was a dangerous combination. Eventually, we told each other some of the secrets that suffocated us…She could never fully open. Maybe it hurt too much. We were the same in that way too. I was never open to talking about my sexually warped childhood…We knew without saying. And that’s why we loved each other.” (4) There is a similar theme of love that runs deeper than superficial justifications. Both these women know the real Helen and love her despite all of her experiences. They help to teach her about her own resilience.
Kat, who is her mother’s friend, picks her up from Edmonton, reminds her of her positive work and influence in the world. She reminds her of the beauty inside of her. Ultimately, it is her friend Kyla who introduces her to the medicine man where she finds the healing necessary to beat addiction. She writes of Kyla, “we have been friends since I was fifteen years old. She has seen me, and loved me, at my lowest. After nights where I had slept with men in a drunken stupor and felt my skin riddled with shame in the morning sun, it was she who’d tell me it would be okay.” (6) These women are Knott’s system of support and act as a mirror to show her her true reflection. They believe in who she is despite everything that has happened. It is through them, she finds her own value as a friend. Her mother and son, Mathias, are her strength when she begins her path to sobriety. They show her value as a daughter and mother. It is through her network of kinship, she finds not only her way to accepting her Indigeneity but also to truly accepting herself as more than her trauma and addiction
When finally visiting the medicine man, Knott was forced to choose between the religion she grew up with and giving her culture a chance. She writes, “I just couldn’t get rid of the guilt that I’d be turning away from God if I went to this doctoring ceremony.” (8) Shame, guilt and blame always appeared to be unsurmountable barriers in her journey to healing but “[her] love for Mathias trumped questions of the faith [she] had known. It cancelled out what the Church has taught. [She] could no longer afford to be scared of anything that could help [her] become whole.” (8) Her son who she passes her strength, language and story down to become a vital motivation for her own healing. She needed to make peace between her upbringing and who she inherently was and once she did, she was able to see herself again.
She acknowledges that healing had to happen collectively. It is something that the entire community needs so they can move towards a decolonized future. This is summed up her words in chapter 16, “when healing takes place, it has no other option but to ripple out. It ripples out from the individual into the family, into the community, into the Nation, and into the world. Our healing not only reaches forward to our future grandchildren, but it leans backward simultaneously and grasps the hands and hearts of our ancestors.” This links to the idea of Indigenous futurism. She needs to be alive to break her son out of the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Her grandmother was placed in a residential school and did not know how to be a mother. Knott’s mother battled with alcoholism and depression and this hurt Knott and her siblings. Knott had to heal herself to break this cycle. Healing was necessary to imagine a future for her son. Finally she writes, “healing yourself is a revolutionary act. Healing yourself is the ultimate act of resistance. Healing is the act of remembering who we are as Indigenous peoples.” (16) Healing is described as revolutionary. Healing is the way for Indigenous people to honour the fight of their ancestors, but also to continue to fight for sovereignty and the preservation of their culture. Knott finds healing and herself through reconnecting with Indigenous experiences, and it is through healing she breaks the intergenerational cycle of trauma.