Decolonizing The Memoir: An Approach to Indigenous Trauma and Healing

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 Selena Jodha’s Medium.

Who is Terese Marie Mailhot?

Terese Marie Mailhot is a First Nations Canadian woman from the Seabird Island Band. The First Nations are the Indigenous Peoples of Canada which applies to status and non-status Indigenous Peoples, also referred to as bands or nations; yet it does not include Inuit or Métis. The Seabird Island is a band government of the Sto:lo people, located in the Upper Fraser Valley region in what is now known as British Columbia, Canada. In addition, a band is usually, but not always, a single community in which land and money have been set aside in trust by the Crown and is a basic unit of government for those subjected to the Indian Act. Seabird Island has been an independent band since 1958.

In Heart Berries, Mailhot makes many references to Salish art, and I would like to suggest from the text that the Salish culture is close to her traditional upbringing from her mothers side, however this opinion is my own and not confirmed on her website or elsewhere (to my current knowledge). The Seabird Island Band upholds many of the Salish people of the Pacific Northwest traditions in their culture and education and from that, I want to further suggest that is how someone in her immediate family passed down its teaching onto her. Mailhot grew up on the Seabird Island reservation, which is geographically located near the coast line of British Columbia in a desert area with a view of the mountains. In her memoir, she mentions that when she was eleven, an elder told her that her Indian name Asiniy Wache Iskwewis means Little Mountain Woman (Heart Berries 101). Although she felt undeserving of the name at the time, she drew power from the mountains and sometimes from the desert, yet on page 71 while pregnant with Thunder Baby, her aunt suggests that her presence in the desert away from her land is what was making her sick and tells her to go to a river. I would then suggest that because of her name, she feels a connection to the mountains and desert, and because of where she grew up, she feels a connection to the water as well.

In Heart Berries, Mailhot crafts a narrative that approaches trauma and healing through a reimagined memoir — which I will expand on later — and enacts many literary techniques to decolonize the genre in a way that invites Indigenous readers and writers to see themselves within the formula. Mailhot touches on important themes throughout her memoir that all come together to assemble her life thus far, such as motherhood, mental illness, childhood upbringing, hospitalization, internalized shame in multiracial love and healing from intergenerational trauma. Unfortunately, I will not be able to analyze all of these important themes in this post however for the sake of my analysis, I want to acknowledge the effects of all memories in creating the memoir as a whole, even if this analysis is not heavily dependant on all aspects. I intend to do a deeper reading into the rhetoric of the memoir and do a deeper analysis on internalized shame in multiracial relationships based on her essays “Indian Sick” and “Little Mountain Woman.”

Decolonizing Rhetoric in the Memoir Structure

In order to understand the significance of Mailhot’s form and rhetoric, the history of autobiographical memoir writing needs to be understood. A memoir, which is a subgenera of autobiography, is generally a written retelling of someone’s life and can focus on a specific theme or moment while following a centralized factual form. With this in mind, I would like to argue the importance of Heart Berries structure, in which Mailhot de-colonizes the static aesthetic in the traditional memoir formula that she learned in her M.F.A at the Institution of American Indian Arts. On multiple occasions in Heart Berries, she defines her education as a renaissance and that her program was designed with one in mind so that Native writers like her would start one (59,118). I find that prescribing Native education as a renaissance to be truly fitting, as it traditionally means “rebirth” which is exactly what Indigenous scholars, activists and artists are trying to do; they are giving the artistic and academic world new definitions and understandings of their culture that is untainted by settler colonialism.

By structurally reimagining the formula of a memoir, Mailhot opens up a new method for effective storytelling and forms of translation for what is traditionally oral in their culture. By implementing this decolonizing rhetoric throughout the text, each essay disrupts the colonial imprint within this literary technique and opens up the sphere for an Indigenous future within autobiographical writings. This is important to recognize because Indigenous self identity has been taken away from these communities for so long due to Canada’s (and other continents) history of hardships. Mailhot writes in a way that disrupts the white memoir structure by writing about who she is in raw, vulnerable details without flowery descriptions, because storytelling to her is meant to be immediate, necessary and fearless (Mailhot 3). In doing so, she wrote this book for people like her to pick up and truly see themselves in, even if the meanings included do not follow the traditional universality that memoir writing calls for. It is meant to be personal for Indigenous peoples and meant to make others (in this case, settlers) feel as if they are on the outside for being blind to their injustices for so long. Further, for Indigenous peoples to not only adapt to colonized models but further deconstruct them through multiple decolonization methods, I suggest that the future is being paved by a new generation of scholars, artists and activists in a way that will become familiar and no longer overlooked due to the history of colonialism. In doing so, racial minorities and Indigenous peoples are rediscovering their true potential after generations of trauma and using it in a way that promotes healing for future generations to come.

Internalized Shame and Healing in Multiracial Relationships

As mentioned above, Mailhot touches on many themes in this memoir, one of which being the internalized shame love can bring, especially in multiracial relationships. When Mailhot was hospitalized, she wrote every letter to her then affair lover, now husband, Casey. Immediately, she knew that she “was not going to be the same person for loving [him]” which I want to further explore (7). This can be seen in two ways: the first being that she has never felt this way for a man before — so strongly and so aware — because to her, men did not equate to safety and was something un familiar to her(9). This is also important when we look at Indian Sick, where Mailhot confines in her letter that one of her problems was her “inability to distinguish [him] from other men when [she] was angry” (25). Mailhot recognizes subconsciously that Casey is different, yet her trauma often distorts her memory in ways that she cannot distinguish who is familiar and who will harm her. This is very reflective of Andrea Smith’s chapter in “Sexual Violence as a Tool of Genocide” in which she explains how “when a Native woman suffers abuse, this abuse is an attack on her identity as a woman and an attack on Native identity. The issues of colonial, race, and gender oppression cannot be separated” and although she did not suffer abuse directly from Casey, subconsciously by not feeling worthy enough to be with him because of her Native identity, she is drawing on intergenerational traumas in her family inflicted by settler colonialism (8). These issues of oppression followed her mother (exemplified through Paul Simon and her father) and Mailhot discovered through her essays that it follows her — which I will unpack later — and it is this awareness of oppression that makes trusting men so difficult.

Another important aspect of the above quote is the conscious racial line that Mailhot is crossing for her feelings, which impacted her journey of healing more than she thought it would when they began the affair. In Indian Sick, she admitted herself to the hospital for the first time and wrote a letter to Casey that was as “ashamed and wild as she was” to contrast completely to his “white sensibilities” (15). When they first began, she was constantly aware of how she physically appeared when she was with him and how different he treated her from other men. She was conditioned by men who were intoxicated with her Indigenous features, historically seen as Other to Eurocentric beauty, yet Casey treats her as an equal and not as a doll to be cared for. She’s caught within a binary of being needed and disposable by herself in her relationship because she feels that Casey is unable to take on the burden of her troubles since he can never experience it. In the essay Little Mountain Woman, she refers to herself as a “squaw,” equating herself with being dirty (90,94). This chapter is important to recognize how far the depth of Mailhot’s pain is in regards to her love with Casey because of his skin colour. As a visible minority myself, in a multiracial and religious relationship with a partner who is white passing, I found myself drawn into this narrative. In highlighting this narrative, I am showing how often, Indigenous women (and further suggesting any ethnic other) like Mailhot feel in comparison to their white counterparts. On more than one occasion, Mailhot wanted to feel like one of Casey’s white women and tried to make herself smaller around him because she believed that is what she needed to be in order to feel deserving of his love. This internalized shame further suggests Smith’s point that issues of colonial, race and gender oppression cannot be separated and Mailhot finds herself unable to forgive herself for loving him. Yet at the same time, Mailhot often recognizes strength in her ethnicity and knew that she could never dwindle herself down into something less than what she was because it was harmful for her mental stability (97). As Maria Lugones posits

“the decolonize feminists task begins by seeing the colonial difference [and] resisting her epistemological bit of erasing it”

and Mailhot enacts this by acknowledging that there is power in learning from Caseys whiteness that does not limit herself but gives herself agency (Lugones 753). For instance, she let herself be dormant around him because she perceived him to be living a fuller life than she would ever be able to, yet also acknowledges that the hurt she carries may not feel as large if she let him in, because she knew that he was not aware of her feelings (Mailhot 100). Through her letters, she found hundreds of ways to ask him if it was her fault she was the way she was and how it may have effected him, but by taking a moment to really analyze the differences in their genders and race, she asks herself often if she is the reason she makes herself a squaw by allowing Casey to have her agency over her. As Mailhot wrote, “you are so inefficient with pain — I realized you never had to cultivate it the way I did… The way Indian women do” and it boldly imprints into a readers mind just how little our white counterparts think about their place in the world yet racial minorities constantly question their places and put the onus onto themselves (122). Peoples of colour in these relationships are acutely aware that every impression matters and that the hardships we collect may not be significant to our partner because they do not feel our pain how we do. Yet, I am suggesting that to feel like less of a squaw is to learn and understand in order to dissipate the misunderstood social patterns and gender relations that colonization conceived by ignoring the coloniality of gender for so long. Although there are differences, learning does not transform us into the colonized other but it allows ethnic others to transcend their education and history to cultivate a new future. Like Mailhot, who goes on to become an editor and a fellow, she uses her agency to implement that she is more than her shame, more than her trauma and that Indigenous women/peoples are able to take back their agency in ways that will disrupt settler colonialism in a permanent way that allows for a future in education and art that is normalized to accept Indigenous methodologies.

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