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 Alanna Sabatino’s Medium.
Author of In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, Helena Knott, is an Indigenous poet, writer, grassroots-activist and social workers. She identifies as Dane-Zaa, Nehiyaw, Metis, and European, her mother is of European heritage, and father of indigenous origin. She resides in the Prophet River First Nations community in the Northern Rockies Region of British Columbia. Knott’s Indigenous community seems to be situated in Western Canada. Knott’s current community, Prophet River First Nations, is the southernmost community in the Northern Rockies Region and focuses its financial industry around commercial services and provisions to the local and nearby oil and gas industry. Located nearby along the Peace River in Alberta and British Columbia, Knott’s ancestry of the Dane-Zaa community resides. Historically referred to as the Beaver Tribe by European Colonialists, the Dane-Zaa community is known for their contribution to the local oil and gas industries. Over the years they have endured a significant loss of land due to farming and petroleum production but still maintain hunting and trapping as a part of their lifestyle which provides food, income and a sense of identity for this community. However, it is harder to pinpoint where her Nehiyaw heritage resides as tribes can be found throughout Canada in the north and west of Lake Superior, and in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Knott’s memoir In My Own Moccasins highlights her journey of healing and overcoming adversities revolving around drug and sexual abuse and a loss of identity. We can see the theme of healing and restoration being weaved throughout Knott’s memoir as she brings the reader into her darkest moments in life from an upsetting childhood of not fitting in, to traumatic adulthood. Regardless of the pain and suffering, Knott does not let these experience define her, as she opens her memoir with a sense of hope and strength.
“As indigenous women, we sometimes must unapologetically write for ourselves. I wrote this for us.” (Knott XVI)
Knott’s strong opening provides a message to all the readers, whether they are Indigenous or not, that this story, her story, is not meant to produce sympathy or an educational lesson. Instead, she wrote the piece as a call to home, to anyone that has dealt with these issues, to bring a positive light, to reassure someone that the happy ending is possible. How does she know? Because she allowed herself to have a happy ending.
Although there is a lot to unpack with Knott’s memoir such as themes of Trauma, the female body, Indigenous identity, Indigenous womanism and Indigenous kinship, to name a few, I would like to narrow my lens and focus on the narrative arc of Knott’s identity of Self. From traumatic events — as a result of negative actions done onto Knott by Settler-Colonialist society — into Healing herself using her Indigenous strength and determination. Throughout the memoir, Helena Knott expresses an unknowingness of herself; of who she is following multiple negative experiences with the White settler world (settler world going forward is referring to the white hegemonic society that is influenced by negative biases against indigenous and people of colour.)
“I was a living Oxymoron” (39)
From early in her life, Knott experienced the negative repercussions of white settler ideology when she was faced with the difficulty of practising Catholicism with her Reverend Father with a mother that Knott describes as “damn near a saint”, without identifying with the others in her congress. Historically, Catholicism was brought over by European Settlers and was forced upon Indigenous people in an attempt to eradicate their belief system through Residential Schools. The trauma that the Indigenous community and her ancestry experienced, as a result, left a trace of lasting bitterness in Knott because she knew that this religion was not for her. It was for people with lighter skin and different heritage. The pressure of being the Reverend’s daughter, or the “Revs Dev” which students would mockingly call Knott, accumulates into being too much for her to handle and rejects the narrative of the being the Reverend’s perfect daughter when she explains “I was given a lot of trust and I just chose to do shady things” (40).
The mentality of Otherness compared the rest of society continues to be prominent throughout her childhood. We see explicitly expressed in her self-reflection:
“I became “the other” in my eighth grade social studies class.
The wild Indian.
Merciless Indian savage.
The living, breathing, walking, heaving stereotype. (180)”
From a young age, Knott has experienced this skewed view of herself as a result of what the white, settler hegemonic society has pushed onto her. By being exposed to this negative perception of her indigenous heritage shows to have serious negative repercussions on Knott as she transitions from child to young adult. I think the quotations mentioned above reveals a lot about the relationship between indigenous people and white people that has made itself evident in younger generations. The settler ideology of “them” and “us” has now made its way down to elementary school children. This is an influential time in a young person’s life since their adolescent years is when we see children come into a space of self-awareness and an understanding of their identity. This negative view of her Self appears to have severe repercussions on Knott’s Self in the broader sense of her coming of age narrative, as the reader notices this negativity reappears throughout her life in instances of her lack of self-confidence, pride, and overall self-awareness.
As the reader progresses through Knott’s journey of settler-inflicted trauma into Indigenous-healing, they come across the pivotal moment in Knott’s journey; her victimization with sexual abuse by a white man. I will not go into graphic detail about this experience because I feel it is not my place as a writer to describe this sensitive experience as I have not gone through it. However, I think that by completely dismissing this traumatic moment takes away from the hardship and life that Knott experienced at a young age. Therefore, with respect to Helen Knott, her family, and her memories, I will not divulge into the more graphic details of this moment. What I will say is that Knott was taken advantage of in a physical, emotional and spiritual away and as a fellow woman my heart goes out to her and the strength she has to overcome this time of sexual abuse.
“In fact, every rape that had happened to me hung over my head like a crown of thorns.” (98)
Unfortunately, the effects of Knott’s sexual abuse resurface throughout her adulthood, especially in times of intimacy. We see it arise when she is in an intimate moment with Alex, and again when she experiences a panic attack while making out with Billy. The trauma that is carried when one experiences sexual abuse multiple times, especially in the case of an indigenous woman being victimized by (what the reader assumes to be) a white male, has a lasting feeling of resentment towards herself that resurface in her self worth, and self-identity. It evolves at times from a sense of dissociation to the pure hatred of herself which Knott holds onto for a significant part of her life. After each time, Knott mentality shifts from ‘victim’ to “I must have done something to allow that” which creates an extremely toxic way of thinking of oneself and a way of thinking that consumed every inch of Knott’s life. Although these experiences forced Knott to become emotionally helpless and hold on to detrimental feelings of self-hatred, which manipulated her sense of Self, Helena Knott is not a victim. But a Survivor.
“I was in a state of active reclamation and recovery. I became more focused on finding out who I am” (108)
When reading In My Own Moccasins, I was taken aback by the strength and sense of hope that Helen Knott provoked through the pages. The final part, Part Three: The Healing, exemplifies the power of self-love, compassion and community. As Knott confronts all the unfavourable exterior influences, she also understands the power of engaging the evil spirits that live within her; the ones that spew messages of self-hatred, disgust, and anger. Facing your inner thoughts is the hardest for people, including Knott, it is easy to point the blame to the outside world; to her parents, uncle, grandmother, white people, and men in general. But it was when in rehab that Knott pointed the finger to herself she realized the harm she caused herself in the thoughts she created. By focusing inward, she was able to manipulate the anger into respect and pride in herself; respect for all the adversities she had overcome, pride in going abroad to help those less fortunate and pride in being a mother to her son.
“She once told me that the first part in trauma is where you find yourself a victim. The second is when you become a survivor. But to truly live, you move past that to what she called “being a thriver” (257)
In My Own Moccasins outlines the emotional journey that Helen Knott had to endure to find herself in a place of healing and safety. I enjoyed how Knott does not embellish her journey with fictions ideas to make the reader feel more comfortable. At some points, it feels as if the reader is invading her privacy, being allowed access to the darkest parts of Knott. She is evoking in the reader a combination of fear and heartbreak, but also triumph and pride. She keeps her memoir as real and raw as possible to show that overcoming anything — whether abuse or loss — does not happen overnight and requires a specific type of willpower and strength. For Knott, she found her willpower through her son, and through him, she was able to find herself.