“Indian Condition:” The Power of Pain, Loss, and Story in Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries

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 Stephanie Rico’s Medium.

Within Terese Marie Mailhot’s (Seabird Island Band) Heart Berries: A Memoir there are two chapters with the title “Indian Condition.” A reader may stop to carefully look at the Table of Contents and think to themselves this is interesting, unusual. They may notice that the two chapters appear at the start and near the end of the book, that both are relatively short, only two pages in length, and that both begin with a structurally similar first line. A different type of reader may skip right to the first chapter, bypassing the first formal pages, not noticing the subtleties in the structure of the book or the different ways that the two chapters mirror and respond to each other.

I am both. The first time I read it I was the latter — only reading with the intention to cross something off the “To Read” list. It was when I had to come back to it that I began to notice what Mailhot is doing.

When read side-by-side, the two chapters offer the reader an explanation and insight into the power and importance of story and storytelling, pain and sorrow, and remembrance and survival for “Indian women” (Mailhot 59). The two chapters set up two salient themes of the “Indian Condition” in their opening lines: “My story was maltreated” and “My education was a renaissance” (Mailhot 12, 58, emphasis mine). With these two themes (story and education), Mailhot puts forth four important notions: that one learns the ability to speak one’s story; that the cultivation of pain and sorrow is what “Indian Women do;” that pain and loss are efficient and powerful means of being and are inherited; and that story and remembrance are a means of intergenerational survival.

Mailhot suggests that to protect one’s story from maltreatment and the oppression of silence, you must learn to speak it for yourself, and you must learn to cultivate it with an education. At the start of the first chapter “Indian Condition,” Mailhot recounts a memory of her first day of school. She recalls how that day her “mother insisted that [she] embrace [her] power” and “told [her] school was a choice” (Mailhot 12, emphasis original). The words of her mother carry on years later when Mailhot goes to America. She says: “I came [to America] because I didn’t have my GED. I came because I was done with ghosts. It was all too ugly to say, until I received an education and walked across the stage” (Mailhot 58). For Mailhot, it is with an education that she “[gains] the faculty to speak [her] story;” to speak “the words [that] were too wrong and ugly to speak” (Mailhot 12).

Mailhot explains that with an education she learns “how to make a honey reduction of the ugly sentences” and to write her story how it “was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and fearless” (Mailhot 13). This sophistication, refinement, and cultivation of pain and sorrow, she explains, are what “Indian women do” — what they have to do to protect their story (Mailhot 59). The sophistication of her sorrow shifts her story from charitable to powerful. Mailhot argues that it frames her as “less of a beggar,” “less of a squaw” (Mailhot 59). While the title of the chapter is “Indian Condition” not “Indian Women Condition,” Mailhot genders this process of cultivation; it is a specific process that she must do as an Indigenous woman out of necessity and as a form of survival. To an anonymous “you,” she writes: “You are so inefficient with pain — I realized you never had to cultivate it the way I did. The way Indian women do” (Mailhot 59).

Mailhot’s description of pain as efficient or inefficient is of particular interest. She figures pain and sorrow not solely as debilitating or damaging but as a purposeful, powerful means of being and expressing. There is undeniable power in Mailhot’s words: “You think weakness is a problem. I want to be torn apart by everything” (Mailhot 59). For Mailhot, pain generates and drives; it is a sentiment that has the potential to be productive and efficient. If it were not for pain, she writes, “I wonder how dim and dumb my life would be,” “pain expanded my heart” (Mailhot 59). Mailhot makes the salient distinction that pain becomes efficient when you can name it “so well that people are afraid of the consequences and power” (Mailhot 59). The ability to name pain calls attention to it and holds the institutions and instigators of pain accountable.

Mailhot again emphasizes that sorrow and story are inherited and intrinsic to the “Indian Condition.” Near the end of the penultimate chapter, Mailhot writes: “Our boys, their compassion to will away inherited sorrow, it’s what makes them good and mine and Indian” (Mailhot 59). The inherited sorrow, she goes on to say, “has spun and twisted itself into silk my sons will hold to their faces” (Mailhot 59). The representation of loss as silk that presses against the faces and with the inhales of her sons powerfully depicts the closeness of loss to her people. It is intrinsic to the extent that she writes: “my people cultivated pain” (Mailhot 59).

Mailhot finally argues that loss and pain are what make her story both “the hustle” and a “means of survival” (Mailhot 12, 13). She expresses that story act as a form of remembrance — a way of not becoming “a little ghost” (Mailhot 12). For Indigenous women and girls, story is of particular importance because “Indian girls can be forgotten so well they forget themselves” (Mailhot 12). Story becomes an intergenerational vehicle for remembrance and commemoration that actively resists being forgotten both in the present and future. Mailhot ties the importance of story to loss by expressing the necessity of their coexistence. Mailhot writes, for instance, “I almost killed myself, trying to match you potential joy. It was taking my misery. The thing I am most familiar with. The thing I rove into love” (Mailhot 59). The absence of pain or loss in story and its replacement with joy becomes a life-and-death circumstance; they quite literally become a means of survival. Pain and loss are familiar, intrinsic, and love. They are the “Indian Condition;” but so is love, resilience, power.