Narratives of Addiction and Indigenous Kinship in Helen Knott’s In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience

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.

In her first book, In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, Knott (Dane Zaa Nehiyaw) gives an honest and powerful exploration of sexual violence, addiction, and the potential for healing and kinship amidst trauma. In “Part One: The Dreamless Void,” Knott introduces the reader to “Her. The Her” (Knott 180). The anonymous Her, Knott explains, is “[t]he girl who was [her] best friend and has always been a thread woven throughout [her] life and story of survival. [She] could never escape the thought of Her” (51).

We, the reader, find this to be true.

Her intertwines herself in the fibres of Knott’s memoir from “Part One: The Dreamless Void” to “Part Two: The In-Between to “Part Three: The Healing.” The result of this structure is two distinct perspectives and narratives of addiction, abuse and sobriety, highlighting the nuances of gender-based violence that Indigenous girls and women experience under the imposing structures of settler colonialism. The anonymity of Her presents Knott with the opportunity to speak on behalf of the collective while simultaneously offering her own voice of survival and strength. Together, their stories amplify the importance of Indigenous kinship systems of love, reciprocity, care, and acknowledgement amidst the drowning silence of collective and intergenerational trauma.

For Knott, the ubiquitous presence of Her in her story of survival is not a coincidence. She explains that “[they] always gravitated toward each other like two fucked-up magnets with explosives for hearts, hell-bent on uniting and self-destructing” (53). From the periphery, the adolescent experiences of Knott and Her parallel each other like strings on a weaving loom. Both are subjected to the weight and influence of the mechanisms and structures of settler colonialism. When Her and Knott first meet, they are “two little Native girls, both of [them] settling into [their] post-puberty bodies. Both pretty.” And both learning that “being pretty and Native was a dangerous combination” (54). The similar patterns of their lives and their shared identities create a blanket of compassion and comfort that is “all too understanding of each other’s dysfunction” (55).

In their friendship, there is an implicit and salient acceptance of silence. Silence repeatedly makes space for the moments and stories that fail or refuse to be spoken of out loud; the ones that they cannot express with words. Knott writes, for instance:

She could never fully open. Maybe it hurt too much. We were the same in that way too. I was never opened to talking about my sexually warped childhood. We only had to look in each other’s eyes to know that we were both drowning, but in different ways. It didn’t need to be said out loud. This knowledge — even through silence — provided a life preserver back then. We knew without saying. And that’s why we loved each other (54, emphasis mine).

Here, Knott expresses that there is a sanctuary and haven within silence, of being able to forgo the pain of reliving traumatic memories while still knowing and acknowledging me too.

At the same time, silence does not always weave itself into a silver lining throughout their relationship. In recalling a memory about Her and a “creepy old-balls man and his three hundred dollars,” Knott recounts:

I wanted to tell her to forget about it. I wanted to say that there was nothing wrong with staying sober for one night…I wanted to tell her that she was much too valuable for a price tag to be put on her…But I didn’t. My monster outweighed my heart (57–8).

Here, Knott expresses a desire to speak and to outwardly reflect and act upon the impulses of her heart. As well, there is the desire to undo the silencing of Knott’s “own swirling madness and addiction” and to use words as a means of protection (58). However, Knott’s “monster” veers her intention and capacity to act and speak. This memory of overpowering silence and a desire for a time of youthful innocence is one of the last moments of them together. Knott writes: “I only saw Her a few more times after that night” (58). Throughout the memoir, the tension between silence and speech, suppression and expression, and mind and heart tragically knit themselves into the storyline of their friendship. And most often, with the needles always in the hands of addiction rather than their own.

In “Part Three: The Healing,” however, Knott reclaims the instruments of speech and silence to communicate the strength of her own voice as a survivor of sexual abuse and addiction. The process of healing that she undergoes creates a space for expression by undoing the silence and stigma that once surrounded her violent and traumatic experiences. For Knott, both the written word and spoken word poetry become tools of reclamation that reinstate her sovereignty as an Indigenous woman.

The film that Knott features and recites her poetry in is just one example of reclamation and redemption in her process of healing. After the film’s screening, Knott thinks: “[i]t was wild to be there on this side of healing. To perhaps inspire someone through the poetry I have written” (254). Whereas her addiction once thwarted the potential for change, the culmination of her experiences and her words now act as agents for inspiration.

Perhaps what strikes the reader most in this scene, are the words that Knott follows with. She writes: “It was truly a pivotal moment in my journey. And in that moment — it made me think of Her” (254). Her. The lingering thread that binds itself into the fabric of the narrative and pokes through the seams of memory at various, important moments in Knott’s life.

From thereon, the presence of Her remains at the centre of Knott’s journey of healing. She floods the final pages of “Part Three” with bittersweet memories of Her and hopes that one day “[they] would both be sober together. Healed up and whole. That [they] would be able to grow into old kohkums together with a hell of a story to tell” (26). But, the unknown circumstance and whereabouts of Her present a counter-narrative of addiction and sobriety that Knott herself knows exists. One without the certainty of healing or survival.

The potential reality that Her might “never get sober, that maybe her addictions rule her and she will become sicker and sicker until there is no longer change” weighs on Knott’s heart. She questions her own path to sobriety and “why [she] was given healing and not her” (256). For Knott, the strands of their identities and experiences with addiction and abuse are not so different. Their outward appearances are the same, but their outcome a potential difference of life and death.

Therefore, Knott ends with a declaration to “live with a fierceness and tenacity unmatched” and “to truly honour Her and [her] gift of sobriety” (257). The final “prayer for Her” that she offers exemplifies the depth of Indigenous kinship through its embodiment of love, justice, reciprocity, ceremony, sacredness, and the boldness of dreamers. In essence, it carries Her.

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