The Lived Indigenous Experience and Colonial Repercussions in Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out On The Ground

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.

Alicia Elliott is a Haudenosaunee woman born in the United States but she moved to Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario, Canada as a young girl. On this reserve, she and her family lived in poverty and without running water, which she explicitly explores as a legacy of colonization. She writes an honest memoir which not only guides the reader through her own journey of self as a biracial Indigenous woman, but also works to actively condemn Canada’s nation-building history and policies which actively undermined Indigenous ways of life and that have repercussions to this day.

Alicia Elliott, in her opening chapter entitled, “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground,” speaks candidly about her mother’s and her own depression. A Catholic understanding of mental illness compares depression to a demon possession as she writes, “both overtake your faculties, leaving you disconnected and disembodied. Both change you so abruptly that even your loved ones barely recognize you. Both whisper evil words and malformed truths.” (5) We see the substantial toll depression can have on a person, but also how it affects the network of loved ones of a person as well. This touches on ideas of Indigenous kinship — a system of networks that not only teaches one how they relate to others but also how they relate to the world around them.

Catholicism was brought to North America through the arrival of colonizers and missionaries. The connection between religion and Indigeneity becomes clear when Elliott writes, “according to Diane Purkiss’s The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations, European colonists widely considered Indigenous peoples to be devil worshippers…Literal demonizing of Indigenous people was a natural extension of early tactics used to move colonization along.” (5) When depression is compared to demon possession, they relate in that there is a pervasive loneliness and inability to reach, or be reached by, those you love. The truth becomes distorted. But the demonization of all Indigenous people leads to a different kind of un-attachment: it lead to losing who you are to larger narratives created about you. Internalizing these ideologies by the way of forced conversions and residential schools led to a disconnection from one’s own community, culture, and sense of identity. A rupture was created that extends past one’s life and is passed down generations.

Elliott continuously includes scholarly research and literary voices that supports her assertions. She speaks knowledgeably about the intergenerational effects of colonization on Indigenous peoples. She writes, “though suicide was quite rare for Onkwehon:we pre-contact, after contact and the subsequent effects of colonialism it has ballooned so much that, as of 2013, suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for Native people under the age of forty-four.” (8) These statistics highlight not only the intergenerational repercussions of colonization but also how the demon analogy affects Indigenous people dealing with depression — you are not only deemed the demon-worshipper but the demon has possessed you and conquered your faculties, leaving you the shell of the person you once were. The emptiness — not knowing who you truly are, becomes a part of the colonial legacy.

When Elliott is pregnant with her own child she meets with an adoption agency where a woman probes about what Elliott has kept secret, even from her boyfriend, “he doesn’t know this part yet. No one does, really. You don’t remember outright told to keep it secret. Repression was learned in your household…you didn’t even whisper about it with your sister…” (35) Elliott loves her mother but she has not always been an active maternal figure. She has been in and out of hospitals fighting depression, and bipolar disorder: “it usually happens like this: your mother gets really sad or really angry, and some days when you come home from school she’s gone. After a month or two, she reappears just as suddenly, smiling and shiny. And no one talks about it.” (35) This passage not only reemphasizes the silence around mental health but also her mother’s absence. Elliott did not have a solid mother figure to look up to and emulate now that she found herself pregnant.

Meeting with this adoption agency, also revealed to Elliott that mental illness and trauma can be passed down to a child. Centuries after first contact, the repercussions of intergenerational trauma affect each new generation, and ultimately new forms of colonial institutions continue to police and harm the Indigenous body and psyche. Elliott writes, “the woman fumbles for a box of tissues as she stutters her apologies. You realize all at once you hate her. She’s the type of woman who, a handful of decades ago, would have carted your dad’s aunts and uncles off to residential schools without batting an eye.” (38) Elliott exposes how settler-colonialism is ever-present in today’s society: residential schools may have been closed but racists now occupied roles in other places of power such as adoption agencies that separate so many Indigenous women from their babies.

Settler colonialism is the system which continues to oppress indigenous peoples while the descendants of colonizers reap the benefits of systems their ancestors put in place. Elliott’s chapter, “34 grams per Dose” discusses the link between poverty and health. Poverty can be considered partly systemic because less well-paying opportunities are available to BIPOC — this can be traced back to school where the educations of such students is interrupted by the biases of educators. The lack of access to education, tutors, after school programs, etc., all lead to an adult with limited opportunity in the world. Elliott writes candidly about the poverty her family faced, “we might not have been able to help our mother deal with her bipolar disorder; we might not have been able to help our father shoulder the financial burden of caring for five children; we might not have had running water…” (94) This also emphasizes the arbitrary nature of poverty: a mother struggling with mental health leading to a single parent income is not an active decision the family chose to make. The system we live in caters for multi-income households meant to support a nuclear family; it fails to consider incapacitated parents, or the possibility of more than two children, or children adopted into the family. The Canadian government also fails Indigenous peoples living on reservations. Elliott writes, “like any convenience store, they carried everyday stales like milk, eggs and bread, but other than that their aisles were filled with junk food and canned goods. If you were lucky, one of the gas stations might have some bananas or apples for sale, but most didn’t, and nearly everything was priced higher than you’d find at a grocery story in the city. So not only was it harder to eat healthy on the Rez; it also cost more to eat unhealthy.” (94) Not only does poverty inhibit access to healthy food but it is harder to afford to eat anything at all. This forces Indigenous people with money to choose between access to food, and living on ancestral land with community. Its also leaves Indigenous people without money no choice at all.

Issues of settler colonialism stress the importance of Indigenous governance and sovereignty. Indigenous governance and sovereignty is the right Indigenous people have to govern themselves outside of Canada’s control, which is rarely a respected right. Elliott positions Indigenous sovereignty as the only answer to settler colonialism. She reiterates the systemic part of poverty and access to good health when she writes about the awareness the Canadian government has on their part in “starvation used to clear the plains…the way residential schools starved and malnourished Indigenous children in their care…[prohibiting] Indigenous peoples from participating in traditional hunting and fishing on their own territory.” (100) The government’s policies continuously worked to disadvantage Indigenous peoples, destroy their own ways of life and limit their access to traditional foods. The harm of these policies continues because although they exist, the Canadian government refuses to acknowledge them. She continues, “and if we as Indigenous peoples are inherently unhealthy, well then, we’re going to need Canada’s help to become healthy again, aren’t we?…We might have to pretend the very colonialism that has cursed us will suddenly, inexplicably, save us.” (101) The government continues to colonize Indigenous peoples through the never-ending policing of their behaviour and lifestyles. If Indigenous peoples were permitted to self-govern problems that now plight their communities, which didn’t exist pre-contact, could be resolved.

The intergenerational trauma continues because Indigenous people do not have access to the resources and education to help themselves overcome the forced infantilization of the Canadian government. The inaccessibility to inexpensive healthy foods endangers the lives those living on reservations, especially those living in poverty. Social workers checking on the homes and children of Indigenous people with the larger threat of foster homes looming above, systematically targets First Nations communities and also perpetuates inter-generational trauma.

When considering the high post-contact suicides rates of the Onkwehon:we. Elliott condemns Canada as she writes, “interestingly, the Centre for Suicide Prevention has found lower rates of depression and suicide among communities that exhibit “cultural continuity.” This includes self-government, land control, control over education and cultural activities, and command of police, fire and health services. In other words, the less Canada maintains its historical role as the abusive father, micromanaging and undermining First Nations at every turn, the better off the people are.” (8) The over-policing of First Nations peoples is what is harming them, and statistically those who have the freedom to control their lives and community prosper under that freedom.

Ultimately, healing must come with decolonization and a concept Elliott refers to as “intergenerational love”. (116) Decolonization is the idea of unwriting colonial ideologies and systems. Elliott explores the importance of language and culture: “we know our cultures have meaning and worth, that culture lives and breathes inside our languages. Canada knew that, too. Which is why they fought so hard to make us forget them.” (8–9) Again, she re-emphasizes the part Canada played in the destruction of Indigenous cultures but also explicitly links language to culture. One way we see healing and decolonization take place is through her sister’s attempt to reclaim language. Elliott writes, “I’ve heard one person translate a Mohawk phrase for depression to, roughly, “his mind fell to the ground.” I ask my sister about this. She’s been studying Mohawk for the past three years and is practically fluent. She’s raising her daughter to speak the language since our paternal grandfather a handful of decades ago.” (9) She continuously talks about the important link between culture and language and how the destruction of both causes harm to Indigenous peoples. In order to decolonize, it is important to relearn language and so regain access to the cultural way of thinking and living.

She ends the chapter, “both depression and colonialism have stolen my language in different ways. I know this. I feel it inside me even as I struggle to explain it. But that does not mean I have to accept it. I struggle against colonialism the same way I struggle against depression — by telling myself that I’m not worthless, that I’m not a failure, that things will get better…Things that were stolen once can be stolen back.” (12) This asserts that decolonization is possible. Comparisons between colonization and depression intersect in her loss of language, but both can be combatted. Both present a malformed truth about her identity, and she must actively fight to battle that misrepresentation. There is hope in regaining all that was taken away from her and her people, and becoming whole again.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the idea of intergenerational love. Usually this idea is used to talk about trauma and pain. Helen Knott, in her memoir In my Own Moccasins, referred to it as “blood memory.” I’ve also learned about this under the names “re-memory” or “genetic memory.” This is a phenomenon that suggests that feelings of oppression and trauma can become moulded into your DNA and passed down to your children. The pain becomes so deeply entrenched into who you are that it becomes a part of your genetic makeup, which your children will inherit. Elliott explores the idea that the trauma her ancestors faced may have altered their genetics but this must mean their love for their children should have too. She writes about the Haudenosaunee principle of the seven generations: “when you make a decision, you must consciously think about what effects that decision could have on your descendants seven generations into the future.” (108) This means the Haudenosaunee may not have had the language to speak about intergenerational trauma but they knew their decisions and experiences would affect their descendants. This means when Elliott writes about how the seeds of corn, beans and squash were passed down to children, there was knowledge that they would sustain future generations. The love behind this tradition was rooted in the desire to see future generations thrive. When Elliott passes along these teachings through the means of Indigenous kinship, it will be an act of love that imagines a decolonized future for her own descendants. Elliott ends this essay asking the revolutionary question:

“if intergenerational trauma can alter DNA, why can’t intergenerational love?” (116)

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