Indigenous TikTok

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 Paula Stanco’s Medium.

Jessie Loyer’s essay on the Canadian Arts website, “Indigenous TikTok is Transforming Cultural Knowledge,” brings up an exciting account of Indigenous stories and perspectives being moved to the forefront on the social media website TikTok. Loyer’s delight at this movement is noticeable in the tone of the piece and the myriad of examples used. By “otherwise marginalized TikTok creators add[ing] their own spin to memes and contribut[ing] to a new language emerging from these digital spaces,” these actions are sort of creating an ideal space, and imagining that the world looked and acted this way in reality. The creations of Indigenous TikTok-ers are moving the world one step closer to being an open and accepting place where Indigenous worldviews are acknowledged without being treated as too othered or too serious for the settler culture. The ideal vision for the real world would be one where people of different cultures and languages live side by side and coexist, and no one is excluded from opportunities based on race or class. As the essay states, art institutions do indeed have a long history of belonging to and being meant for exclusive groups, namely white, upper-class settlers. In this way, art institutions mirror colonialism in how they only make space for and prioritize the elite — the “preferred” community in the views of the people who run the art institutions. Because of the accessibility of the digital world, Indigenous creators and anyone else who would otherwise find it hard to break into the realm of art institutions are able to make a space for themselves and defy the “top-down hierarchies that have defined the success of art industries.”

The relationship between creators and audience is crucial to a creator using a social media platform to post content, and the relationship can be framed in various ways. Creators can know and confront their audience, or they can simply perform for them. Some Indigenous TikTok-ers might take on the role of providing education on native topics, while others make content for other Indigenous people; many do both, or alternate between the two methods. Making content for other Indigenous people gives Indigenous TikTok-ers “the ability to make intricate, self-referential jokes in a shared language.” The essay highlights an important shift in the way Indigenous people feel they need to represent themselves; when they move away from the need to portray themselves as “the stoic, proud, resilient Indian” in order to be heard, it makes room for more natural, lighthearted, silly behaviours to come to the forefront. “An affirmation of Indigenous life” is an important and poignant line; just by acting “normal” and not having to talk about or defend Indigenous issues (making their platform be all about this), they can be seen as regular people that are not far removed from Western or internet culture. Also, the article uses the phrase “intergenerational joy,” which I thought was really nice to see, since up until now I had mainly seen the phrase “intergenerational trauma” commonly used. To rephrase and reshape that term was refreshing and would be eye-opening for non-Indigenous people to begin to absorb when they come across Indigenous content. It seems that Indigenous TikTok users and the TikTok platform itself have been able to breathe life into Indigenous people’s culture sharing and ability to become integrated with popular culture.

The TikTok platform demands interaction, in a way that can be conceived of as reminiscent of demanding us to interact with Indigenous people, stories, and culture. This is not to say in an oppressive sense, though; it is showing us the fun, relatable, lighthearted aspects of Indigenous thought and perspectives. The essay gets a bit into the manipulation tactics of the internet and social media, and how it plays on the human brain psychologically. We typically “delight in repetition,” and TikTok uses repetition in showing Indigenous content based on what the user clicked on previously. Because of the way TikTok works, it is like the website is using natural, psychological human behaviour tricks to get Indigenous stories to the forefront of our minds, or to gain awareness of them by them being on TikTok’s front page. Here, Indigenous culture clashes with internet culture, or the mechanisms of social media websites — for example, privacy issues, and suggesting content based on our browsing history. Indigenous culture is brought into this algorithm of eliciting views, making Indigenous culture more exposed. Perhaps the algorithm takes over and disseminates and spreads Indigenous stories for more internet users to view. This phenomenon is like the opposite of the colonialist agenda of silencing Indigenous people — TikTok offers a space for Indigenous content to be seen and shared. While attempts have been made to silence Indigenous people, Indigenous people have also become used to being surveilled. This factors into the way they choose to use and engage with TikTok, by unapologetically sharing their viewpoints rather than hiding or holding back their unique perspective. The essay repeatedly mentions Indigenous joy, which brings a fresh perspective that many non-Indigenous people are not usually exposed to, having only been shown or educated on the hardships of Indigenous history. Bringing up Indigenous joy is refreshing and provides a welcome counterpoint to all the challenges Indigenous people have had to talk about and face. It is nice to laugh for a change, or to show that Indigenous people still like to have fun just like any other culture.

The construction of the essay itself is interesting in that it links to so many Indigenous TikToks. It is like one knowledge space holding and containing several other pieces of knowledge within it. This is similar to the concept mentioned in the lecture 2 video about physical objects holding knowledge, history, and stories — that physical objects which hold knowledge systems are an early form of today’s technologies. TikTok and other social media platforms are now places for Indigenous content creators to enact visual sovereignty. Another point mentioned in the lecture 2 video was the concept of the disappearing Indian, which reminded me of a documentary about the history of film that I watched in a previous class. The documentary addressed how artists’ portraits of Indian people or other people of other exotic cultures back when photographs were first being introduced to the public were more stylized than the real people actually looked; the artist added more costuming and decor, meanwhile in reality the people were dressed more casually. This gave an inaccurate or narrow framework for how the public perceived Indigenous people. In the present, with an abundance of modern technology, Indigenous people can now reach a wide audience with their trendy videos and memes that speak to an authentic Indigenous portrayal of life and culture.

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Terese 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 Paula Stanco’s Medium.

Terese Mailhot cleverly writes about issues of the Indigenous condition, as well as the human condition. Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot offers a raw, poignant look at Mailhot’s life through the lenses of her journey through mental illness and her identity as an Indigenous person. Mailhot is part of the Seabird Island First Nation, which is an island located in the Fraser Valley, just east of Agassiz, British Columbia. Mailhot’s voice throughout her work is unique and at times unsettling, as stated by the book’s publisher, which tends to be illustrative of her mental state. The publisher’s comments also state that “Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept.” This statement has a lot of significance both to Heart Berries and life in general. Memory is malleable and is affected by both external and internal stimuli. If someone does not want to accept something, or is unable to because of trauma, for example, then the memory in question may be incomplete, suppressed, or only partially recalled. This condition is not static, though, and can at any time be changed and developed as the person goes through different life experiences or works through their trauma. The work of many pieces of literature and of going through life is to have ‘character development,’ so to speak — making progress makes us feel useful and can bring about satisfaction, and potentially wisdom and clarity.

Mailhot’s use of imagery is at once beautiful, thought provoking, and sometimes confusing. One brilliant line is “I learned how to make a honey reduction of the ugly sentences. Still, my voice cracks.” It packs a lot of meaning and can be read in multiple ways, in terms of analyzing the words themselves. A reduction, from a culinary perspective, is to concentrate the flavours, making it more palatable. Even without the word “honey” coming before, the mixture would become sweeter. So to have a “honey reduction” makes the words extra sweet and palatable for the people in Mailhot’s life to hear her say the things she says in a sweeter, more pleasant way. But another way to read “reduction” is that the word implies trivializing and belittling; that may not be how this particular passage is intended to be read, but it could symbolize times when Mailhot felt she was brushed aside by other people. As well, the line “still, my voice cracks” stands in contrast to the use of the word “honey,” because cracking would be the opposite of something honey would do — honey is smooth, flowing, and moist. Honey is also long lasting and durable as a product, so to have honey be unable to smooth over the cracks all the time indicates a deep issue or trauma that Mailhot describes. An interesting concept was mentioned in class regarding resilience seeming “ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.” Indigenous people have experienced the impact of colonialism for generations, and the effects are still present today; as well, colonialism in other, perhaps more nuanced forms, is still occurring. The “Indian condition” is survival rather than resilience because it is impossible to recover quickly from these colonial conditions that still continue today.

Story is a very powerful concept for Maihot, as it links to her personal lived experience and to Indigenous culture as a whole. She draws power from storytelling, and calls it “inhuman,” because the power to tell stories does not solely come inherently from her, but also from a power beyond and greater than herself — whether it be spirituality, nature, the universe, the creator, etc. The “inhuman place” may be where the lies come in, as Mailhot often references that sometimes her stories are lies, or she brings up lying and fabrication when describing storytelling. As she says in chapter one, Indian Condition: story, for Indian women, was always meant to be “immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.” There is a running theme throughout the memoir of medicine and healing, from mystical healers to medical professionals in Mailhot’s institutionalization journey. Mailhot’s sentiment that every mourning feels brand new is a thought-provoking line, and reminds the reader that for Indigenous people, their pain and trauma when facing certain issues does not fade away forever; it can flare up or they may have new incoming issues to grieve over. Mailhot emphasizes the urgency and presence of the “Indian condition.” In chapter 3, “Indian Sick,” using the phrase “Indian sick” frames mental illness from an Indigenous perspective right off the bat. Elsewhere in the chapter, Mailhot says she is tired of the truth she does not acknowledge, which brings to mind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Another line, “my body left resonance that can’t be dismantled or erased” feels like a reference or parallel to colonialism.

In chapter 10, “Indian Condition,” the line “my education was a renaissance” holds a lot of meaning and implications. Renaissance also means rebirth, so to have an education is really like the start of the next chapter of Mailhot’s life. Using the word “renaissance” also implies that there is a whole body of knowledge surrounding the before and after of her education, as per the traditional Renaissance. When Mailhot says “I know what comes after discovery,” that brings to mind a colonial or colonist line of thinking. It links the reader to thinking about what happened after colonists discovered North America, for example, for themselves, as well as the after effects of colonialism. Mailhot also says “I was given a sovereign land to write every transgression,” which brings to mind the concept of Indigenous sovereignty. Forms of Indigenous sovereignty are the most integral place where Indigenous communities can assert their culture and tell the settlers around them who they are as a people (Nixon, lecture 1). So it is especially important that Mailhot has this space to write for herself, representing herself as well as her Indigenous community, and the fact that she has completed an education backs up her position as an intelligent woman whose story will be heard by many people. She says that pain expanded her heart, and that she feels “fortunate with this education, and all these horrors..” This offers an important lesson and reminder that pain is useful; everyone experiences pain — some people have more or deeper pain than others, and the nature of it is different and comes at different times for people — but it can often be a teacher and help you grow in life. Indigenous women “cultivating pain” is also a very female/feminine thing to do, as cultivate means “to prepare and use (land) for crops or gardening,” or to “try to acquire or develop (a quality, sentiment, or skill). We can see Indigenous womanism evoked here.

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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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Recovery and Healing 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 Shubhneet Sandhu’s Medium.

Helen Knott writes a gut-wrenching memoir which bravely recounts her struggles with sexual violence and addiction. She explores themes of losing herself to the trauma of being raped, which leads to self-destruction through drugs and alcohol. Ultimately she finds herself by looking to the women and family around her to see herself clearly. Becoming whole means incorporating Indigenous culture back into her life. Knott condemns Canada and settler colonial violence and narrates her journey to healing by overcoming the shame and guilt they both inflict.

Helen Knott’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience, tells the story of her trauma, survival and healing. She is an Indigenous women of Dane Zaa, Cree and European descent. Knott writes honestly about her sexual assaults and addiction to tell the story of her journey to healing. She opens the introduction remembering the often forgotten or ignored Indigenous women who experience sexual assault, addiction, and violence, writing, “I wrote this for you.” Most importantly, she writes for herself. She grew up moving around British Columbia, from Fort St. John to Prince George. She also shares the story of her destructive episode in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently an MA candidate at University of Northern British Columbia.

In the opening chapter, Knott immediately drops the reader into the midst of her addiction. She candidly writes about her mental headspace and feelings of needing to disappear. Throughout her memoir, the difficulty in coping with trauma is apparent in her ultimate desire for self destruction. She continuously tries to outrun her demons and places of trauma, hoping to start anew, but she finds you cannot escape your own mind. Themes of intergenerational trauma, settler colonial violence, and decolonization are explored as she unravels her story. Ultimately she finds herself through her interactions with the many strong women in her life, as well as her son.

Knott writes, “My body pulled into itself. I wondered what it would be like to go through withdrawals somewhere pretty, somewhere clean. Somewhere where the outside didn’t match my insides.” (Chapter 1) Immediately, the reader is invited into her mind as she goes through withdrawals. She wishes she was somewhere else, which is a coping mechanism that Knott has used to escape trauma throughout her childhood and young adolescence. More importantly, she reveals how she feels about herself: the opposite of pretty and clean. Her self hatred which causes her to seek self destruction through drugs and alcohol distorts the way she views herself. She begins to view herself as inconsequential as her abusers make her feel. She writes, “the memories haunted me so much that I ran away to Edmonton — leaving my son behind. Thinking I could appease them with my complete self-destruction.” (Chapter 2) This illustrates the immense harm settler colonialism and violence can cause.

After being raped and assaulted, Knott’s bodily autonomy was attacked and she felt her value as a person was diminished. She begans to carry a heavy guilt within her that is firmly attached to self-blame. In Chapter 5, she continues, “there is something wrong with me and I brought all this upon myself. When the anxiety threatened to push me to an emotional place I was sure I wouldn’t come out of I would tell myself, It will be like the other times, Helen. You have been raped before and you survived. Just shut up and move forward. Shut up. Move forward.” She measured her survival as strength but it also became the new threshold for all she could endure. She felt she did something that warranted the sexual assault and this guilt brought shame. These feelings manifested into an inescapable darkness that followed her.

She felt that disappearing was the only path to spare her family from any further harm: “I had no more fight left in me and I had convinced myself that everyone would be better off without me. My mother, my dad, my son. All of them would be better off with my absence rather than be scarred by my self-destruction.” (1) Her sense of self value had become so warped that she could not envision the great grief that each member of her family would experience in losing her.

These feelings may have also been caused by the lack of national attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. She felt that if she was no longer around, she would just another faceless statistic. Knott writes, “I could easily slip into line with the nameless, the faceless, and the voiceless. That’s why I went there. To erase myself…Native women like me disappeared every day. Becoming an invisible Indigenous woman was a goal of manifest destiny that I was no longer willing to fight against.” (1) In chapter 3, this is reiterated in the lines, “Us Native women know how to disappear. It’s an art, really — we can disappear even when we are right in front of your face. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes out of safety, sometimes by force, and sometimes because we can’t see ourselves anymore.” Knott explicitly refers to manifest destiny, the justification for colonialism. The disappearance of Native women represents the destruction of Indigenous cultures, and she recognizes that was the ultimate goal of colonialism. The fact that this is a prevalent issue is directly linked to the colonial desire to erase and destroy Indigenous cultures.

We see sexual violence become inherently linked with colonial violence. Knott bravely recounts sexual violations at the hands of men who take advantage of her youth and disrespect her autonomy as an Indigenous woman. By voicing the pain, she learns to let go of the shame.

Knott is strong in her indictment of Canada when she writes, “it all stems from history. Colonial oppression of Indigenous people did not stop a century or so ago. It continues today. The wielding of power and privilege is reaffirmed by the media and the majority of society. It is no wonder so many of us have forgotten our true power.” (16) To rise above settler colonialism, a decolonization must take place and there is a need to remember the true strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples. She later writes, “we came to say that Canada is failing Indigenous peoples…Canada has been, and still is, failing the Indigenous people.” (6) This relates to themes of reconciliation but also Indigenous sovereignty. Under the control of Canada, Indigenous communities struggle with addiction, lack of access to resources such as the basic human right to water, and high suicide rates. Indigenous peoples within Canada have the right to self-govern themselves but their sovereignty is highly policed by the Canadian government. Indigenous people are restricted from empowering and uplifting themselves because of the government and its regulations seek to assimilate Native people.

Themes of Indigenous feminism are also very strong within her memoir. Not only does she make note of the times Indigenous men have failed to protect her, but she highlights the importance of the women in her life and seeing herself from their perspectives. Knott’s feelings of self were especially affected by her mother’s addiction. When her parents would fight, her dad would leave and she would be left alone with her mother’s anger. She writes, “my dad would cuss a few times back at her before I would hear the clinking of his keys and the slamming of the front door. I always wondered where he would go. I would wait to hear the door open again and to hear his voice calling us, so we could leave with him. But, he never did come back for us and it always hurt to be abandoned by him and left with my mom.” (3) She writes about feeling abandoned by her father when she needed him to help her with her mother.

This lack of protection by the men in your own community also adds to how patriarchal systems fail Indigenous women. Indigenous women become twice victimized: once by racial systems of power that look down on Indigeneity and once again by men who are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The lack of male support is also highlighted when she is hanging out with an Indigenous boy and begins to be harassed by “cowboys”: “They made obscene comments and grabbed themselves and grabbed at me while calling me names. The boy I was with had lost his voice. Finally the cowboys tired and walked away laughing into the darkness while the boy stood still looking at the ground. With my face still flushed and stinging with shame I walked past him and knocked the beer out of his hand.“Bastard,” I said. I started to hate Native men that night.” (10) This highlights the effects of settler colonialism on Indigenous men and how their own experience effects Indigenous women. Her friend is unable to stop the harassment, and this may be due to his own internalized feelings of self worth when measured against white men, but Knott finds this an inexcusable flaw as she writes about her growing hatred for men from her own culture. It becomes evident that settler colonialism is pervasive in different ways for different people but it ultimately creates a rupture in Indigenous communities.

Knott often expresses her complicated relationship with being Indigenous and how she felt the need to repress this side of her identity due to her parents. She was raised as a Christian, and religious colonial ideologies were passed along with the religion. Knott writes, “I was raised with the knowledge of the darkness and yet I was told that Native spiritual practices are evil. It’s what the Church taught. I was raised to fear any Native spiritual beliefs. It wasn’t Christian. All these heathen practices will only get you sick, hurt, or haunted, or will land you in hell. These were lies that my mom and dad still believed. Mom pleaded that I pray to what she knew as her God.” (7) Being native was positioned as the direct opposite of being Christian and that meant having to repress Indigenous culture, practices, and teachings. She continues, “we didn’t talk much about being Indian. I didn’t even know what kind of Indian I was. The idea of being Indian was very much like saying I had brown hair, ten toes, and two ears. It was a feature.” (7) This further shows the disconnect from the actual meaning behind Indigenous practices. It was no longer a complex culture with its own customs and ceremonies. It became a descriptor as arbitrary and meaningless as having brown hair. She recalls being part of a Native community at school and bringing home a medicine bag that her father immediately threw away, “I stood in the kitchen crying. I learned that there was something deeply wrong with being an Indian.” (7) We see later in her memoir that being so far removed from her culture only hurt her more. Repressing her Indigenous side meant devaluing herself because she refused to acknowledge such a huge part of who she was. She needed to find a way to incorporate her culture back into her life to feel whole, and truly understand the strength of her ancestors within her.

Ultimately, she found healing through themes of Indigenous feminism and kinship. As the chapters progress, she shares stories of her friendships with the Indigenous women in her life. The reader is introduced to friends who she names Her, Ellie, Kyla and Kat. Through her interactions, she finds a feeling of belonging and unconditional love. This feeling of kinship can also be extended to her reconnecting with her mother and son in a healthy way. Indigenous kinship is a complex system of relationships but it is also how Indigenous laws and teachings are passed along. The women in her life remind her of who she is underneath the fog of addiction. They help her reconnect to her own Indigeneity.

Helen Knott writes about these women with love and admiration. In the midst of her self-destructive trip to Edmonton, she contacts her friend Ellie. About her she writes, “another important relationship in my life was my friend Ellie…Her love came without condition.” (3) Ellie realized the trouble Helen was in and immediately “put a call out for people to bombard me with love and light-filled messages because I needed them. She had seen the me that existed under all of the pain I hid myself under.” (5) The women in her life love Knott for who she truly is, nothing that she does or that is done to her can change that. One friend she cannot reconnect with but remembers, she refers to as “Her.” She writes, “but no one told us being pretty and Native was a dangerous combination. Eventually, we told each other some of the secrets that suffocated us…She could never fully open. Maybe it hurt too much. We were the same in that way too. I was never open to talking about my sexually warped childhood…We knew without saying. And that’s why we loved each other.” (4) There is a similar theme of love that runs deeper than superficial justifications. Both these women know the real Helen and love her despite all of her experiences. They help to teach her about her own resilience.

Kat, who is her mother’s friend, picks her up from Edmonton, reminds her of her positive work and influence in the world. She reminds her of the beauty inside of her. Ultimately, it is her friend Kyla who introduces her to the medicine man where she finds the healing necessary to beat addiction. She writes of Kyla, “we have been friends since I was fifteen years old. She has seen me, and loved me, at my lowest. After nights where I had slept with men in a drunken stupor and felt my skin riddled with shame in the morning sun, it was she who’d tell me it would be okay.” (6) These women are Knott’s system of support and act as a mirror to show her her true reflection. They believe in who she is despite everything that has happened. It is through them, she finds her own value as a friend. Her mother and son, Mathias, are her strength when she begins her path to sobriety. They show her value as a daughter and mother. It is through her network of kinship, she finds not only her way to accepting her Indigeneity but also to truly accepting herself as more than her trauma and addiction

When finally visiting the medicine man, Knott was forced to choose between the religion she grew up with and giving her culture a chance. She writes, “I just couldn’t get rid of the guilt that I’d be turning away from God if I went to this doctoring ceremony.” (8) Shame, guilt and blame always appeared to be unsurmountable barriers in her journey to healing but “[her] love for Mathias trumped questions of the faith [she] had known. It cancelled out what the Church has taught. [She] could no longer afford to be scared of anything that could help [her] become whole.” (8) Her son who she passes her strength, language and story down to become a vital motivation for her own healing. She needed to make peace between her upbringing and who she inherently was and once she did, she was able to see herself again.

She acknowledges that healing had to happen collectively. It is something that the entire community needs so they can move towards a decolonized future. This is summed up her words in chapter 16, “when healing takes place, it has no other option but to ripple out. It ripples out from the individual into the family, into the community, into the Nation, and into the world. Our healing not only reaches forward to our future grandchildren, but it leans backward simultaneously and grasps the hands and hearts of our ancestors.” This links to the idea of Indigenous futurism. She needs to be alive to break her son out of the cycle of intergenerational trauma. Her grandmother was placed in a residential school and did not know how to be a mother. Knott’s mother battled with alcoholism and depression and this hurt Knott and her siblings. Knott had to heal herself to break this cycle. Healing was necessary to imagine a future for her son. Finally she writes, “healing yourself is a revolutionary act. Healing yourself is the ultimate act of resistance. Healing is the act of remembering who we are as Indigenous peoples.” (16) Healing is described as revolutionary. Healing is the way for Indigenous people to honour the fight of their ancestors, but also to continue to fight for sovereignty and the preservation of their culture. Knott finds healing and herself through reconnecting with Indigenous experiences, and it is through healing she breaks the intergenerational cycle of trauma.

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‘Healthy Eating’ and the Indigenous Child

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 the Globe and Mail Best Book of 2019 A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, Alicia Elliot identifies as a Haudenosaunee writer. Her memoir is a collection of short essays that encapsulate her life experiences growing up as an Indigenous person in Canada. Although born in the United States of America, Alicia Elliot was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario from the age of thirteen. The memoir draws attention to the trauma, oppression, racism and gentrification that Indigenous people, especially younger children, experience every day as a result of the feeling of superiority exhibited by white, Settler North Americans.

Haudenosaunee people are an Iroquois speaking North American Indian tribe, their name means “people who build a house.” And refers to an alliance among six Native American Nations known as the Iroquois Confederacy, which consist of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes. The Haudenosaunee people refer to themeless as Ongweh’onweh, which translates to “real human beings.” The Haudenosaunee people have a strong connection to the natural world, relying heavily on the ‘Three Sisters’ — Corn, Squash and Beans — for their diet. They also hold great respect for the deer as the deer is an integral part of the Haudenosaunee lifestyle, using to provide a source of food, clothing, blankets, tools thread and ceremonial garments. A large part of the economy comes from Ironwork, as it is an extremely dangerous skill, these tradesmen rely on the trust of their brother or relative, which further unites their community bond. As for their experience in today’s society, the Haudenosaunee people still have a rich ceremonial and community life allowing them to thrive as a united people.

“My diet, like the diets of so many poor and racialized families, consisted mostly of carbs, dairy and fat. There was very little protein, fibre, fruits of vegetables” (102)

A Mind Spread Out On The Ground tackles taboo subjects such as racism, gentrification, and oppression but what makes this collection of short essays more impactful is how with each essay Elliot is able to shine a light on how white settler ideology has infiltrated itself into every aspect of an Indigenous child’s life. From how they are perceived by their neighbours and family, to their hygiene, and their education. Elliot does not hold back in the raw retelling of the traumatic events she has endured. However, the most outstanding essay is entitled “34 grams per Dose.” This essay focuses on the role of food and ‘healthy eating’ in a low-income Indigenous family. It highlights how the concept of healthy eating as identified by the Government-created Food Pyramid, actually upholds racist and oppressive ideas. I found this essay to be the most impactful as we hear in the media about how the correlation between the fast-food industry, obesity, and capitalism but never about how the Government-mandated Food Pyramid holds equally disturbing correlations to low-income houses and the detrimental effects on the children as a result.

“They push farmers to overproduce these crops which farmers then sell at a deep discount to companies that turn them into high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, refined carbohydrates — all the primary ingredients in food poor families rely on” (97)

Every few years, the Canadian government creates and distributes a new document entitled “Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide” Which uses vibrant images and cartoon drawings to tell its population what they should be eating and how much. In order of most serving to least, the Canadian Food Guides outlines Vegetables, Complex Carbs, Dairy, Protein, and then Fats and Sugars. In a perfect world where everyone has equal access to these food groups, the Canadian Food Guide would appear to be extremely reasonable. Unfortunately, that is not the case, many lower-income households do not have access to vegetables or protein regularly, they are forced to rely on packaged food and the fast-food industry due to the extreme prices of certain food groups. From a young age, children are exposed to colourful the Food Guide through being apart of the government-mandated curriculum. The posters are plastered across schools, worksheets are made to teach budgeting skills via shopping for the ‘perfect’ meal as outline by the Food Guide. This is the first exposure of colonialist-Government impositions that poor and racialized children encounter and impacts how these children view themselves as compared to their fellow wealthier, mostly white, students.

“None of the worksheets mentioned that healthy food was more expensive, or that food banks mostly relied on giving out non-perishables to families like mine, families that visited at least one food bank every money, our hands outstretched, hoping for boxes of cereal and day-old doughnuts.” (102)

Elliot begins her essay “34 Grams Per Dose” by saying “For years I’ve believed food would make me happy,” (91) which sets the tone for the rest of the essay. In acknowledging the false happiness that food brings a person, Elliot can further address the oppressive and racists undertones that are found within the food industry. She begins by addressing her harmful exposure to the Canadian Food Guide as a child of poverty and Indigenous descent in a white middle-class school. And continues to provide an in-depth look into how the Canadian government has used food and the concept of ‘health’ to further suppress the Indigenous people. Elliot explores how the appearance of ‘being healthy’ through ‘healthy eating’ did not only affect her upbringing but her young brother and her parents; since they were the “Other” as Indigenous peoples, there was an added pressure to conform and act to align with their white counterparts. Visually being an “Other” in hegemonic society creates a target for the government to interfere with every aspect of your life, and the food was no exception. Elliot describes how her younger brother “already learned what poverty meant, how it shaped your needs, your desires, you expectations. All before he’d entered kindergarten” (96). The division becomes too prominent at a very young age for these children because the government has full control of how food is consumed and distributed; according to their logic, “ if racialized people aren’t considered human, it’s okay for them to have unhealthy bodies” (98). And this belief is spread throughout society, further alienating and targeting impoverished Indigenous families.

“Certain methods of preparing foods were called “primitive,” a word that has been very effectively used throughout history to delegitimize Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and culture” (100)

Elliot effortlessly weaves historical oppression with real-life outcomes which have detrimental side-effects to provide an emotional account of the trauma that food can have for Indigenous people. She touches upon the forceful displacement of Ingenious children, stolen from households and forced into Residential Schools, who were used in social experiments lead by white scientists. These experiments focused on the malnourishment experienced by these Indigenous children, not as a way to find a solution but to explore the relationship between malnourishment and the Indigenous body. The experiment, as performed by Mosby and Galloway, do not account for the trauma and violence that the Indigenous body has endured over the years. She speculates that these scientists held no remorse in experimenting on these children because “coming face to dace with that they meant would shatter everything they believed about their country, about themselves” (110). She furthers this sentiment by stating:

“The ways Indigenous people deal with out trauma, whether with alcohol or violence or Chips Ahoy! cookies, get pathologized under colonialism. Instead of looking a the horror Canada has inflicted upon us and linking them to our current health issues, Canada has chosen to blame our biology, as though those very genes they’re balling weren’t marked by genocide, too.” (112)

Elliot shifts the narrative away from historical oppression to how its outcome is experienced today by her, evoking emotions of sympathy and guilt in the readers who did not have to endure suffering that she has throughout her life. She addresses the disconnect she feels from her heritage through food, as for her food is directly related to trauma and mental health. From a young age, Elliot had to become the parent in her household due to her mother’s mental health which left a dark cloud over Elliot as “Mom’s love and attention were what my siblings and I hungered for most” (113). The discourse around this experience that Elliot creates is one that resonated with many poor racialized children. The common belief is that food connects people, but not for Elliot, food act to further separate herself from her Indigenous heritage because the government unlawfully destroyed that connection through historical oppression and Residential Schools. Questioning, “But I wonder what the first mean I cooked would have been if poverty, violence, mental illness and trauma hadn’t kept my family in a sort of permanent survival mode” (113) strengthens the discourse created as Elliot emphasizes all the catastrophic areas of her life that food contributes towards. Highlighting the relationship between food and poverty, food and violence, food and mental illness, and most vital, the relationship between food and trauma and that is tattooed across her genes.

“Maybe if circumstances were different, if history were different, if trauma hadn’t tattooed itself across my genes…” (114)

Elliot does not leave this essay on a note of sorrow and repression even though these are the sentiments still experienced by Indigenous people, she chooses to end on a message of hope and positivity; a sign of her strength as an Indigenous woman. Choosing to focus on the love that specific food carries for her and her community: “corn, beans and squash were once all [her] people really needed” (116). Although systemic racism and government oppression had disconnected Indigenous people from their heritage that is experienced through food, they have not destroyed the love that food creates for them. Elliott philosophies how “food that carried the love of [their] ancestors can be medicine — a medicine that offers something much stronger that whatever temporary feeling of control or relief” (116) is experienced through the over-consumption of processed ‘white’ food. The shift in ideology that Elliot presents at the end acts to highlight to vital triumph that Indigenous people today have achieved. How their strength, determination and dedication to their ancestors and heritage have moulded her generation to seek love and hope for themselves as an act of rebellion against the trauma inflicted by the Canadian government.

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From Trauma to Healing; Overcoming Settler Abuse Against an Indigenous Woman

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 outcast.

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.

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“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.

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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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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 Laraib Khan’s Medium.

“Is there a language of depression? Depression often seems to me like the exact opposite of language. It takes your tongue, your thoughts, your self-worth and leaves an empty vessel. Not that different from colonialism, actually.”

In her mind-blowing collection of essays, Alicia Elliot, a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River, encapsulates personal trauma due to Canada’s on-going systematic injustices. By retelling her lived experiences, Elliot brilliantly addresses the legal systems’ problems and their attempts to ‘reconcile’ the trauma of Indigenous communities. What’s really interesting about her writing is that it directly addresses the readers; there are multiple places within her essays. She asks questions about the art of writing and language. I find this fascinating because she takes her readings through her writing process; she lets us into her private, mental space, making this piece a metafiction. Particularly in the first chapter, A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, where she explains facets of depression using analogies comparing the mental state with colonialism- seen in the quote above. She simultaneously compares language and colonialism to depression, two drastically different systems, yet she explains her comparisons. The language she says is ‘opposite’ of depression, in which she associates language with liberation and depression, which ‘takes away your tongue.’ And while expanding her definition of depression, she mentions how this devastating state of mind isn’t different from colonialism. “leaves an empty vessel”- these phrases give me goosebumps, and they paint the horrific reality of colonialism in such a brilliant way.

Her unpredictable comparisons and expressive narration connect the readers deeper into her journey. Along with a focus on mental health, she discusses the aspects of displacement while addressing governmental systems’ insensibility. Eliot’s essays capture settler issues -colonialism, Indigenous governance and sovereignty, the Canadian reconciliation Act, and, most importantly, mental health problems.

The first chapter of her book is a creative documentary of the word ‘depression’ through analogies, personification, and allusions, Elliot puts various perspectives of depression in the reader’s mind. From the very first page of A Mind Spread Out On The Ground, Elliot grabs the reader’s attention by asking, “Can a metaphor or simile capture depression?” In this way, not only is she expressing her difficulty with defining the term but by including literary terms’ metaphor’ and ‘simile,’ she is also including her struggles with writing about it, which makes this essay a metafictional piece. The aspect of language and expression is prevalent through these rhetorical statements: “Terminology is tricky,” or “As far as analogies go, comparing depression to a demon is a pretty good one.” In this fascinating analogy, she personifies depression by giving it demonic features, such as mentioning how both “[leave] you disconnected and disembodied…both whisper evil words and malformed truths.” These characteristics paint diverse and accurate images of depression.

Most importantly, the title itself comes from one of these definitions; a passage on page 9 captures this book’s essence. The words “Wake’nikonhra’kwenhtara:’on,” — are Mohawk expression of what depression is. As Elliot explains, they ‘loosely’ translate to something ‘literally stretched or sprawled out on the ground.” Even in her translation of the Mohawk term, the struggles of actually defining depression is troublesome. Hence, through elaborating the explanation of depression, Elliot has made a point; how difficult it is to put someone’s mental health into defined boxes. I believe she has intentionally devoted an entire chapter to one word to depict the various forms of depression one can feel and how insensitive it is to place all the symptoms under one overarching term: depression!

Moving on, not only does Elliot focus on the mental space, but she also expands on the importance of physical space by tackling the feelings of displacement. She mentions her past living situation and the poverty she had faced as a result of colonial violence. Elliot writes about the effects of always having to relocate, the struggles of living in a constrained space, and governments’ insensible actions in their fake ‘attempts’ to help. In the chapter Scratch– she compares herself with a parasite: “As a poor, mixed-race kid, I was treated like a parasite… “Elliot tells the story of her childhood and the dilemma of having head lice, which she creatively compares to the political system. In the retelling of how she got rid of them, Elliot explains her strategy of just killing the obvious ‘bright white nits’ and leaving the darker ones behind so they would go undetected by her school. She compares her strategy to the social services’ problem-solving tactics, where “they don’t solve the problems of poverty or racism or violence or mental illness. Just hide them away.” This chapter then states the approach of societal systems in Canada based on flawed theories and subversive ideologies. “Instead of supporting poor families and helping them become financially secure, social services’ approach is to simply take the kids.” Here, Elliot speaks about the struggles of maintaining a ‘look’ for the social services people or else to suffer living away from your family. The fear in which these ‘justice’ systems put people reflects insensibility and dehumanization amongst them.

The unfair treatments still prevalent in the present reflect the settler-colonialism aspect of this novel- where the privileged- white people set the rules for communities, misusing their powers, and exhibiting dominance. The neglected and arrogant ‘laws’ reflect how much work there needs to be done regarding Indigenous governance and the Canadian Reconciliation Act. This is a subject these essays mention thoroughly, but I cannot dwell on the details with the limited space I have. However, to reiterate what I have said, Elliot expresses specific details of colonial violence and its insensitivity in this country towards the Indigenous group through her parents’ struggles and childhood. These well-researched essays combine her personal experiences with statistical data, written in such an intriguing way that opens up a new perspective for the readers. Through eloquently using prose and various literary techniques, Elliot brings a new stance in her essays with unpredictable and impressive storytelling.

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Wear Yourself Proudly!

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 Laraib Khan’s Medium.

I am trying to figure out how to be in this world without wanting it.” — Billy-Ray Belcourt

I open my reflection with a quote from Billy-Ray Belcourt, highlighted at the very beginning of Arielle Twist’s Disentigrate Dissociate to inform the prevalent subject matter at hand-the struggles to live in this cruel world! Arielle Twist- a Nehiyaw, Two-Spirit, sex educator is a part of the Cree community, and she has crafted a brilliant poetic memoir called Disentigrate Dissociate which opens up deep struggles a person is ‘forced’ to feel when they truly embrace themselves. This memoir touches upon transgender Indigenous identity and Indigenous kinship. I will focus on the struggles of being a transgender Indigenous person that Twist expresses within her poems. Almost every poem reflects the struggles of any human finding a place in this sexist, racist, and power-oriented society. In my attempt to write a reflection on this incredible and fearless poetry, I want to emphasize the overarching themes pertaining to the self — the struggles of placing oneself into the world, self-doubting her identity, and then accepting the distance one might feel once they embrace their true self. This memoir is packed with the idea of fitting in alongside the guilt of feeling true to yourself. This juxtaposition of feeling proud of one’s identity and feeling ashamed of being true to yourself at the same time is a phenomenon, beautifully captured in this courageous memoir.

Twist’s emotionally entrenched poetry dwells on finding a home or a place for oneself. Her emptiness is prevalent right from the first poem, “Prelude”. A poem describing a death scene of her kokum. Using strong imagery, Twist forces its readers to visualize the pain: the lines read “ I beg my eyes to stop/making an ocean-/water and salt…” The use of “beg” here suggests struggle to hold back, a strong urge of pleading to the eyes to hold back the tears. Here, the notion of begging alludes to the idea of hiding one’s feelings; there is a sense of shame associated with crying here, she is stopping herself from truly expressing her sorrow. In her act of remembering her kokum’s death, there is a notion of re-birth, the beginning of her own self-discovery; prevalent from the lines, “ I weep into a space left unbodied/I think I’ll leave mine too/Disintegrate or dissociate./I will deconstruct myself,/and rebuild in her vision.” In these beautifully crafted lines, there is a strong sense of hope. Through her emptiness- ‘I weep into a space left unbodied”- she decides to “deconstruct” herself. Just in these 2 lines, and a brief enjambment, Twist declares her journey to find herself. Interestingly enough, she even acknowledges how difficult it will be by mentioning the two profound verbs: “Disintegrate or dissociate”. This powerful statement shows the complexity of the self itself-it is an entire war against your own self in order to regain something lost, or broken.

Twist’s use of the first-person narrative and a direct approach to address the victimizers, intrigues the readers further. Her struggles and hesitation to cope with racial and sexual violence are written in a very honest and open way in the poem, “Dear White, Cis Men,” which is a poem outlining sexual abuse specifically towards a transgender Indigenous and the scars that this disgusting act leaves on a person. There is an ironic undertone in Twist’s voice throughout this poetry and I genuinely admire her for writing such a bold and fearless piece. The way Twist has written the violence, leaves the reader astonished; through descriptive imagery, she showcases her trauma. She begins the poem by declaring “…a spiral of/ confusion and self-doubt/about my own desirability.” Here, it can be inferred that she is perhaps doubting her own choices, however reading the rest of the poem, the reader finds that these statements are ironic. Twist cleverly uses the format of a letter to acknowledge that she did once doubted herself because these abusers made her think it was her fault- victim blaming-but through calling them out in her writing, she makes an attempt to cope with the blame. At the beginning of the poem, she expresses her fears of speaking out: “I still don’t know what you could do if I don’t [praise you]”. However moving towards the end, she expresses “your rough tongue that/taste a body/ I told you/not to.” The message that could be intended here is yes, there is self-doubt when the victimizer harms a person, there is always the notion of self-blame, but through the act of writing this poem, Twist makes a statement that she is finally coping with such atrocities. There is no more doubt when she claims that she had stopped them, she had ‘told them not to’.

Within the same poem, Twist mentions herself from the eyes of these white, cis men, as ‘[an] exotic girl,/brown skin with/tits and a dick.” Her identity is reduced to her physical appearance, she is objectified and tarnished due to her body and sexuality. The scar that this identity crisis has put on her is prevalent in lines where she says “Dear white, cis men,/who make me question:/Is being trans worth being killed?” The devastating truth is highlighted within these lines, how the cruel, and inhumane act makes a person question their own lives. Twist is seen as blaming her identity in an attempt to perhaps comprehend rape. She is addressing her struggles of self-doubt yet through this ironic, letter format, she addresses her healing process. That being said, personally, this poem fills me with emotions that are too hard to express, I cannot find the correct words to describe the overwhelming effect this poem has had on me.

These two poems are the first two works within Disentigrate Dissociate, and they set up the entire memoir extremely powerfully. Just by analyzing the contents of ‘Prelude’ and ‘Dear White, Cis Men’, the notions of grief, self-doubt, hope, and healing are seen, which are dominant in the entire memoir. Through a transgender Indigenous lens, Arielle Twist bravely visits her wounds, explains her struggles to fit into her own body, and depicts her healing process with poetry. Such intelligently constructed poems exhibit the notions of feeling lost and regaining confidence about oneself through speaking and writing. Through irony, Twist showcases her process of healing.

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