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.


The Promise for Indigenous Futurity: Approaching Trauma and Healing in Motherhood

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 Selena Jodha’s Medium.

Terese Marie Mailhot crafts a narrative that approaches trauma and healing through a reimagined memoir — which I expanded on here — and enacts many literary techniques to decolonize the genre in a way that invites Indigenous readers and writers to see themselves within the formula. As a brief introduction to the author, since I expanded more in my last post, Mailhot is a First Nations Canadian woman from the Seabird Island Band. The First Nations are the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and apply to status and non-status Indigenous Peoples while also referring to bands or nations; yet it does not include Inuit or Métis. In Heart Berries, she touches on important themes that unfortunately, I will not be able to fully analyze in this post; however, I intend to do a deeper analysis on the theme of motherhood, specifically her relationship with her mother and her relationship with her own children. I intend to utilize her essays: “Indian Condition (1)” “Indian Sick” and “Better Parts.”

Reconnecting with Motherhood

Throughout her memoir, although Mailhot wrote every letter to her husband Casey, she also connects a lot of her trauma and healing back to her relationship with her mother, noting how her therapist told her that “she’s a link to [her] betterment” when she was first admitted (29). By referencing her mother time and again, she is alluding to reclaiming her agency by acknowledging the times that it went wrong with her and the ways that it all worked out in the end for them. This is an important factor to recognize for Indigenous women, as Dian Million mentions in “An Introduction to Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights” because “witnessing one’s truth to power is a convoluted undertaking” (3). Western ideologies rooted in colonialism are quick to prescribe people with wellness tactics to get over their problems, mentally and physically. As Mailhot notes her skepticism about self esteem and forgiveness in white culture while in the hospital, it is true that these tactics cannot be contended with in the same way when it comes to Indigenous and “third world” racialized others (others in the sense of multicultural/ethnic bodies). This is in part to the nature of Western ideologies not being able to root itself in places where it is not understood/upheld. Indigenous peoples, such as the First Nations, have been subjected to classical colonialism since “[Canada] began at first contact and continues [to this] present and it was not a monolithic process, but occurred in different ways throughout different regions (Stevenson 50). In this nature, it can be understood why Indigenous people can be so skeptical of their practices when most of their culture had been disrupted by the colonization of their land and economies. Mailhot is one of many who finds themselves at a crossroad when it comes to the treatment of colonist practices in their daily life, such as remedies in hospitals, but she understands through her healing process that she does not need to follow it in order to discover her truth. By challenging the process of healing from pain, instead of by forgiveness but through ceremony, she is inserting her agency in an intersectional way that allows her to grasp colonial ideologies while applying her Indigenous heritage as primary rather than secondary. As Marie Lugones explains, there is no harm in learning from the colonial difference, but it is not limiting the decolonized practices that matter and allowing it to still shine through despite the numbers in colonial ideology.

Connecting back to self esteem and her mother, Mailhot tells us how her mother was never big on self esteem for herself, let alone to foster that in her daughter (29). This is because Indigenous people understand that it takes a lot out of them to heal themselves when they simultaneously must heal their positions in the world and their human rights that were disrupted by colonialism. Later in the chapter, as Mailhot opens about moments in her childhood, she confines in us how her mother was always aware of her struggle and as a “single mother with four children [she] is destined to die from exhaustion, unless there is a miracle of fortune or justice” (34). This statement is reflective of my position last week in Mailhot carrying out de-colonial tasks, as defined by Lugones. Mailhot is able to understand and identify the hardships that the colonality of gender has brought onto her mother and is able to root it into core issues within her childhood. In understanding that, she is reclaiming the knowledge that her mother was grasping: that Indigenous women, because of their gender and isolation through colonization, might have never stood a chance because they would always be bottom tier. Just as Mailhot explains her mothers death,

“…there were too many culprits: the government, to the reservation, to her own family, to whoever hurt her the first time… then all our fathers, and the men who said they were down for the cause and abandoned it, like they did their children… even the sweet lovers who gave her hope are the culprits of her pain” (Mailhot 32)

it can be reflective of many Indigenous women’s feelings of their injustices that surround them. The “her” in the previous quote is one that Mailhot writes that embodies the voice of many, one that carries Indigenous kinship to those women so that they are no longe alone. By seeing the colonial difference now and learning from it, it increases the chances for Indigenous women in the socio-political climate of Western society today. And although this unfortunate reality was brought onto her mother, among generations of trauma throughout her family, she is able to reclaim her agency in herself through healing her position in her body and her relationship with her mother. It was never easy to claim a good relationship with her until those last moments in her mothers life, but that is because of trauma that plagued her mother and never made it easier as she grew up. This is in part to the intergenerational that has been wrought onto Indigenous women for generations because of the treatment of men and colonialism, allowing women to be sidestepped and placed on the sidelines. Yet by reclaiming their agency, Mailhot is one of many who understand that they do not belong there and that their voice is one of power that cannot be quieted down, despite the influence of the patriarchy and colonality. As she mentions “the pain was a process to understanding” in relation to how the state and men were born to hurt her mother, and in the same breath the same foreshadows that it would be done to her as it has been done to generations before her. But in understanding her pain, it becomes her saviour rather than her doom, and by reclaiming herself through written texts and a new generation of activists, scholars and artists, Mailhot subconsciously embeds into her Indigenous feminist coding that they belong to something better because Indigenous peoples will reclaim their truths.

Reclaiming her relationship with her mother has been a learning process, not just with her mental and physical healing but with the moments as a mother herself. Her mother “made a name as an angry Indian woman” with her cynicism towards life and often screamed and cried feelings at her children that were, she notes now, unjust for them to receive (30–31). As explained above, Indigenous women and peoples have been denied their basic agency for so long that there is no question as to why they are angry and cynic, but the reason for my pulling of this moment is the way it affects Mailhot’s treatment of her sons. Mailhot learned that she did not want to be this type of mother, claiming that “she does not have a sense of pride with her son” and treats him like “a small king” (31). Where she was met with anger and frustration in her mother, she wants her child to grow, fostering a sense of love and community within their family so he will never be scared and forced to run away, like in Mailhot’s experience. The unfortunate reality is that not many Indigenous people get to claim this chance, because of the colonialism embedded into society and the state that has ruined generations of families and communities. Many children may have grown up to be exactly like Mailhot’s mother because of intergenerational trauma that has decimated Indigenous communities for generations. But Indigenous peoples and women are taking back their agency and for mothers like Mailhot to do this for their children is one of the ways that they can carry out decolonial tasks. When she was a child, she waited for someone to come home and remember her existence to care for her. As an adult with children of her own, she is constantly reminding them of her love for them so that they never go a moment questioning if they are a burden. This is no judgement on women in Mailhot’s mother position, in fact it is a terrible injustice that has been implemented into too many Indigenous communities that they must resort to negative behaviours in order to survive their traumas and undergo healing in their minds and bodies. This is why Mailhot took the positives that she learned from her mother and in doing so, mixed that with the unfortunate experiences so that she is able to continue to grow and defy the colonial injustices that have traumatized their lives for so long. By choosing love rather than hate and learning from the colonial difference, as Lugones has defined, Mailhot is able to transcend the norms of Indigenous women stereotypes and treat her children as teachers; that can provide support and emotional up keeping that she so lacked and that will grow up to understand the burdens she went through without the full impact of the trauma that impacts the healing process.

Forgiveness and Reimagined Approach to Reconciliation

In the essay, “Better Parts” Mailhot uses many literary techniques which reclaim her agency with her mother. The repetition of her name, Wahzinak, in part with her having the courage to ask her questions, asserts both her position in familiarity with herself and in their comfortability. The placement of this essay in the end of the book Heart Berries is a great way to tie in the full circle of her healing, from her maltreatment and forgotten self to her powerful voice that has no qualms in discovering the full force of her power. Going back to what she said about forgiveness “in white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony” (28). Although is is far from an Indigenous ceremony, Mailhot used the memoir as an act of recovery rather than using it to write the traditional memoir form (as I took the time to consider in my last post) and I am suggesting that this last essay is a written record of a form for reconciliation with her mother with ceremonial influences. She writes about her mother in an almost dreamy way, taking the time to ask her questions and compare it to truths she discovered through her healing process. In the end, as she leaves her mothers body in the earth to rest, her “words lay still like shadows… but they are better than nothing” (128). The written text is a colonialist concept that Indigenous people have adopted and mixed into their oral traditions, and who’s to say that in her reimagined memoir she has structurally allowed that to mix into ceremony tactics.

Although her truth is being left in documentation in the form of words, it is being done in the spirit of using what she has learned to cherish and embrace her culture and what has been done for her because of her mother. Ceremonies often involve the process of gathering and gift giving, but Mailhot mixes these by invoking the new use of memoir as a way to include Indigenous people, therefore inviting them to her narrative instead of writing how they should be perceived in ways that are rooted in stereotypes. She is giving them the gift of Indigenous kinship and sharing the way that Indigenous women, like her, her mother, grandmother and generations further, no longer need to hide and allow others to share their truths. This point can be reflective of Gerogina Riel’s understanding of ceremonial spaces as “the need for ceremony has taught me that feeding the spirit in a good way will provide the strength to reclaim space in a respectful way.” This can be further understood in Mailhot in how she writes “…stor[ies] were always meant to be for Indian women” because they are immediate and fearless in their storytelling, just as Mailhot has been in defining the memoir form and reclaiming her agency through the means of structure and literary artifacts (3). In doing so, she is signifying her transitions in healing and her process with her mothers spirit, which she will carry for the rest of her days. And by reclaiming a space in the literary world for Indigenous stories to continue, she is asserting her need for ceremony to cherish the forgiveness she has found for herself and her mother, as well as generations of Indigenous women.


Decolonizing The Memoir: An Approach to Indigenous Trauma and Healing

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 Selena Jodha’s Medium.

Who is Terese Marie Mailhot?

Terese Marie Mailhot is a First Nations Canadian woman from the Seabird Island Band. The First Nations are the Indigenous Peoples of Canada which applies to status and non-status Indigenous Peoples, also referred to as bands or nations; yet it does not include Inuit or Métis. The Seabird Island is a band government of the Sto:lo people, located in the Upper Fraser Valley region in what is now known as British Columbia, Canada. In addition, a band is usually, but not always, a single community in which land and money have been set aside in trust by the Crown and is a basic unit of government for those subjected to the Indian Act. Seabird Island has been an independent band since 1958.

In Heart Berries, Mailhot makes many references to Salish art, and I would like to suggest from the text that the Salish culture is close to her traditional upbringing from her mothers side, however this opinion is my own and not confirmed on her website or elsewhere (to my current knowledge). The Seabird Island Band upholds many of the Salish people of the Pacific Northwest traditions in their culture and education and from that, I want to further suggest that is how someone in her immediate family passed down its teaching onto her. Mailhot grew up on the Seabird Island reservation, which is geographically located near the coast line of British Columbia in a desert area with a view of the mountains. In her memoir, she mentions that when she was eleven, an elder told her that her Indian name Asiniy Wache Iskwewis means Little Mountain Woman (Heart Berries 101). Although she felt undeserving of the name at the time, she drew power from the mountains and sometimes from the desert, yet on page 71 while pregnant with Thunder Baby, her aunt suggests that her presence in the desert away from her land is what was making her sick and tells her to go to a river. I would then suggest that because of her name, she feels a connection to the mountains and desert, and because of where she grew up, she feels a connection to the water as well.

In Heart Berries, Mailhot crafts a narrative that approaches trauma and healing through a reimagined memoir — which I will expand on later — and enacts many literary techniques to decolonize the genre in a way that invites Indigenous readers and writers to see themselves within the formula. Mailhot touches on important themes throughout her memoir that all come together to assemble her life thus far, such as motherhood, mental illness, childhood upbringing, hospitalization, internalized shame in multiracial love and healing from intergenerational trauma. Unfortunately, I will not be able to analyze all of these important themes in this post however for the sake of my analysis, I want to acknowledge the effects of all memories in creating the memoir as a whole, even if this analysis is not heavily dependant on all aspects. I intend to do a deeper reading into the rhetoric of the memoir and do a deeper analysis on internalized shame in multiracial relationships based on her essays “Indian Sick” and “Little Mountain Woman.”

Decolonizing Rhetoric in the Memoir Structure

In order to understand the significance of Mailhot’s form and rhetoric, the history of autobiographical memoir writing needs to be understood. A memoir, which is a subgenera of autobiography, is generally a written retelling of someone’s life and can focus on a specific theme or moment while following a centralized factual form. With this in mind, I would like to argue the importance of Heart Berries structure, in which Mailhot de-colonizes the static aesthetic in the traditional memoir formula that she learned in her M.F.A at the Institution of American Indian Arts. On multiple occasions in Heart Berries, she defines her education as a renaissance and that her program was designed with one in mind so that Native writers like her would start one (59,118). I find that prescribing Native education as a renaissance to be truly fitting, as it traditionally means “rebirth” which is exactly what Indigenous scholars, activists and artists are trying to do; they are giving the artistic and academic world new definitions and understandings of their culture that is untainted by settler colonialism.

By structurally reimagining the formula of a memoir, Mailhot opens up a new method for effective storytelling and forms of translation for what is traditionally oral in their culture. By implementing this decolonizing rhetoric throughout the text, each essay disrupts the colonial imprint within this literary technique and opens up the sphere for an Indigenous future within autobiographical writings. This is important to recognize because Indigenous self identity has been taken away from these communities for so long due to Canada’s (and other continents) history of hardships. Mailhot writes in a way that disrupts the white memoir structure by writing about who she is in raw, vulnerable details without flowery descriptions, because storytelling to her is meant to be immediate, necessary and fearless (Mailhot 3). In doing so, she wrote this book for people like her to pick up and truly see themselves in, even if the meanings included do not follow the traditional universality that memoir writing calls for. It is meant to be personal for Indigenous peoples and meant to make others (in this case, settlers) feel as if they are on the outside for being blind to their injustices for so long. Further, for Indigenous peoples to not only adapt to colonized models but further deconstruct them through multiple decolonization methods, I suggest that the future is being paved by a new generation of scholars, artists and activists in a way that will become familiar and no longer overlooked due to the history of colonialism. In doing so, racial minorities and Indigenous peoples are rediscovering their true potential after generations of trauma and using it in a way that promotes healing for future generations to come.

Internalized Shame and Healing in Multiracial Relationships

As mentioned above, Mailhot touches on many themes in this memoir, one of which being the internalized shame love can bring, especially in multiracial relationships. When Mailhot was hospitalized, she wrote every letter to her then affair lover, now husband, Casey. Immediately, she knew that she “was not going to be the same person for loving [him]” which I want to further explore (7). This can be seen in two ways: the first being that she has never felt this way for a man before — so strongly and so aware — because to her, men did not equate to safety and was something un familiar to her(9). This is also important when we look at Indian Sick, where Mailhot confines in her letter that one of her problems was her “inability to distinguish [him] from other men when [she] was angry” (25). Mailhot recognizes subconsciously that Casey is different, yet her trauma often distorts her memory in ways that she cannot distinguish who is familiar and who will harm her. This is very reflective of Andrea Smith’s chapter in “Sexual Violence as a Tool of Genocide” in which she explains how “when a Native woman suffers abuse, this abuse is an attack on her identity as a woman and an attack on Native identity. The issues of colonial, race, and gender oppression cannot be separated” and although she did not suffer abuse directly from Casey, subconsciously by not feeling worthy enough to be with him because of her Native identity, she is drawing on intergenerational traumas in her family inflicted by settler colonialism (8). These issues of oppression followed her mother (exemplified through Paul Simon and her father) and Mailhot discovered through her essays that it follows her — which I will unpack later — and it is this awareness of oppression that makes trusting men so difficult.

Another important aspect of the above quote is the conscious racial line that Mailhot is crossing for her feelings, which impacted her journey of healing more than she thought it would when they began the affair. In Indian Sick, she admitted herself to the hospital for the first time and wrote a letter to Casey that was as “ashamed and wild as she was” to contrast completely to his “white sensibilities” (15). When they first began, she was constantly aware of how she physically appeared when she was with him and how different he treated her from other men. She was conditioned by men who were intoxicated with her Indigenous features, historically seen as Other to Eurocentric beauty, yet Casey treats her as an equal and not as a doll to be cared for. She’s caught within a binary of being needed and disposable by herself in her relationship because she feels that Casey is unable to take on the burden of her troubles since he can never experience it. In the essay Little Mountain Woman, she refers to herself as a “squaw,” equating herself with being dirty (90,94). This chapter is important to recognize how far the depth of Mailhot’s pain is in regards to her love with Casey because of his skin colour. As a visible minority myself, in a multiracial and religious relationship with a partner who is white passing, I found myself drawn into this narrative. In highlighting this narrative, I am showing how often, Indigenous women (and further suggesting any ethnic other) like Mailhot feel in comparison to their white counterparts. On more than one occasion, Mailhot wanted to feel like one of Casey’s white women and tried to make herself smaller around him because she believed that is what she needed to be in order to feel deserving of his love. This internalized shame further suggests Smith’s point that issues of colonial, race and gender oppression cannot be separated and Mailhot finds herself unable to forgive herself for loving him. Yet at the same time, Mailhot often recognizes strength in her ethnicity and knew that she could never dwindle herself down into something less than what she was because it was harmful for her mental stability (97). As Maria Lugones posits

“the decolonize feminists task begins by seeing the colonial difference [and] resisting her epistemological bit of erasing it”

and Mailhot enacts this by acknowledging that there is power in learning from Caseys whiteness that does not limit herself but gives herself agency (Lugones 753). For instance, she let herself be dormant around him because she perceived him to be living a fuller life than she would ever be able to, yet also acknowledges that the hurt she carries may not feel as large if she let him in, because she knew that he was not aware of her feelings (Mailhot 100). Through her letters, she found hundreds of ways to ask him if it was her fault she was the way she was and how it may have effected him, but by taking a moment to really analyze the differences in their genders and race, she asks herself often if she is the reason she makes herself a squaw by allowing Casey to have her agency over her. As Mailhot wrote, “you are so inefficient with pain — I realized you never had to cultivate it the way I did… The way Indian women do” and it boldly imprints into a readers mind just how little our white counterparts think about their place in the world yet racial minorities constantly question their places and put the onus onto themselves (122). Peoples of colour in these relationships are acutely aware that every impression matters and that the hardships we collect may not be significant to our partner because they do not feel our pain how we do. Yet, I am suggesting that to feel like less of a squaw is to learn and understand in order to dissipate the misunderstood social patterns and gender relations that colonization conceived by ignoring the coloniality of gender for so long. Although there are differences, learning does not transform us into the colonized other but it allows ethnic others to transcend their education and history to cultivate a new future. Like Mailhot, who goes on to become an editor and a fellow, she uses her agency to implement that she is more than her shame, more than her trauma and that Indigenous women/peoples are able to take back their agency in ways that will disrupt settler colonialism in a permanent way that allows for a future in education and art that is normalized to accept Indigenous methodologies.


A Look into Justin Ducharme’s Short Film, Positions (2018)

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 Rachel Gopal’s Medium.


The main character of Positions, Aaron Lafrenier, is an Indigenous Queer sex worker that moves to a new city.

Themes in Positions include Indigenous Kinship, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Indigenous Queer Ethics. The title is an interesting play on words as the film pertains to topics around sexual activity but also to Aaron’s way of figuring out their position in their new city.

Indigenous Kinship

Indigenous Kinship is illustrated through Aaron’s conversations with their grandmother and the beginning and ending of the film; Aaron’s growth in certainty about their position in the new city is also exemplified this way.

In the phone call at the beginning of the film, Aaron is shown saying that they will get a job as well as answering the grandmother’s questions of concern and lovingness.

The end of the film comes full circle, also showing Aaron calling their grandmother but this time leaving a voicemail. A positive kinship is illustrated as Aaron mentions calling to hear the grandmother’s voice as well as the mention of receiving an aunt’s message and missing their mom. There is a little more certainty in this call in the way that Aaron is now offering words of comfort and expressing doing well. The first and final lines of the film also correlate, ending the film on a note of closure.

Indigenous Sovereignty

Indigenous Sovereignty is illustrated through Aaron’s choice of being a sex worker.

Often, sex work is looked at through a lens that evokes negative perceptions and connotations. However, Aaron’s pride in sex work is illustrated in the announcing to their grandmother that they got a job — the confidence in this expression also contributes to the sense of certainty they portray in that second phone call.

The governance of one’s own body is something that was taken away from Indigenous Peoples through settler colonialism and imposed ways of thinking, acting, and being. In the utilization of bodily agency, Aaron’s participation in sex work illustrates an empowerment in the use of their body. The prevalent colonialized ideologies of bodies are being challenged in this film.

Indigenous Sovereignty involves the reclamation and the taking back of what was taken. Aaron finding their position and their belonging in this new city allows them to not only figure things out on their own terms but to create spaces of being, doing, and understanding themself in various contexts.

Sovereignty looks different for everyone. In Aaron’s case, they do not choose to engage with ignorance when faced with it on the job. In a conversation with one of the customers, there is a disrespectful way of engagement in Aaron’s Indigenous identity.

In a very small amount of time Aaron gets othered and classified as an Indian even though that is not how they identified themselves. Although visibly turned off from this conversation, Aaron does not use any energy to speak into this man’s incorrect way of speaking but rather instead proceeds to work.

There is an interesting symbolism of colonialism found in this scene as there is mention of the white male customer living in a house with a lot of space in addition to his disrespectful way of speaking but in response, bodily sovereignty is illustrated in Aaron taking charge and abruptly ending the conversation and initiating the sexual activity.

The sexual explicitness of the scenes also plays into a visual sovereignty that challenges heteronormative impositions as well as Westernized censorship and is unapologetically erotic.

Indigenous Queer Ethics

Themes of Indigenous Queer Ethics are also shown in the film as Aaron is illustrated as an individual that is comfortable with their sexuality. Their ways of being pertain to the comfort around their identity as well as how they illustrate pride and maintain a sense of self throughout the film.

In a conversation with a customer’s wife, Aaron makes it clear that he is only engaging for sexual activity with no interest in fixing the marriage of the customer and his wife.

The wife discloses personal information and while Aaron listens compassionately, they do not offer any type of advice. There is an understanding that the field of sex work can have mental and emotional complications but Aaron keeps that separate from their own way of being.

Within this conversation, Aaron also discloses that it becomes easier to be oneself when meeting people for the first time which also corresponds to their finding of their belonging and fully being able to be themself in a new city.

Challenging Familiar Thoughts

In breaking out of colonized ways of thinking, it is interesting to note that while there is engagement in sexuality activity that is illustrated throughout the film, Aaron’s sexual identity nor pronouns are identified. The lack of identification allows audiences to see Aaron as an individual without imposing restricting ideologies of gender and sexual identity that derive from settler-colonialism.


The Journey that is “In My Own Moccasins” Helen Knott’s 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 Rachel Gopal’s Medium.


There is a lot of strength that comes with the ability to be vulnerable.

Almost as if letting readers into a personal diary, Helen Knott’s memoir “In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience” gives readers a look into her individual experiences with addiction, trauma, and her body. Her experiences with her identity as an Indigenous Woman is also prevalent in her writing.

Knott is of Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw, and Euro decent from Prophet River First Nations.

Writing to Create Space

In the Introduction of her memoir, Knott specifies that the purpose her writing is not to educate people on the impact of violence, racism, and colonialism in the lives of Indigenous women.

She does not intend for her memoir to be used as a tool “so that people can learn how to humanize Indigenous women”.

Instead, she mentions writing for the Indigenous women whom have experienced violence, whom have experiences with addiction, and whom have experienced racism.

As described in a lecture by Lindsay Nixon, an assistant professor at Ryerson University, the concept of the Postmodern Other Woman is an ideology that emerges from colonized ideas of women to dominate pre-existing women and their ways of being. The Postmodern Other Woman is a globally colonized woman being marginalized into one single category as a stand in for thousands of women and their unique experiences. Feminist and decolonial scholars push against this ideology by giving a voice to decolonial storytelling.

The act of pushing against the Postmodern Other Woman is applicable to Knott’s message in the introduction of her writing. Knott is writing her story — not to represent the experiences of other Indigenous women but to share her individual experiences.

“I understand that your learning will be a by-product of these words, and that is a good thing. We must understand each other in order to change the world”.

Knott invites readers into her created space with an open heart with the only requirement being that we burn our pity and bury our judgements (Knott, 2019).


Knott’s writing consists of descriptive imagery; she uses the literary devices of metaphors and symbolism to convey her feelings and experiences with addiction and trauma. In some instances, there is also a describing of figures that pertain to Native spirituality and ways of being.

“When you’re Native, there are many stories like this… Stories that tell us there is more to this world that meets the eye” (Knott, 135).

When talking about substance use Knott writes, “I’ve always been aware of a darkness that lurks within addiction”. She shares a story her aunt once told her about a man she once saw in a bar, “Once she saw a dark presence in a bar. She watched it hover over a man and after he drank enough drinks to get drunk it disappeared into him” (Knott, 134). Although uncertain about whether or not this had actually been the case, Knott believed it as her experiences with addiction are described as a force trying to take over her body or take her spirit (Knott, 134), a dark thing indulging her addiction, wanting her (Knott, 135).

Trauma has an influence in Knott’s experiences with addiction but also her experiences with disassociation.

She writes,

“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, 36).


“The body is capable of absorbing a multitude of violent acts and continuing to live, but it is the spirit that breaks under the weight of it” (Knott, 98).

Her description of disappearing and dissociating as a Native woman illustrates the depth of emotion inflicted through experiences that she has had to learn how to heal from. From detaching as a mechanism of coping, Knott’s healing involved an easing into feeling emotions (Knott, 129).

At the end of section one in her memoir, readers are let into milestone in Knott’s healing journey — her attendance in a traditional ceremony. She writes about feeling the sickness in her spirit come out of her pores (Knott, 145), and it being an extremely personal and sacred experience. “The medicine told me to respect it. This is not metaphorical. It told me. I listened” (Knott, 146).

She later writes about “an old Native woman with long hair” watching over her as she slept that night and how she was not afraid. It was a figure speaking to her Native spirituality and healing that she no longer had any doubts about (Knott, 149).

Indigenous Womanhood

Knott’s memoir holds an unfortunate amount of instances with gender-based violence. Her experiences with addiction and trauma relate to her experiences of not feeling like an adequate family member, friend, or mother to her son.

She writes about the bodies of Indigenous woman being used, their bones being picked clean by men that felt an entitlement to them, not acknowledging any meaning of consent (Knott, 57).

She writes about learning early on that being pretty and being Native are a dangerous combination (Knott, 56) and about feeling obligated to use her body, even when she did not want to.

She writes about learning how to have boundaries and not blaming herself in instances of harm (Knott, 194).

Her healing is not linear, no healing is. She writes about new practices she engages in and a new mantra she uses to ground her thoughts.

Indigenous womanhood connects to a sacredness that assists Knott in her healing.

As a figure of sacredness, she writes about Grandmother Moon.

“The constant light within the darkness”, representative of the grandmothers that stay unseen but remain connected with their knowledge and teachings still accessible (Knott, 149).

Knott is eight years sober. She is currently living in Northeastern British Columbia and pursing a Masters Degree in First Nation studies at the University of North British Columbia.

She illustrates that although healing is not easy, with support and connection, it can be done.


Navigating the Effects of Colonialism and Systematic Oppression in 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 Megan Glover’s Medium.

Author of the bestselling 2019 memoir A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer and editor currently based out of Brantford, Ontario. Although she was born in the United States, Elliott and her family moved to the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in Ontario when she was just 13, and it’s where Elliott has called home ever since.

Formed in 1924, the Six Nations is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada by population, garnering almost 28,000 registered band members by the year 2019. The reserve, upon which Elliott’s family came to live, is known for being the only reserve in North America that consists of all six of the Iroquois nations that form the Hodinöhsö:ni’ Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), including the Kanyen’kehaka (Mohawk), Onyota’a:ka (Oneida), Gayogohono (Cayuga), Onöñda’gega’ (Onondaga), Onöndowága’ (Seneca) and Skaru:reh (Tuscarora). The land spans just over 182km², and can be found along the Grand River in southwestern Ontario, approximately 25km southwest of Hamilton, between the cities of Brantford, Caledonia and Hagersville.

Being in such close proximity to the Six Nations reserve is what attracted Elliott to move her family to the Ontario city of Brantford, explaining in interviews that it’s as close as she can get to her home rez while still being able to make a living. To date, Elliott has written for The Globe and MailCBC and Hazlitt, has been nominated and named winner for National Magazine Awards, was chosen by Tanya Talaga as the 2018 recipient of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award and was selected for Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Short Stories and Journey Prize Stories 30. And if this weren’t already enough to prove Elliott’s natural aptitude for writing, her debut book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground quickly became a national bestseller.

In her 2019 work A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Elliott explores themes of settler-colonialism, Indigenous governance and sovereignty, Canadian reconciliation and Indigenous futures. Presented in a series of candid and thought-provoking essays, Elliott’s personal stories of chronic head lice, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, sexual assault and depression work to highlight the historical treatment of Indigenous peoples and collectively portray the lasting impacts of colonialism in North America.

But despite confronting the white, Canadian gaze and demanding non-Indigenous Canadians face the dark history of our country, Elliott has made it clear who she’s writing for. In an interview with NOW Magazine, she states, “for me, it was always the most important that Indigenous women and non-binary people really felt held by the book…I want to write something that I’m proud of, but I also want to write something that people from my community are proud of”. By sharing personal stories of her pain, Elliott explores the “self” as both an individual and on behalf of the collective indigenous community and their struggles with systematic oppression and intergenerational trauma. In an attempt to make sure these community members felt held and seen, Elliott’s text explores themes of depression, motherhood, poverty and nutrition in order to present a realer depiction of contemporary Indigenous life that is rarely reflected in mainstream Canadian culture.

In the first chapter, also titled “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground”, Elliott dives into her own personal experience with depression, and the lack of understanding she’s received from non-Indigenous folk about her painful experience. Seemingly in response to an introduction to Elliott’s mental state, the white male therapist Elliott is in a session with says, “‘I’m really confused. You need to give me something here. What’s making you depressed?” (Elliott 1).

Elliott reflects on how this reaction alone makes her think of residential schools, in the way he chastises her for not using language that makes it easy for him to understand her mental state. The man asks no questions about racism, colonialism, systemic oppression, intergenerational trauma — all of which seem like clear pointers to what could be informing Elliott’s state of depression. Instead, Elliott describes how the man seems annoyed and impatient, waiting for her to sum up her feelings of anguish, pain, sorrow and hopelessness into a neatly-wrapped singular word or phrase.

“Can a metaphor or simile capture depression?…It seems unfair that so much pain can be summed up so succinctly.” (1, 35)

It’s in this moment that readers are introduced to the dismissive, neglectful way the pains of Indigenous peoples are so commonly approached by the non-Indigenous community. Elliott thinks back to a book she took out from the library that lists out the signs of depression, titled Mind Over Mood. She notes, “There is nothing in the book about the importance of culture, nothing about intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia” ( 10).

Receiving no help, guidance or understanding from either the white male therapist or this non-Indigenous literature, Elliott takes us through her own understanding of depression, ruminating on the positive effect connecting with one’s Indigenous culture can have on their mental wellbeing, and of the often ignored connection between depression and colonialism.

Elliott combines her own personal experiences of battling depression with real statistics about the mental health of Indigenous communities in North America. She looks at rates of depression and suicide that are most commonly lower among Indigenous communities that exhibit “cultural continuity”, referring to aspects of Indigenous sovereignty such as self-government, land control, control over education and cultural activities, and command of police, fire and health services. Elliott states, “In other words, the less Canada maintains its historical role as the abusive father, micromanaging and undermining First Nations at every turn, the better of the people are” (8). Elliott makes it clear that Indigenous sovereignty is a necessary aspect of improving contemporary Indigenous existence and mental health in order to secure Indigenous futures.

Also in this chapter, Elliott works through the many different understandings of depression, from the blues to melancholia, suicide attempts to feelings of numbness and more. She recalls a conversation had with her sister, in which Elliott asks about the Mohawk word for depression: Wake’nikonhra’kwenhtará:’on. Translating to the titular phrase “a mind spread out on the ground” or a mind that “is suspended”, Elliott wonders aloud why there is no specific Mohawk language backing up contemporary understandings of depression, seemingly highlighting the link between depression and colonialism.

“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” (10).

Without having the language to explain her depressive state, and dealing with the dismissiveness of the white male therapist when she’s unable to do so emphasizes the way the effects of colonialism inform high depression rates within Indigenous communities. But despite this, her tone is not one of hopelessness.

“Things that were stolen once can be stolen back” ( 12).

In later chapters, Elliott looks more specifically at the effects of colonialism and systematic oppression, including poverty, the threat of foster care and malnutrition within the Indigenous community. Along with other references throughout the book, Elliott’s chapter “Itch” recounts her experiences with head lice, and the shame of such outward evidence of living in poverty. The discomfort of an itchy scalp is an ever present issue for Elliott and her siblings throughout their childhood, as they move from homeless shelters to motels to a cramped trailer with no running water. Elliott speaks to her own feelings of otherness, as she remembers trying to hide her itchy scalp from friends at school, her boyfriend, social workers and even her own grandmother, who once kicked her out of her home on account of having lice.

“As a poor, mixed-race kid, I was treated like a parasite, too. I was unnecessary, unwanted, a social bloodsucker. I needed to be eradicated.” (72)

Each time the school detected head lice, Elliott and her siblings were treated, but were then forced back to their impoverished circumstances where they would inevitably contract the lice again — a never-ending battle that was met with disgust and judgment. The cyclical nature of head lice acts as a metaphor for the way systematic oppression leaves Indigenous communities trapped in their impoverished states, as the government continues to offer only superficial band-aid solutions as support to prove their attempts of reconciliation.

In the same chapter, Elliott introduces us to the threat of foster-care that looms over Indigenous children and mothers. In the midst of a violent family fight, Elliott calls 911, and gets into immediate trouble for doing so. With her grandmother livid, her parents furious and her siblings unimpressed, Elliott is told “family business [stays] private” (77). And it’s here that we learn of her first lesson in not trusting non-Indigenous authorities, and the importance of lying about your true condition in order to avoid the threat of foster-care that hangs heavy over the Indigenous community.

In a later incident, Elliott recalls an evening when her mother comes to pick her up from school in a particularly poor mental state. The event results in Elliott’s teachers reacting with “judgment and disgust” and in Child and Family Services “circling [their] fragmented family” (78). In these moments, Elliott is reminded how important it is that she make these teachers and social workers “think everything was fine” and avoid being taken from her parents due to a sheer lack of understanding or acknowledgment of the limited options our settler society prescribes to its Indigenous members (78).

A later chapter titled “34 Grams Per Dose” similarly works to highlight the links between poverty and Indigeneity, speaking specifically to the issue of malnutrition. She talks of fine delicacies such as foie gras as being a test that “separates the high from the low, the rich from the poor, the worldly from the ignorant. The white from everyone else” (93). Elliott introduces this hierarch of food, detailing how food that is delicious and nutritious is typically reserved for the white, upper class society, while those in the Indigenous community are left longing for the same luxuries. Using the example of the empty calories that make up a Chips Ahoy! cookie, she explains succinctly that “poor people can’t afford good health” and therefore “not only was it harder to eat healthy on the rez; it also cost more to eat unhealthy” (96, 94).

Drawing on this example of 170 calories per 34 grams of a cookie, Elliott explores how the elevated risk of obesity, sugar addiction, and malnutrition among Indigenous people today is directly linked with poverty and systematic oppression, and may be genetically traced to malnutrition in residential schools. The cookie analogy holds strong in this chapter, seemingly speaking to the sweet distractions of empty promises fed to the Indigenous community by the Canadian government.

Elliott also returns to this present lack of understanding or acknowledgment of how colonial society effects the Indigenous community. She points to Canada’s nutrition survey as an example of this ignorance, listing out the recommended serving amounts for the different categories, many of which, she notes, are not a viable option for those living in poverty on the rez.

  1. Fats, Oils and Sweets Milk
  2. Yogurt and Cheese, Meat
  3. Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts
  4. Vegetables
  5. Fruits
  6. Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta

Elliott recalls being forced to keep track of her food intake for health class in high school, and having to deal with the shame of lying to her teachers and classmates, in order to avoid the shame of not being able to afford the required food groups as well as the risk of being taken into the foster care system. Elliott’s feelings of shame and otherness in being unable to meet food requirements deemed necessary by the country highlights a true lack of consideration taken by Canada for its Indigenous population, many of whom, due to the country’s systems of oppression, live in overwhelming poverty.

Overall, Elliott’s text is one that is personal and political, asking essential questions about the contemporary Indigenous experience in settler society by drawing upon intimate details of her own life. Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground presents a realistic depiction of the inherent hardships of contemporary Indigenous life, that is rarely reflected in mainstream Canadian culture. In an interview with CBC in 2019, Elliott explains her hopes that by sharing her own experiences, her words will “encourage Canadians to listen to how the ways we deal with colonialism, poverty and mental health” affect Indigenous families like hers every day. By emphasizing themes of poverty, malnutrition, threat of foster care and loss of language, the 2019 memoir is one that is vulnerable, frantic and necessary to our understanding of Indigenous life in North America.

“We know our cultures have meaning and worth, that that culture lives and breathes inside our languages. Canada knew that too. Which is why they fought so hard to make us forget them.” (Elliott 8)


Writing as a Form of Healing in 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 Megan Glover’s Medium.

Author of the bestselling 2018 memoir Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot is a First Nation Canadian writer and professor from the Seabird Island reservation near Chilliwack, British Columbia. Seabird Island is a First Nations band government of the Stó:lō people, located in the Upper Fraser Valley region, just 3 km east of Agassiz, BC. As a community, the Seabird Island Band values communal pride and respect, and works to promote a community that is self-sufficient, self-governing, unified and educated.

Mailhot’s background, and that of her late mother, is Nlaka’pamux, which is part of the Indigenous First Nations people of the Interior Salish language group in southern BC. Mailhot’s mother, Karen Joyce Bobb (or Wahzinak) was a poet, writer and social justice advocate who worked with prisoners. And it was in prison that Bobb met Mailhot’s father, Ken, a talented artist and abusive alcoholic. Over the course of her lifetime, Mailhot’s father was incarcerated for abducting a young girl, molested Mailhot at a young age, and was eventually beaten to death “over a prostitute or a cigarette” in a motel in Hope, BC (83).

Born into the legacy of residential school violence, Mailhot’s trajectory of pain evolves from intergenerational trauma and the silencing of her experience. Enduring a history of foster care, sexual assault, mental illness, poverty and racism, Mailhot’s story is not one we typically read about in books on the best-seller list. In fact, over the years, Mailhot has spoken out about her struggle with the lack of accurate representation—or representation period—that exists in literature of the experiences of Indigenous women that exist today. With Heart Berries, it’s as though Mailhot consciously works to remedy this colonial erasure, reclaiming the Indigenous feminist narrative by naming the long lasting impacts of intergenerational trauma. In her 2018 work, she takes back her story and explores themes of decolonization, Indigenous womanism, the postmodern Other woman and visual sovereignty.

But despite wanting to provide representation, Mailhot has made it clear that she’s not trying to provide any kind of example. In interviews she’s held since the memoir’s publication, Mailhot reveals her fear that Native girls will see the text as a representative experience of all Native women, and follow in her often tumultuous footsteps. Instead, with Heart Berries, she hopes to present a truer example of what it’s like to exist as an Indigenous woman in a settler society, and to help other members of the Indigenous community forgive themselves for the experiences that they have been made to believe are “too wrong and ugly to speak” (1).

Since its publication, Heart Berries has been met with completely open arms and has received praise from some seriously notable names in the celebrity world; she appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, feminist writer Roxane Gay rated her five stars on GoodReads, and actress Emma Watson even named Mailhot’s text her Spring 2019 book club recommendation.

And after reading the memoir, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about. Reading Heart Berries is a truly emotional experience and feels akin to reading the diary of someone all too familiar with pain, grief and violence. Mailhot introduces us to the joys and hardships of her childhood, adulthood, daughterhood and motherhood, and presents a completely raw portrayal of her struggles with intergenerational trauma, mental health, poverty and sexual abuse.

She approaches her trauma, her relationship with her body and the “self”, and her path to healing by sharing her story in the form of an internal stream of consciousness, giving it that unique journal-like effect. Her sentences are short and abrupt, scrambled yet somehow sensical, raw and reflective, as if she is giving readers access to her inner thoughts in real time.

In a review of Heart Berries written by Esquire that Mailhot includes before her first chapter, it reads “Sometimes a writer’s voice is so distinctive, so angry and messy yet wise, that her story takes on the kind of urgency that makes you turn pages faster and faster” (i). This is especially true of Mailhot’s work, as the vulnerability and resolve of her writing demands readers pay attention and digest the power of her words. Her writing style also seems to illustrate her mental and emotional state at the time, writing from inside a behavioural health service facility after having checked herself in on account of an eating disorder, PTSD and bipolar II.

Paired with a sense of humour and realness, the tangled urgency of Mailhot’s writing promptly introduces us to the impact her experience as an Indigenous woman has had on her sense of self, and to the ability for trauma and healing to coexist.

In the first chapter, Mailhot writes, “My story was maltreated…I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle.” (1), a sentiment that is frequently revisited throughout the text as she ruminates on the presence of white expectations of Indigenous writing. It is here in this first sentence that Mailhot describes the tendency for Indigenous women’s stories to be distorted, left unheard or discounted, and introduces us to the need for the Indigenous feminist narrative — one that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of trauma but names it in order to grow stronger from it.

“Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see” (21)

She starts by recounting the archetypal “Indian Condition”, one in which Indigenous women are “silenced by charity”, taught “to be mindless” and “forgotten so well [that] they forget themselves” (1–2). She unpacks this tendency for Indigenous women to be forgotten and have their stories silenced, and the effects this maltreatment has on the women themselves. She notes her desire to “hear the world, but the glass was too thick”, speaking to the tendency for society to exclude Indigenous women, overlook their experiences and disallow them from being considered anything but the postmodern Other woman (23).

Mailhot reveals how she views her “self” in these moments of pain, as a “crazy Indian woman” who is “ashamed and wild”, “sick or possessed”, “a feral thing with greasy hair and nimble fingers” (14–16, 90). Reading these sentences is heart-breaking. Her self-deprecating language seems to reveal the colonialism she has internalized, and shows how the trauma of settler-colonial violence has caused her to view herself as lesser. We see this again later on in the text when Mailhot reveals she feels like a “squaw”, affected by the white stereotypes of Indigeneity as being othered from modern society (90).

Despite this initial insight we get into how she sees herself, over the course of just 11 short chapters we see Mailhot start to take control over her own narrative, as she cuts to the core of the pains of Indigenous womanhood and the power of testimony. She doesn’t avoid recounting the ugliness of her experience or try to leave out pieces of herself to seem more likeable to readers.

We learn about the day she gave her husband Casey a black eye, the night she put her hand over her son’s mouth as he cried, the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, and the moments she considered suicide and abortion.

Instead of burying her trauma, she names her feelings of subjugation and exploitation to help understand how they may have affected her, and holds herself accountable to her own ugliness in order to grow stronger from it. But what Mailhot makes clear is that she is not ashamed of her trauma.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mailhot explains, “I knew that if I wanted to write a book about my life I couldn’t position myself as a person who had always done the right thing. Part of healing is being accountable for what you have done.”

In chapter 10, Mailhot returns to the analysis of the “Indian Condition”, seemingly coming full circle to the start of the text. But in this version of the “Indian Condition”, she speaks about herself not as someone who questions, “‘How could misfortune follow me so well, and why did I choose it every time?”, but as someone ready to be accountable for the ugly parts of their past and their present existence. Mailhot speaks of her graduation, and of becoming an editor and then a fellow. She reflects on the person she has become and the journey she has taken through writing and naming her pain in order to heal.

“From squaw, to mother with a face, and pores, and a body, and my own good history—I want my large heart, but older and safer, and clean.” (102)

With Heart Berries, Mailhot resists being the “third generation of things we don’t talk about”, writing what it means to be a Native woman in a colonized society and refusing old tropes of the postmodern Other woman (113). By interrogating the unhealthy spaces of her existence—sexual assault, mental illness, intergenerational trauma and violence—Mailhot writes herself a path towards healing, and one that she hopes will teach others to forgive themselves as well. She writes, ever so succinctly, “Pain expanded my heart.” (122). With her carefully chaotic words, she challenges the silencing and maltreatment of Indigenous women’s stories and brings forth an Indigenous feminist narrative that is honest, updated and necessary.

“Today, in front of a slew of white authors, during a fellowship, with a drink in my hand, I said that I was untouchable. There was a gasp, and maybe it was a hundred years of work for my name to arrive here, where I can name my pain so well that people are afraid of the consequences and power.” (123)


Writing Back to the Mind-Beast: Helen Knott’s In My Own Moccasins

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 Eli Burley’s Medium.

Author, educator, and community organizer Helen Knott’s memoir, In My Own Moccasins, is a book that pulls apart stories of conquest but builds up stories of triumph. It reshapes what it means to win the many battles that make life worth living. Over the course of the narrative, Knott contends with a monster that has many voices, faces, and names. It has so many of these, in fact, that at times it whispers sharply to her that it is the world itself.

There are a lot of things that Knott is good at, and that she only gets better at as she moves through her healing journey, but chief among them is cutting through this kind of bullshit. Knott’s storytelling is candid, joyful, troubled, and often intensely funny. Always emerging from her particular way of getting to the heart of things, she knows that while this darkness has many manifestations; colonialism, depression, abuse, and addiction for example, all of them are liars. Knott also knows that all of them have to be slowly, methodically, and painfully evicted from her body and mind if she wants to do more than just survive. For Knott, the physical and metaphysical world are always reaching into one another, drawing people closer towards — or farther away from — their real purpose. She writes that:

Someone, somewhere, once told me that a song will travel the world until someone is ready to receive it. Since then, I have imagined stories and poetry roaming the earth. Right now, invisible words are being carried by gusts of wind trying to find someone to bring them into this world. Metaphors and similes are wandering the streets looking for a home.

I did not catch this story riding in on a breeze or stumble into it in the grocery aisle while looking to complete my shopping list. I have lived this story. I had to pull this story out of body, out of bone, out of a place so deep that it does not have a name

These ideas of attunement to spiritual realities and destiny, of the deep work in creating a space of openness, generosity, and receptivity, are ones that increasingly guide Knott’s learning as she moves towards a life that is beyond being defined by trauma. As she matures as a person, writer, and holder of knowledge, she makes a home in the truths she can find about herself, her family, and her history, as well as her Dane Zaa and Nehiyaw cultures.

When Knott first introduces herself, she is on a quest for “obliteration”. Reaching rock bottom and in the throes of addiction, she tries to escape the shame of letting everyone who has ever loved and believed in her down by running away to Edmonton. She hopes to make herself disappear (a task that she points out is all too easy for indigenous women in Canada):

Becoming an invisible Indigenous woman was a goal of manifest destiny that I was no longer willing to fight against. I had to vanish from the landscape of life and let myself become a missing poster, a candle lit at a Sisters in Spirit vigil, a single exhale of relief from white men on Parliament steps. I had no more fight left in me and I had convinced myself that everyone would be better off without me

As persuasive as these fatalistic voices in her head often feel to the lost and despondent Knott living these lowest moments, the stronger, more self-assured Knott is always gradually teaching her past self and the reader something. With profound kindness, generosity, care, and skill, the author is always revealing the twisted unlogic of self-fulfilling prophecies, the gaslighting of systemic violence.

As much as Knott believes in large and unexplainable forces in the universe, she also grapples intensely with the very mundane and yet still immense ways that both structural influences and personal choices shape her life. It is at this intersection of the personal and political, after all, that she finds the spiritual material that needs to be reshaped in order to make her life full again. At one point in the book, suffering deep withdrawals, Knott finds a definitive turning point in speaking some of the worst sexual violence she has experienced to a friend. At the same time, she receives an outpouring of love and support from close and distant relations after another friend calls on their shared community asking them to reach out:

There is so much loss in our communities, so much loss suffered by our people and children. I couldn’t add to that loss. We have become far too accustomed to loss. I couldn’t leave that gaping hole, especially for my son. My son. My son. I have a son and his name is Mathias. I dropped the phone on the bed. My body wrenched…I wanted to die, but more of me wanted to live

In this moment, there is a serendipity and a magic that Knott often expresses in her writing, but just as often Knott shows the undeniable power of the will at the same time. She shows that when other choices are stolen, once can sometimes still choose between fear and courage, between life, half-life, or death.

With help from a deep network of communal future-building, love, counsel, and ceremony, Knott eventually gains the strength to choose not just survivance, but thrivance. Thinking about her young son, for example, helps her to overcome her internalized apprehensions about seeing a medicine man in a ritual that ultimately proves to be another decisive moment in her healing:

My love for Mathias trumped questions of the faith I had known. It cancelled out what the Church has taught. I could no longer afford to be scared of anything that could help me become whole

Once Knott begins gaining emotionall traction by remembering and speaking her pain, by reconnecting to her kinship and her capacity to dream and imagine, the process of sliding into despair is reversed. Knott begins to embody the ways that the momentum of self-actualization can be just as intoxicating and self-generating as the inertia of hopelessness.

Although Knott has spent so long telling herself that suffering is her purpose, she eventually learns to see the self-deception involved in believing this too:

I found a way to heal from my pain. I believe I was given the task to heal from such pain, and this means I was entrusted with a lot and was given important work for my short time on earth. I believe that this is because a part of my purpose is to share what I have learned and am learning (the learning and healing journey is continuous) in hopes that others may heal. These words are me following and believing in purpose…Healing has no choice but to ripple out when we are real with ourselves and others

As much as fear and hate and loneliness have lives of their own, have preserved themselves at Knott’s expense, she comes to stoke the coals of her dreaming so that instead it becomes an agent in her life, bringing her great satisfaction and stability. She learns that holding on to illness is more selfish than giving it away to those powers that can hold its enormity: to a Creator or a support network, for example. Knott learns that others, that future generations especially, deserve a version of herself that flourishes regardless of what the many forms of weight and vice stuck to her being tell her she deserves. She writes back to the mind-beast, gaining a voice and using it to cure voicelessness in those around her still without the knowledge or experience that’s saved her.


Playing With Fire: 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 Eli Burley’s Medium.

The first two things that Terese Marie Mailhot lets you know in her memoir Heart Berries are that she’s a hustler and that there isn’t much of a difference between hustling and telling the truth. The book begins:

My story was maltreated. The words were too wrong and ugly to speak. I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle. He marked it as solicitation. The man took me shopping with his pity. I was silenced by charity — like so many Indians. I kept my hand out. My story became the hustle…When I gained the faculty to speak my story, I realized I had given men too much.

The thing about women from the river is that our currents are endless. We sometimes outrun ourselves.

This powerful sense of contempt for those too cowardly or careless to handle raw testimony with compassion is a trademark of Mailhot’s voice throughout. The author often delights in the irreverent and mischievous potential of narrative, using a sense of safety found in the obscurity of memory and story as a vital survival mechanism. Relating her life through bright flashes of sensation and emotion, Mailhot evokes a sense of freedom, of respite from colonial aspirations to empiricism and anodyne happiness through this ambivalent way of making meaning. The sense of outrunning the self that she ascribes to her Nlaka’pamux heritage pervades Heart Berries’ account of Mailhot’s life as the reader unpredictably slingshots backwards and forwards in time along with the author.

Mailhot’s playing with temporality mirrors other ways that chaos and comfort constantly overlap in the book too. Shortly after we are introduced to the author, she describes hoodwinking a “white mystic”, one of many “healers” her mother brought to their home to try and “exorcise” her as a child. Mailhot details the “spiritual fraud” of convincing the tarot reader that she is communing with her dead grandmother. She writes:

Storytelling. What potential there was in being awful. My mindlessness became a gift. I didn’t feel compelled to tell any moral tales or ancient ones. I learned how story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless, like all good lies.

For Mailhot, this impulsive sense of fun often mixes with a conditioned sense of caginess as she rejects neat, linear conceptions of healing and virtue. Through her many misadventures Mailhot is always learning something the hard way, as it’s the only way afforded to her. Marrying the wrong person as a teenager, for example, teaches her that “despair isn’t a conduit for love.”

In order to outlast the many traumas burned into her psyche, Mailhot also refutes myths surrounding Indigenous (and especially Indigenous feminine) resilience. She writes:

In my first writing classes, my professor told me that the human condition was misery. I’m a river widened by misery, and the potency of my language is more than human. It’s an Indian condition to be proud of survival but reluctant to call it resilience. Resilience seems ascribed to a human conditioning in white people.

The Indian condition is my grandmother… she transcended resilience and actualized what Indians weren’t taught to know: We are unmovable. Time seems measured by grief and anticipatory grief. I don’t think she even measured time.

It seems that for Mailhot, being seen as resilient bares an eerie resemblance to having one’s suffering and enduring of it turned into a spectacle. It means being taught to valorize adaptation to toxic systemic conditions rather than celebrating the flourishing that happens outside the demarcated ideological space of these oppressive realities. It means discounting the pain of survival by selectively raising up the triumphs involved. To weather the kind of grief Mailhot speaks to, she and her relations have to become something more than human, something bigger than time itself.

This idea of the cosmic size and nature of Indigenous grief, its immeasurable emotional and historical weight, shapes Mailhot’s insistence that it be honoured just as much as Indigenous joy. At one point in the book, she reflects on the profound ways that she integrates horror into her worldview, remembering her mother’s passing:

I am familiar with death, and I remembered it was heavy to hold. My mother’s death was violent, internally. I remember once an elder skinned a rabbit in our yard. He wanted to teach me how to do it. He said so many times that the body is a universe. He slit the rabbit open and pointed with his knife to the thick parts of it. He said the word entropy…when my mother died, a tube had stretched open the dry corners of her mouth. She was not given grace into the next world…Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see.

Life and death are inextricably linked to randomness, and to the slow, inevitable leaking of heat and energy from existence in this description of Mailhot’s mourning. There’s a sense of deep connection that comes from being a living and breathing universe, but also a very human recoiling from the responsibility that it entails. The author is constantly, fiercely aware of what’s being asked of her by those around her and what she owes herself. Because of this, vice and escape become themes that Mailhot regularly immerses her story in.

This intense relationship with sensation seeking that fuses joy and pain manifests in the book through the author’s relationships with her mother, but also with her husband, both of whom Heart Berries is addressed to at times. Mailhot refers to her husband as looking “like a hamburger fried in a donut”, and calls their relationship “all-consuming,” saying, “I tell you that I’d burn my life down for you.” Her narration has a complex and varied relationship to richness and profundity in all senses of both words. She loves, indulges, and hurts deeply and candidly. Near the end of the book Mailhot writes to her husband, saying:

My people cultivated pain… I learned how to abstain from good things. I didn’t expect the best things, and I have turned loss into a fortune — a personal pleasure. It’s not a sustainable joy, I know…Pain expanded my heart. Pain brought me to you, and our children have blood memories of sorrow and your joy, too…Had I not been born and cultivated in this history, I wonder how dim and dumb my life would be. I feel fortunate with this education, and all these horrors, and you…I can name my pain so well that people are afraid of the consequences and power.

No matter what part of the journey Mailhot is on, she recognizes that encountering the extreme outer boundaries of misery and joy and still keeping her sense of self intact has filled a well of experience that she can draw from. Reframing darkness and light allows Mailhot to dispense with self-help style narratives of redemption written for a white sensibility that only underscores the brutality of hope.

More than redemption, the book is about the growth and development that can come along with embracing the constantly renewing cycles of change, trauma, and convalescence. Mailhot writes:

I became an editor. They pay me for my work. I became a fellow. Words I never knew to be — I am…I’ve exceeded every hope I gave to myself…I want to consider what I poured into myself and how my father made a life of not remembering. I know the limit of what I can contain in each day. Each child, woman, and man should know a limit of containment. Nobody should be asked to hold more.

Mailhot isn’t interested in the often sold myth of getting better, she’s interested in the real possibility of knowing better. She writes about a kind of thriving that involves being acutely aware of what’s humanly possible, finding and respecting the thresholds one can set for themselves while escaping the thresholds imposed on the self by colonial power. This, then, becomes the journey that Mailhot is on in Heart Berries: the journey of learning not to be in love with one’s suffering, but learning to love it all the same.


Tender Readings Podcast, Episode 3

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 podcast originally appeared on graduate student Isobel Carnegie’s Soundcloud.