NDN Weather Report

It’s the third rainy day in a row in Toronto in mid-winter. This morning a loved one said, “This is nice. It’s like warm-winter-day-warm. Not global-warming-panic-warm.”

It is the first anniversary of some of the more brutal events of a domestic abuse situation that I got out of in the nick of time. Last year on this day it was raining as well, but it was definitely “global-warming-panic-warm.”

On the first weekend after I reclaimed my apartment from my abuser, I went for a walk in High Park for many hours. I had yet to properly cry about my situation, but when I saw trees being tricked into budding by that warm spell, far before the winter frosts had passed, I broke down. I put tobacco down at the base of each tree that had green poking through its bark. I cried for all of us who came out to bloom for the wrong season.

I’ve had a year to sort through the events that led up to that domestic abuse. I started, like so many others, by blaming myself. It took far too long for me to lay responsibility where it belonged: in the hands of my abuser. Over the course of this year I’ve reassessed almost every aspect of my life, tried to build and create and curate a space in which recovery feels possible. One of the struggles of this task has been the impossibility (and undesirability) of detaching myself from the vulnerability inherent in living in an Indigenous body in a thoroughly colonized world.

Just because it has been coated in concrete does not mean that it is forsaken; just because the growing seasons are changing doesn’t mean our medicines won’t persevere.

I’ve been thinking about colonization as the ultimate example of gaslighting. It’s been a helpful way to frame the view from my eyes this past year. Gaslighting is a form of manipulative behavior that seeks to make an individual or a group of people with a shared experience question their own memories, their own experiences and perceptions. Tactics such as lying, misrepresentation, and denial can lead to the questioning of one’s memories and ultimately, sanity.

You know that feeling? The one where your body, your heart, your gut, and your spirit are all telling you that something is terribly wrong, even though someone is staring you in the face saying, “you’re fine, see, you’re fine”? If you’re lucky, your body keeps it up, reminding you that there’s a hole in your heart. Maybe it’s the size of the home territory you’ve never been to, or the size of the family that you’ve never met, or the size of your unmet hopes and expectations.

But still there’s someone saying:

“You’re fine. It’s not as bad as it used to be.”

I may openly joke that it’s the best time to be an Indian since contact, but it doesn’t feel better yet.

I’m a round soul trying to squeeze myself through tight square doorways, trying to sneak around glass corners, looking for trap doors in glass ceilings that are built for bodies that don’t look or sound or feel anything like mine.

In the fall of 2017 I saw a play at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto. In it, two individuals, one Indigenous, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, and one settler, Evalyn Parry, chronicle the time they spent on an icebreaker ship, completing an expedition that travelled from Nunavut to Greenland. In the play, Evalyn sings a folk song describing her experience of seasickness:

“When your eyes can’t see what your body is feeling, you’re in the belly of the vessel, you can’t see the land…You’re sick. You’re sea sick.”

Living in Toronto feels an awful lot like seasickness. “You’re in the belly of the vessel. You can’t see the land.” You have to work hard in this city if you want to see the land.

I’m lucky to know bold folks who work to make the land visible and accessible. Who help the land remember itself and help our own people to remember the land.

Just because it has been coated in concrete does not mean that it is forsaken; just because the growing seasons are changing doesn’t mean our medicines won’t persevere.

I know tireless folks with green thumbs and blood memory and seeds in their pockets and soil ground into the backseats of their cars. They grow medicines on apartment balconies and on city-owned parkland and distribute sage and tobacco and kale equitably; they make sure folks know where to go for salves and tinctures and teach the kids that they childmind how to find plantain. I aspire to be like them but I’m not (there yet).

I’ve watched too many seasons pass through the windows of underpaid non-profit jobs.

There was a winter and spring where, while doing non-profit equity work, I flew to and from Thunder Bay five times. During this time I found that my master’s degree and inherited class privilege were not enough to protect me from rampant institutional racism. On not one of those five trips to the North was I given permission to spend extra time there to be with my relations. Offers to personally pay for flight alterations, to be back at work on Monday, were dismissed with reminders of deadlines. On one extreme occasion, a family member died during a conference we were hosting. I was still expected to work the remaining two days of the conference, and was denied bereavement leave once it was over.

Throughout these trips to the almost-North, I would squeeze in hotel dinners with Elders and Aunties who all looked at me with the same furrowed and worried brows. I would fight back tears through their repeated offers to come stay, to hunt, to check the trapline, experiences that are far too rare for myself and many of the Urban Indigenous. I’d struggle to stay present while they worried aloud about the winter not being cold enough, the ice not being thick enough, and the martens and foxes being too few this year.

During one of the last of these trips, a colleague, now one of my dearest friends, surprised me with a drive to a forest trail, a fifteen-minute drive north from the airport. We walked out as far as we could off the trail with the time that we had before we needed to return our rental car. I secretly wished that we would get lost. After twenty-five minutes of walking we stopped to sit on a giant fallen cedar tree, and the only sounds I could hear were ice cracking off of trees and our heaving, burnt-out sobs.

The challenge lies in finding my way back to my body, that place of knowledge, of strength, of deep comfort. That place of pleasure and strain. I believe that it’s possible.

The Two Row Wampum treaty tells us about the dangers of spending too long in the belly of the vessel. Formed in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Dutch settlers, the agreement was intended to inform how we would treat one another and how we would treat the land that we shared. In the case of the Two Row, it was the lands of upstate New York. A beaded wampum belt with a design representative of the agreement was created: two purple lines of beads separated by a white line of beads. Each purple line represents a boat: one European ship, and one Onkwehonwe canoe.

The idea was that we shouldn’t interfere with one another’s vessels.

In the atmospheric and political climate of 2018 there is a monumental task that is left to Indigenous peoples. If we are to ensure our survival, we must dream and imagine and fight for spaces in the worlds within and outside of our bodies that are protected from the European vessel and everything that came here on it.

The technical challenge of that task comes from the ubiquitous and relentless and poisonous cargo that was unloaded and forced upon us. That has shaped our land and our bodies irrevocably. That means trees are budding in February. Racism and shadeism and homophobia and DDT and capitalism and mercury and Monsanto brand genetically-modified corn and the belief that there is one truth or one right way and the idea that anything that can’t be understood by a white man is wrong.

In one of her new books, As We Have Always Done, Leanne Simpson talks about The Seven Fires Creation story. It confirmed for her (as many of our creation stories do), that “everything we need to know about everything in the world is contained within Indigenous bodies and that these same bodies exist as networked vessels or constellations across time and space intimately connected to a universe of nations and beings.” Indigenous people often talk about the seven generations rule. It is our responsibility at any given time to be responsible to the seven generations that came before us, as well as the seven generations that will come after us. Every once in a while, you’ll get a feeling of knowing you’re exactly where your ancestors want you to be, a feeling that you’ve made some right choices and had the right knowledge and you’ve ended up in the right place.

It’s the feeling that comes when you do things like sing in your lost mother tongue or teach a baby Onkwehonwe about consent and self-determination. In those moments you’re reaching out across time to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so they will know these things in their bones; it will be stitched into their musculature as it’s sewn together in the womb. When they come out pink and squished and new their spirits will be screaming “MY BODY MY CHOICE” before their mother ever tells them. Maybe even in that ska:rura language I’ve never had access to learning.

This January is better than the last. That dear friend who took me to the woods is financially planning to buy land up north in four years. We’re going to do our best to create a space for ourselves and other Urban Indigenous people away from the damn steam ship. I have a new job where (at least for now) I leave at five pm and I’m allowed to work from home one day a week. Bereavement leave and personal days and benefits are written into my contract. I have a new doctor who believes me and doesn’t threaten to deny me prescriptions if I don’t agree to report things to the police. I take my benzodiazepines only as prescribed and only when the panic attacks are really bad. I just moved to a house with a backyard and some of those folks with green thumbs and blood memory have promised to help me plant in the spring. I’m told there are already some perennial medicines hiding in the soil: yarrow, lavender and goldenrod. I’m going to plant cedar bushes for protection in the front and back of the house. My abusive ex-partner does not know my new address. I’ve started going for walks again.

Climate change still looms over our skies and within our soil. I can’t predict how long or hot of a summer that new backyard tobacco will have this year. But I’m going to plant the seeds anyway. I believe Leanne and the creation stories, the part that the world is contained within my body. The challenge lies in finding my way back to my body, that place of knowledge, of strength, of deep comfort. That place of pleasure and strain. I believe that it’s possible.

A Note of Acknowledgement and Gratitude:

As Indigenous people, our ideas come from community; they come from the seven generations that came before us and they are for the seven generations that will come after us. As such, I want to acknowledge and extend gratitude to all my relations whose wisdom and knowledge is reflected here.