Resist, Breathe, Repeat

It’s 8:30 pm and I’m catching my breath from a short run after work. I am focused on breathing.

I notice something is different. I notice a slight change in the way my lungs receive the air.

My body is reacting to the air and everything around me. I am having an allergic reaction. In the past, these have usually been paired with anxiety attacks that stem from uncertainty.

In the past there have been people around me: at the gym, at home with step-parents, out with a partner, etc.

This time is different. I am at my apartment, alone. I am driven to the hospital by a friend who lives nearby.

The nurse asks me who my emergency contact is.

I don’t answer because I no longer have one. I am hyper aware of the sense of loneliness that I feel in this moment. I had sixteen years in the child welfare system and I didn’t even come out with an emergency contact. The emphasis Indigenous communities place on the importance of kinship reveals itself to me in this moment.

My throat is closing and I am alone.

Learning about my Indigeneity has been work. It would be a privilege to say that once I learned about ongoing colonialism and decolonization movements I was able to fully embrace it and reclaim myself as a Blackfoot and Dene woman. The fact that I am speaking the language of my colonizers makes it difficult by default to unlearn. Navigating a world that is comprised of systems that are built against us makes everyday life exhausting at times.

One of the greatest things stolen from me was the ability to connect my skin tone to my culture. The absence of any reason for the way Indigenous people in my life are treated can be defeating.

My earliest memory is the car ride to my new foster home after being apprehended.

Growing up, the government was my parent—this is the way that colonialism prefers it. With the ongoing toll that colonial systems take, no one Indigenous person is able to escape knowing this tight grip.

“Kill the Indian in the child.” The phrase echoes throughout history, and it yet it remains a core aspect of what we as young Indigenous people are expected to do to survive.

Forms of violence re-shape themselves into something that might seem unrecognizable at first, but many of us quickly recognize our old familiar antagonist: colonialism. Here once again, presenting itself with the same intention, but a different name. Residential school. Foster care. Gentrification.

I confuse other Indigenous people with my demeanor. I grew up in a white family, in an all-white community, with only fractured glimpses of what Indigeneity meant. My textbook tells me a little bit, one or two pages maybe. There isn’t enough to be able to understand, let alone glean any truth or context behind my brown skin. What I see and hear are muddied words and revised histories.

My throat is closing and I am alone.

My first attempt at reclamation begins. I peel back layers of deceitful lessons I’ve learned. I sort through what has been said about my history and try and make sense of what has been swept away. I listen. I hope not to lose one more word of my truth.

I learn how death is interwoven with my Indigenous identity.

I learn that my family’s story is one of survivance. Resistance. Resiliency.

This is a reflection of a greater survivance. One of Indigenous people.

I hope to unlearn what the child welfare system has taught me.

I decolonize my relationships by rejecting the notion that “family” means people under the same roof or children forced into something more presentable.

I start to recognize other Indigenous people as my brothers and sisters.

When I graduate on to being independent, I shed the label of “foster kid.” I rid myself of a fragile and toxic environment.

Still, I feel the void of missing kin.

My throat is closing and I am alone.

Still, I know in some small way that colonialism has beat me. I want to call my mother, or a sister or someone who knows me, who knows my history, who feels what I feel and who has a familial connection to me. Tell them what I’ve been up to, and how I’ve survived.

I imagine what they must have gone through. The unspoken experiences that align with mine. The mirror that is between us. How their history was hidden so that it could be repeated.

After taking the antihistamine, my throat stops swelling and the doctor asks, “How much have you had to drink tonight?”

There it is. A reminder that my skin is brown and this trained medical professional attaches alcoholism to it. A reminder of the cycles of substance abuse that Indigenous people have suffered. A reminder of self-medicating. A reminder of how this doctor relates to me, or rather, how he contradicts me.

I am told that kin is one of the most important parts of Indigeneity. That your family and connection to culture can determine if you are regarded and recognized as an Indigenous person.

In my journey to reclaim the kinship that has been stolen from us, my aunt tells me that our family suffers disconnect since her sister’s death. An integral part of our family was taken with no justice and she won’t be the last. Stories are lost before they have a chance to be told.

It’s an unsettling feeling to hear about the death of our family on  television. To hear that Indigenous women are in danger. To see any form of acknowledgement of our lives be denied for decades. To only be heard as a soft whisper when our energy and light are drained from screaming that our lives are just as important.

In the time when I poured all my energy into attempting to justify that Indigenous women have a right to exist, I felt that colonialism was always one step ahead. Making it difficult to know what it means to be Indigenous, who gets to define Indigenous, who doesn’t. There are stories and experiences that are never spoken out loud before the the silencing hands of colonialism take them once again.

How have colonial systems absorbed me; how have I been able to beat them? How can I navigate these systems while resisting them? I confuse myself with questions that I frantically struggle to answer.

Internalized racism is no accident: it is the intentional result of colonization.

Colonial systems are what I have come to know. They are skins that I try to shed every single day. Colonialism is a cancerous mass that keeps growing and catching up with me. It’s a part of me that feeds off my existence while also trying to kill me.

Kinship may not necessarily present in the way I desire. As I learned from the child welfare system, family can be violent, cruel, and dysfunctional at times. Familial relationships can also be sought elsewhere. Kin is the only connection back to who I am as an Indigenous person.

As my lungs return to normal, and I am able to breathe again, I recognize a friend who has waited patiently for my health. Amid a frenzy of panicked families, rushing nurses, and hospital sounds, I have a found a moment of relief. I have realized a bond. This moment reflects the suffocating grip of colonialism. It could have had me. All I could do at times was breathe. Take another breath. Resist. Breathe. Repeat.