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 Mail, CBC 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.
- Fats, Oils and Sweets Milk
- Yogurt and Cheese, Meat
- Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts
- 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)