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.
“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).
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.