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.