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 Selena Jodha’s Medium.
Terese Marie Mailhot crafts a narrative that approaches trauma and healing through a reimagined memoir — which I expanded on here — and enacts many literary techniques to decolonize the genre in a way that invites Indigenous readers and writers to see themselves within the formula. As a brief introduction to the author, since I expanded more in my last post, Mailhot is a First Nations Canadian woman from the Seabird Island Band. The First Nations are the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and apply to status and non-status Indigenous Peoples while also referring to bands or nations; yet it does not include Inuit or Métis. In Heart Berries, she touches on important themes that unfortunately, I will not be able to fully analyze in this post; however, I intend to do a deeper analysis on the theme of motherhood, specifically her relationship with her mother and her relationship with her own children. I intend to utilize her essays: “Indian Condition (1)” “Indian Sick” and “Better Parts.”
Reconnecting with Motherhood
Throughout her memoir, although Mailhot wrote every letter to her husband Casey, she also connects a lot of her trauma and healing back to her relationship with her mother, noting how her therapist told her that “she’s a link to [her] betterment” when she was first admitted (29). By referencing her mother time and again, she is alluding to reclaiming her agency by acknowledging the times that it went wrong with her and the ways that it all worked out in the end for them. This is an important factor to recognize for Indigenous women, as Dian Million mentions in “An Introduction to Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights” because “witnessing one’s truth to power is a convoluted undertaking” (3). Western ideologies rooted in colonialism are quick to prescribe people with wellness tactics to get over their problems, mentally and physically. As Mailhot notes her skepticism about self esteem and forgiveness in white culture while in the hospital, it is true that these tactics cannot be contended with in the same way when it comes to Indigenous and “third world” racialized others (others in the sense of multicultural/ethnic bodies). This is in part to the nature of Western ideologies not being able to root itself in places where it is not understood/upheld. Indigenous peoples, such as the First Nations, have been subjected to classical colonialism since “[Canada] began at first contact and continues [to this] present and it was not a monolithic process, but occurred in different ways throughout different regions (Stevenson 50). In this nature, it can be understood why Indigenous people can be so skeptical of their practices when most of their culture had been disrupted by the colonization of their land and economies. Mailhot is one of many who finds themselves at a crossroad when it comes to the treatment of colonist practices in their daily life, such as remedies in hospitals, but she understands through her healing process that she does not need to follow it in order to discover her truth. By challenging the process of healing from pain, instead of by forgiveness but through ceremony, she is inserting her agency in an intersectional way that allows her to grasp colonial ideologies while applying her Indigenous heritage as primary rather than secondary. As Marie Lugones explains, there is no harm in learning from the colonial difference, but it is not limiting the decolonized practices that matter and allowing it to still shine through despite the numbers in colonial ideology.
Connecting back to self esteem and her mother, Mailhot tells us how her mother was never big on self esteem for herself, let alone to foster that in her daughter (29). This is because Indigenous people understand that it takes a lot out of them to heal themselves when they simultaneously must heal their positions in the world and their human rights that were disrupted by colonialism. Later in the chapter, as Mailhot opens about moments in her childhood, she confines in us how her mother was always aware of her struggle and as a “single mother with four children [she] is destined to die from exhaustion, unless there is a miracle of fortune or justice” (34). This statement is reflective of my position last week in Mailhot carrying out de-colonial tasks, as defined by Lugones. Mailhot is able to understand and identify the hardships that the colonality of gender has brought onto her mother and is able to root it into core issues within her childhood. In understanding that, she is reclaiming the knowledge that her mother was grasping: that Indigenous women, because of their gender and isolation through colonization, might have never stood a chance because they would always be bottom tier. Just as Mailhot explains her mothers death,
“…there were too many culprits: the government, to the reservation, to her own family, to whoever hurt her the first time… then all our fathers, and the men who said they were down for the cause and abandoned it, like they did their children… even the sweet lovers who gave her hope are the culprits of her pain” (Mailhot 32)
it can be reflective of many Indigenous women’s feelings of their injustices that surround them. The “her” in the previous quote is one that Mailhot writes that embodies the voice of many, one that carries Indigenous kinship to those women so that they are no longe alone. By seeing the colonial difference now and learning from it, it increases the chances for Indigenous women in the socio-political climate of Western society today. And although this unfortunate reality was brought onto her mother, among generations of trauma throughout her family, she is able to reclaim her agency in herself through healing her position in her body and her relationship with her mother. It was never easy to claim a good relationship with her until those last moments in her mothers life, but that is because of trauma that plagued her mother and never made it easier as she grew up. This is in part to the intergenerational that has been wrought onto Indigenous women for generations because of the treatment of men and colonialism, allowing women to be sidestepped and placed on the sidelines. Yet by reclaiming their agency, Mailhot is one of many who understand that they do not belong there and that their voice is one of power that cannot be quieted down, despite the influence of the patriarchy and colonality. As she mentions “the pain was a process to understanding” in relation to how the state and men were born to hurt her mother, and in the same breath the same foreshadows that it would be done to her as it has been done to generations before her. But in understanding her pain, it becomes her saviour rather than her doom, and by reclaiming herself through written texts and a new generation of activists, scholars and artists, Mailhot subconsciously embeds into her Indigenous feminist coding that they belong to something better because Indigenous peoples will reclaim their truths.
Reclaiming her relationship with her mother has been a learning process, not just with her mental and physical healing but with the moments as a mother herself. Her mother “made a name as an angry Indian woman” with her cynicism towards life and often screamed and cried feelings at her children that were, she notes now, unjust for them to receive (30–31). As explained above, Indigenous women and peoples have been denied their basic agency for so long that there is no question as to why they are angry and cynic, but the reason for my pulling of this moment is the way it affects Mailhot’s treatment of her sons. Mailhot learned that she did not want to be this type of mother, claiming that “she does not have a sense of pride with her son” and treats him like “a small king” (31). Where she was met with anger and frustration in her mother, she wants her child to grow, fostering a sense of love and community within their family so he will never be scared and forced to run away, like in Mailhot’s experience. The unfortunate reality is that not many Indigenous people get to claim this chance, because of the colonialism embedded into society and the state that has ruined generations of families and communities. Many children may have grown up to be exactly like Mailhot’s mother because of intergenerational trauma that has decimated Indigenous communities for generations. But Indigenous peoples and women are taking back their agency and for mothers like Mailhot to do this for their children is one of the ways that they can carry out decolonial tasks. When she was a child, she waited for someone to come home and remember her existence to care for her. As an adult with children of her own, she is constantly reminding them of her love for them so that they never go a moment questioning if they are a burden. This is no judgement on women in Mailhot’s mother position, in fact it is a terrible injustice that has been implemented into too many Indigenous communities that they must resort to negative behaviours in order to survive their traumas and undergo healing in their minds and bodies. This is why Mailhot took the positives that she learned from her mother and in doing so, mixed that with the unfortunate experiences so that she is able to continue to grow and defy the colonial injustices that have traumatized their lives for so long. By choosing love rather than hate and learning from the colonial difference, as Lugones has defined, Mailhot is able to transcend the norms of Indigenous women stereotypes and treat her children as teachers; that can provide support and emotional up keeping that she so lacked and that will grow up to understand the burdens she went through without the full impact of the trauma that impacts the healing process.
Forgiveness and Reimagined Approach to Reconciliation
In the essay, “Better Parts” Mailhot uses many literary techniques which reclaim her agency with her mother. The repetition of her name, Wahzinak, in part with her having the courage to ask her questions, asserts both her position in familiarity with herself and in their comfortability. The placement of this essay in the end of the book Heart Berries is a great way to tie in the full circle of her healing, from her maltreatment and forgotten self to her powerful voice that has no qualms in discovering the full force of her power. Going back to what she said about forgiveness “in white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony” (28). Although is is far from an Indigenous ceremony, Mailhot used the memoir as an act of recovery rather than using it to write the traditional memoir form (as I took the time to consider in my last post) and I am suggesting that this last essay is a written record of a form for reconciliation with her mother with ceremonial influences. She writes about her mother in an almost dreamy way, taking the time to ask her questions and compare it to truths she discovered through her healing process. In the end, as she leaves her mothers body in the earth to rest, her “words lay still like shadows… but they are better than nothing” (128). The written text is a colonialist concept that Indigenous people have adopted and mixed into their oral traditions, and who’s to say that in her reimagined memoir she has structurally allowed that to mix into ceremony tactics.
Although her truth is being left in documentation in the form of words, it is being done in the spirit of using what she has learned to cherish and embrace her culture and what has been done for her because of her mother. Ceremonies often involve the process of gathering and gift giving, but Mailhot mixes these by invoking the new use of memoir as a way to include Indigenous people, therefore inviting them to her narrative instead of writing how they should be perceived in ways that are rooted in stereotypes. She is giving them the gift of Indigenous kinship and sharing the way that Indigenous women, like her, her mother, grandmother and generations further, no longer need to hide and allow others to share their truths. This point can be reflective of Gerogina Riel’s understanding of ceremonial spaces as “the need for ceremony has taught me that feeding the spirit in a good way will provide the strength to reclaim space in a respectful way.” This can be further understood in Mailhot in how she writes “…stor[ies] were always meant to be for Indian women” because they are immediate and fearless in their storytelling, just as Mailhot has been in defining the memoir form and reclaiming her agency through the means of structure and literary artifacts (3). In doing so, she is signifying her transitions in healing and her process with her mothers spirit, which she will carry for the rest of her days. And by reclaiming a space in the literary world for Indigenous stories to continue, she is asserting her need for ceremony to cherish the forgiveness she has found for herself and her mother, as well as generations of Indigenous women.