Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-connecting
Updated: Jan 6, 2020
This piece was written for Life As Ceremony Volume 6: Reclaiming Culture, Remembering Ourselves (which can be purchased at (https://www.lifeasceremony.org/)
Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-connecting
As a child I was lucky enough to be raised in the North, among the birch trees that sheltered our family cabin along the river, within the bushes of cranberries and rasberries that populated my mother’s First Nation, and beside fires that roasted the wild game and fish my father would harvest. As a Dene and Metis girl I was a child of the land. Even though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was taught the beauty of connection, and the reciprocal power of my relationship with the physical world. Through picking wild mint and watching my dad clean trout, I learned to only take from the land what I needed and to return to it what I didn’t. I learned that in giving love, offerings, and thanks to the land, I would receive love and offerings in return. The land and I held each other as I rolled up in blankets on cold winter nights in order to draw shapes in the stars, and sat quietly in the willows in order to listen to the sounds of beavers working or gees flying above. I had so much respect for the stories the land told and love it gave.
The land is inherent to Dene culture. In fact, there is no culture without the land. When I think of my ancestors, I think of grandma’s sitting by lake’s edge weaving sinew through birch bark baskets with their tanned hands as children splash, laughing out loud in the water and aunties and uncles hang dryfish above the fire, enjoying each other’s company. One uncle would make fun of the other uncle about how poorly he filleted the whitefish, auntie would be telling her niece about the good-looking trapper a camp over, and grandbaby would be sitting in grandma’s lap as grandma, arms hugged around to show her how to thread the sinew. Everyone was connected - physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually connected to each other - grounded and rooted in the love and respect of the land.
land loves unconditionally, wholly, offering truth and awareness of one’s own self and breeding reciprocal connection
I was lucky enough to be raised in the North and build connection to my ancestral land. However, there was a large thread of disconnection that, as I grew older, began to weave itself stronger and stronger into my life. Unlike my ancestors, who were wholly and unconditionally rooted in and connected to cultural being through language, traditional practices, ceremonies, and kinship structures, my family was not. My grandmother was raised in a Residential School, my mother attended Residential School, and therefore I am an intergenerational Residential School survivor. As a result of this, I did not learn my language and my spiritual understanding was often confused with Roman Catholicism. In fact, time on the land growing up was solace – a safe haven away from the day-to-day reality of homelife in town which was often instable, chaotic, and at times pretty scary. The reciprocal and unconditional love, respect and connection I learned from the land was not always reflected in my family life. Instead, I was receiving, learning, and internalizing shame, trauma, and emotional abuse. And because connection is reciprocal, these were things that began to be reciprocated.
Life away from the land was full of teachings that collided with the ones the land offered, and in moving to the city from my hometown, I no longer had the safe haven reminder of unconditional love, respect and connection. I become almost utterly disconnected from the land and instead caught up in the whirlwind of colonial reality. Through bullying, abusive relationships, family trauma, and alcohol, I became lost and jaded. I succumbed to colonial expectations of self-worth, appeasement, and success, and before I knew it, I wanted nothing more than to run away from the North, the place that had once offered me so much. So that is exactly what I did.
In losing connection to the stories, teachings and beauty of the land, I lost connection to myself and my body. I carried trauma in my blood, shame in my heart, and the abuse I had experienced on my back. I suffered severe self-esteem and self-worth issues, I reciprocated the unhealthy behaviours I had learned in various relationships, and I desperately searched and searched for validation in others, in what became a vicious cycle of giving myself to others in hopes I would find something in return.
this body is a shell empty, lost, broken i can give you what you want if that’s what it takes to feel whole
The first time I attended a women’s drum circle, the moment my stick hit the drum in unison with the others, I started to cry. In that one beat, I felt like I had come home – I was wandering aimlessly through dark night only to stumble across a warm cabin on the river. I felt the skin of the animal stretched over wooden rim and thought about how it had gifted itself so that others could beat it, singing proud. I was told that the beat of the drum was the heartbeat of Mother Earth, beating in unison with my own heartbeat, as if we were one. I felt the connection to my homelands, even though I was thousands of kilometres away in a big city.
The first time I did a burlesque class, the moment the music started and we were motioned to touch our neck, hips, thighs, I felt uncomfortable and I felt joy – I felt an uncomfortable joy. Everything in my head was telling me that it was wrong and that I should not be doing this, let alone enjoying this. Unlike the first time I had hit the drum and felt at home, the welcome of home when I touched my own body was less obvious, less welcoming, but nonetheless present.
The trauma, shame, abuse, and ultimately disconnection, I felt throughout my adolescence had implanted itself into my bones and skin. As a young Indigenous woman, I was entrenched in a world that normalized my disconnection to my self. The same world that displaced me from the land I had grown up on, had enforced a belief that I was not worthy and that I was powerless. My growth into womanhood was intertwined with the toxic narratives that surrounded me. Indigenous women were dispensable and weak. They were stereotyped and wrongly sexualized - costumes to be worn on Halloween; they were addicts and unfit mothers who couldn’t raise their own children; they were objects to be abused, raped and assaulted – constant nameless headlines; they were missing and murdered – never worthy of being found nor their murderers brought to justice; they were always less than – ploys of the colonizer used to enforce paternalistic gendered roles; they were never beautiful or good enough to be on TV, in magazines; they were victims. So, to explore my sexuality and sensuality on my own terms, to feel joy in my own skin, to feel beautiful and in control, felt strange. Much like women drummers are seen as unwelcome in many communities, not tradition (as a result of religious and state-led colonization), the autonomy of our own bodies and being is unwelcome.
Over time, the experience of feeling and beating the skin of that drum became the same as enjoying the touch of my own. It re-connected me to my own homelands that are also being exploited, disrespected, used, and abused. Colonization and Residential Schools stole the respect of Indigenous land and women while demonizing self and community love, pleasure, and joy. As an Indigenous woman, I am the land. In pursuing burlesque as a performer, I am re-membering my connection to my self, and thus the land. I am conjuring up the teachings of respect and reciprocity I once learned. I am re-learning unconditional love for the wounds and imperfections that stretch their way across my body, my home beyond my homelands. For me, re-claiming, re-membering, and re-connecting to my body is just as cultural as re-claiming, re-membering, and re-connecting with the land. It is ceremonial.
Before traders and missionaries came to my homelands of denendeh, the Dene had strong medicine power. Their medicine gifts came from the land – the animals, plantlife, natural elements – and with them they survived, healed, and received songs and teachings. Strong medicine people would also use their medicine to ward off and rid of bad medicine that threatened to harm, weaken, or kill them and their kin. I have come to believe burlesque to be a medicine power, a reclamation and rememberance of the power that once was. As Midnight Wolverine, a strong Indigenous two-sprit being, my medicine is to ward off and rid of the bad medicine, the colonial patriarchy that continues to silence, abuse, and murder Indigenous land, women, and two-spirit beings. By actively taking the control of my own body back, I am re-creating the narrative that Indigenous women are powerful. By practicing the same unconditional love, respect and reciprocity as I do with the land, with my self, I am re-storing these traditional and cultural values. In celebrating myself in front of others, I am resisting and challenging the theft of pleasure and joy. I am bringing community together, re-instilling the collective belief that Indigenous women are beautiful and worthy beings to be loved, respected, and celebrated.
my hand caresses skin, worked and stretched making sounds connection with her, Earth
she is beauty, power, love resistance to all that doubt her, attempt to destroy her
i will never be made to feel shame for her, again
she offers me so much.
Illustration: Midnight Wolverine by Aura @monique.aura