Last week, I sat with an elder and heard her life story. I don’t want to say that I have been desensitized to my people’s pain but rather, I have come to expect certain themes to emerge from Indigenous people’s stories. Even more so when it is an Indigenous person who has been to a residential school. I have witnessed people’s truth and have heard some very horrific stories which always results in a bodily reaction. So this time, I sat with this elder in this new and personal environment, thinking that I had already mentally prepared for the possibilities and facets of life that could be exposed.
I was wrong.
I am continually wrong when it comes to controlling my emotions (humanity) when exposed to the depth of someones pain and trauma.
I don’t think I am the only one who experiences a physiological reaction when faced with the hard truths that Indigenous bodies hold. I remember sitting across from a classmate while we sat in circle. We had just visited the residential school her father had attended years before he passed away from cirrhosis of the liver. The tall austere red brick building with more secrets than it had corridors had left her shook. I don’t think many people truly understand the term “intergenerational trauma”. I don’t think many people from the outside looking in can really see it manifested in second and third generation residential school survivors (children and grandchildren of attendees). I sat across from my classmate, who is also my close friend, and watched her cry and move through deep-seated emotions as she processed her father’s pain and life. In moments like these, as a witness, you first feel helpless and feel as if you want to rearrange whatever invisibile plates of pain and shame that have come into play. You can physically feel the fiery emotions rise up from your belly and into your chest. The second stage is rage. You become upset and consumed by how unfair everything seems to be and you can’t make sense of the experiences that have manifested themselves into you and other Indigenous people’s lives. You are angry because the people you know and love are still suffering. You are angry because you are aware that there are so many other people still wrestling with their gigantic size pain.
So many people stay in this stage of rage. I have met a young woman close to my age who literally preached hate crimes against White people. She cited the sexual abuse that she experienced, that her family experienced, and her people are still experiencing as a result of the monstrosity of residential schools. When she was with her friends she would hype them up saying that they needed to do to “them” (white people), what they did to us. Some of the stories she told me were of randomly targeting white people for physically violence. The presence of white within a room unnerved her and angered her. I yielded no judgment towards her. How could I? I only received glimpses into her hard young life that was characterized with various forms of abuses, lateral violence, and silence… I could understand how this hate for white people was molded. The anger needed to go somewhere. I did not condone the hate, but I could see where she was within her healing journey. I felt sadness for her and her rage that had consumed her. I know that rage.
The next stage is healing, followed by reinvisioning. It sounds a lot like the stages of decolonization and the journey is pretty similar in a lot of respects. Instead of letting the rage to consume me, I choose to believe that I can change things for myself, for my son, for my family, and my people. I have experienced a lot of sexual abuse and sexual violence, some events that would be seen to give me the right to hate men for all eternity. But I don’t choose that. I choose to use my words and experiences to attempt to create a new future. Where Indigenous women are loved, respected, and can clearly see their own worth. Where Indigenous women are safe, are seen as equal. When I look at my little cousins, I know that I want them to grow up in a safe and nurturing environment, where they will not be at risk of violence due to their bloodline. More than that, I BELIEVE I can aid in this shift. I believe in my power as an Indigenous person.
The elder sat with me and broke herself open gently as I tried not to break down during her story. I tried to exhibit the same strength that she did while telling this story, the story of healing. At the end of her story, my body was left heavy and weak but I was astounded by her ability to still be so gentle and kind after the atrocities that marred her past. I have known her for quite sometime, and her very being is a testament to the power of healing and cultural/spiritual strength.
Choosing to “forgive but not forget” is not about giving up power or saying that what has happened is okay…. It is about reclaiming our own power and becoming the creators of the environment the next seven generations will inherit.