We were sitting across from each other, our first date donairs and fries sitting between us, when he asked me, “So what is that?”
“Yeah tell me more about that. I don’t know much,” he said as he ate a French fry.
“That’s a large subject to unpack over some food,” I said, feeling unimpressed with having to delve into a heavy topic and I put my donair back on my plate.
“Well colonization is the forced assimilation of a people. You know what assimilation is right?”
He shook his head.
I took a deep breah.
“Assimilation is forcing a people to assume another culture, spirituality, way of life. Anyways, I do this workshop where we look at policies and events that were aimed at assimilation, genocide basically, that looks at stuff from the late 1700’s up to present day. We talk a lot about intergenerational trauma in that workshop.”
“Yeah,” he says as he pops another fry into his mouth. Usually I feel okay with having these conversations but right now I feel like I’m backed into a corner and I want to snarl at him.
“So it’s when trauma is passed down through generations. Like PTSD, some of it’s traits or whatever trickle down and have impact on all the generations,” I say trying to simplify it but I know by the look on his face he’s skeptic and won’t leave it alone.
“I don’t get it,” he states. French fry.
“Okay so they did this study with the children of holocaust survivors and it was seen that they too exhibited signs of PTSD that they got from their parents. It’s like trauma left unresolved gets passed down.”
“What kind of intergenerational trauma have you had then?”
He wants simple answers and I am flustered now. Talking about my sexual abuse and family addictions isn’t something I just want to throw out there so I give him small examples. I begin to squirm in my seat because I know he’s questioning the legitimacy of the Native American experience of genocide and it’s cumulative long term effects. At one point he even rolled his eyes when I talked about the study done on Historical Trauma and the Historical Trauma Response. The HTR being the reactions/behaviours/mental health concerns that have resulted from the trauma.
Dr. Maria Braveheart has done studies in relation to this and defines it as,
“Historical trauma (HT) is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences; the historical trauma response (HTR) is the constellation of features in reaction to this trauma. The HTR often includes depression, self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and gestures, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. It may include substance abuse, often an attempt to avoid painful feelings through self-medication. Historical unresolved grief is the associated affect that accompanies HTR; this grief may be considered fixated, impaired, delayed, and/or disenfranchised”
One of the examples I throw out as a result of colonization is the disconnection from my identity as an Indigenous person and how hard I had to work to reclaim the bits and pieces I have.
“You know, I don’t know if that’s so important. I mean I think the world would be a lot better if we were all just the same and stopped looking to the past. We should all just work towards the same future,” he said nonchalantly as if he had just suggested a place to go for dessert.
“Seriously? You’re saying we should just leave all of our culture behind?” I ask in complete disbelief.
“Yeah well what’s culture but something you repeat over and over? It can be changed.” He answered frankly.
“What’s your spirituality like?” I ask him, trying to understand where this very narrow way of looking at things came from.
“Well I was raised in church but I don’t really have one. I grew out of what they were selling,”
“So you think the world would be better off if we were just like one big melting pot and everything became the same instead of a mosaic where each is respected for it’s own merits?”
“But whose culture would prevail? Would it be western or why not one of the Indigenous cultures from around the world? And how would they get other people to assume this culture? By force. And we seen here how well that has worked out for the people in the “least dominant” culture.” I tell him, I’m angry now but still able to talk in a calm voice but I know he can sense it.
“Well yeah I guess. But what’s the function of these other cultures? I mean we should just all move forward,”
“Do you not think Native culture holds a function? I mean even if you look at it in terms of land protection?” I ask, knowing the question is already lost on him.
He answers me and talks circles about how it’s not necessary, things will play out the way that they are meant too, even if it means total land destruction. He talks more and I listen and I can feel a heavy presence settle in my chest and spread out into the air between us. He finally stops talking and it is silent. We are the only ones left in the small restaurant, the only sound the swooshing of the woman mopping the floors before closing. I stare at my untouched French fries.
“Well this got awkward,” he says.
I let the silence resume between us without replying right away because it affirms his statement better than any words I could say to him.
“I feel sad now,” I said as I looked across the table into his brown eyes.
I wanted to tell him, the brown haired, dark eyed, visibly native, half Cree man sitting across from me, that he didn’t need to know the definitions of colonization or assimilation because he was living it. He was the end desired result. His mindset and dismissal of his own heritage and culture is the desired result. I was sad because he didn’t even know it, or maybe he did. He told me I was the only Indian he knew, and knowing a brief history of his life, I could see the disconnection and how it manifested and perhaps even reinforced. I was sad because he was so far from hearing the beauty and raw honesty of the songs sang in the sweat lodge, he was so far from experiencing all of the beautiful things that our culture has to offer.
He asked me what the point of our culture was.
Colonization, passed down trauma, abuses and addiction almost took my life.
Ceremony and traditions saved my life.
I didn’t know how to explain this to him at the time, that me sitting there across from him sober and strong was proof of the necessity of preserving culture and a testament to the reality of intergenerational trauma. I didn’t feel like it was my place to tell him that he too was an example of sorts and that my sadness was for him and the losses he didn’t even know he had incurred.
This is another point of healing, the reclamation of our sons and daughters. I think of how many people have lived a life wrought with unexamined disconnection, and hold the very same mindsets as he. I’m not even going to start on the failure of the education system to actually provide real history and Indigenous worldviews… I often think of my mother who told me that her disconnection came from not being brown enough or white enough and so she decided living for her own family was enough. A disconnection which comes from lateral violence, exclusion, and access to traditional knowledge not being available. My own slow rebuilding of connection has rippled out and my mother has started to rebuild her own connection and it’s been beautiful to watch.
In the end all I can do is write, pray, and try to make sense of the journey.