At some point we agreed to be a home for each other. It wasn’t a fancy home with décor made by a designer whose name I couldn’t pronounce. It wasn’t a home where everything was colour coordinated with various hues of calming blue, where even the junk drawer was organized. We were more like a cabin. A cabin with a wood burning stove that gave just enough heat to keep the cold out but there was nothing ornamental or home feeling about it. Don’t get me wrong, I love cabins, but this wasn’t the kind of cabin you could sit in a rocking chair in front of a warm fire in and feel inspired to write the next greatest love novel. It was the kind of home that served the basic elements of survival, of belonging to someone somewhere, of having a place to go when the world was cold and far too callous. We agreed to be that place for each other without either of us saying that we gave up on looking for something more and instead settled for “just enough”.
I have always said that love came down to timing and geography, something neither of us had seemed to have any luck at. I tried to find love in different cities dotted across the country but now even city streets hours and mountains away from my home held memories of men that were flashes in the pan. A sizzle. A burst of heat. They were much alike bacon in the pan, because everyone likes bacon even when they know it’s bad for their heart. Everyone loves it but knows that if you get too close when it’s sizzling in the pan, the son of a bitch will burn you.
We didn’t have the timing right but this time we had the geography.
He, a handsome long haired Indigenous man from a southern tribe, had moved to town to work on the TransWest pipeline. He was a pipefitter, or maybe a welder’s helper, or a labourer, or something like that. I never asked too many questions about what he did and he didn’t offer any details. He didn’t tell me what he did for work until I had already drowned my woes in his brown eyes and let myself be lost in his arms, pretending that they were gifts sent to me from his traditional lands. He mapped out his territory for me on my body the first night we laid together.
“This right here,” he said as he traced his finger around my navel, “is what we call Sweet Song lake, because when the ice is overtop you can hear the water sing to you”.
My Indigenous girl heart never stood a chance. When he told me that he was working on the pipeline he began with, “Don’t hate me for it but…”
He knew who I was. He knew that I worked against the pipeline tirelessly on top of holding down a mediocre but demanding full time job. He knew that I loved my territory just like he loved his. I traced the lands of my ancestors in detail over his body that this pipeline would be fracturing. It might as well be my body he is helping dig up. It is my heart they extract and displace.
I have always believed in the necessity of love. I have never hated a man for what he needed to do to put food on the kitchen table for his family. I was raised like that and my father told me exactly that throughout my life, “pride doesn’t put food on the table”. You don’t work and you starve. Starvation on multiple levels is something that our people know. Starvation of the spirit. Deprivation of teachings and pathways forward that are of our own creation have led us to these places. Without reclamation of our knowledge and practices we are still just cattle, our familiarity with real poverty is the prod that pushes us forward in acceptance.
When he told me what he did and not to hate him for it, I could see all of that history and circumstance come rushing toward us and I wanted us to stay afloat.
“The colonial objective wins when we fail to find a home in each other”, is what I said to myself in that moment.
Leave it to me to try to make making literal love a revolutionary act. Leave it to me to use my mind to let my heart make a bad decision.
I have never judged those who needed to work on the pipeline, nor on the rigs, because I had no room in my heart for that. There was no point. I got it. I understood. However, I never let my understanding keep me from standing up for what I thought was right and good for the land and the people.
Walking in my integrity and down the path of my ancestors had led me to some precarious places. Front lines. Press conferences. Front Lines. Mental, spiritual, emotional and physical break downs. Front lines. Ceremony. Interviews. Crying in bathtubs. Making offerings at the water.
My life had become about resistance out of necessity, so that we could hold onto something to preserve for the people. Not just for my “my people”, and “my tribe”, but for everyone’s children who now walks on this land and lives here. A lot of people don’t understand that part. Of course opposition (or pro pipeline people) have seemed to never hold on to the same practice of non-judgement and I had been subject to every stereotype and racist slur in the book.
Squaw. Welfare b*tch. Get a job. Greedy. Bum. The list goes on.
I have to be hard and resistant out there in the world. I have no choice in that but even fierce women dedicated to change yearn to be soft and to have tender moments. I was tired of being strong and I wanted shelter. He was that place for me.
“I am against this project too you know, but I need the work,” he said sorrowfully after being met with my silence.
My body stiffened.
“You don’t get to say that,” I replied firmly.
“But I am against it. It’s hard sometimes because some people treat you different after they find out what I do. It’s been so controversial. That’s why I never told you” he said, his voice soft but raspy.
I turned to face him.
“You don’t get to stand there and throw a pity party over your choices. You don’t get to tell me you’re against a project you go to work on every day. You don’t get to tug on my sorrow to make me feel bad for you because no one understands. You made those choices. You made that decision. I understand you need to work and I can respect that but you telling me that you are against a project that I have thrown myself in front of to stop? That is bullshit. You do not get to say that,” I spat at him, my body slightly trembling.
He knew who I was and what I did and did not tell me. I was already in so far I did not know how to stay angry at him.
“I should have told you I know…. I just didn’t want to lose you,” he said as he took a step towards me and placed his hand around me.
I didn’t move. He pulled me into his arms and I did not stop him.
My face was nuzzled into his chest and after a few minutes I looked up at him.
“You know we can’t really be together right?” I whispered.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“If people find out that we are together it could be used against me, to discredit the work that I do” I said looking downwards.
“We will have to wait until either the pipeline is stopped or built to be able to really be together,” I said.
“I guess we wait,” he sighed as he held me tighter.
“I hope you lose your job,”
He laughed and brought my face to meet his and kissed me.
Everything was different after that. I tried to pretend like I couldn’t see his work boots rimmed with soil from the land sitting at the door of his home when I came over. I pretended like I didn’t wince when he told me his workplace shenanigans with the crew. I tried to act innocent when he told me about safety issues on site, all the while calculating how I could prove and use this information although I couldn’t bring myself to. I tried to let it all go as soon as we walked into the bedroom, but I couldn’t.
Eventually it became a rule, no pipeline talk in the bedroom. We spent hours in bed talking about things that had no real value because we were trying to avoid all things we couldn’t talk about. One night, two months or so after he first told me the truth, we laid in his bed with our bodies tangled together like the knots of old gnarled trees.
“You know they found a burial site down there right where the pipeline is supposed to go through,” I whispered into the darkness, half hoping he was already sleeping so I could avoid the reality of our situation.
“I heard,” he said as he pulled me closer to him.
“Sometimes I wish..” I said, my voice trailing off.
“What?,” Chris answered me, “What do you wish?”
“Sometimes I wish.. that we were White,” I said, my voice breaking under the weight of my words, “We could just walk away from all of this. I could just walk away from all of this and we could go start a family somewhere, anywhere. We wouldn’t have a tribe or traditional lands or communities that need us. I wouldn’t be tied to this place for the rest of my life. Sometimes I just think… life would be so much easier if I could just be me, and you could just be you. If we could just be us.”
“We can leave,” he said as he kissed the skin on my shoulder, “you don’t need to be responsible for standing up and doing this kind of stuff you know. We can go. Just you and me.”
I pulled away from him and turned to face him.
“You know that’s not an option,” I said.
“Why not Liz? We can get a little house somewhere east in the prairies. We can start our own little family and leave all of this behind. You can grow flowers. You always talk about wanting a garden and never having the time to do it. I have a lot of money saved up. We can just go and you can have your flowers, and me, and peace,” Chris replied, his voice full of promise and possibility.
“I know I said what I said but, Chris. I can’t just walk away from my responsibilities as a woman from these lands. My flesh and blood, literally my ancestors, have become a part of the earth, it’s a part of the trees. My people are here and the land knows my name here. If I walk away from all of this and leave it as a war for someone else to fight then who would I be? How could I live with myself if I don’t even own my own integrity? You of all people should understand this!” I told him, this time with anger in my voice.
“Liz..” he said, “We can’t even be together here. We have to sneak around like we aren’t together and I have to pretend like I don’t have someone when I have you. Come with me Liz. Jesus Christ, how long do you want to go on like this? This pipeline is being built and either you can be here to witness it or we can go elsewhere and start a new life.”
It was at that moment I realized that I was not a woman who was made to place her heart in a home that could never be lived in but only dreamt about. I was not made to be with someone that didn’t understand what home really was for me.
I stood up and began to get dressed.
“Liz come back to bed,” Chris called as I put on my pants and fetched my sweater off the floor.
“Chris, I can’t do this anymore. You know I love flowers and one day I will have them. Flowers with you would be amazing,” I said to him from his bedroom door, this time with a few tears coming down my cheeks, “but right now I don’t need flowers Chris, right now I need some god damned change”.
I like to think that my Grandmothers walked out of that house right behind me, a bounce in their step, a trill on their tongue. Love as a revolutionary act is sometimes an action that you need to use to save yourself. I didn’t need a shelter from the world as long as I had home. Home wasn’t some pretend sanctuary in some mans arms. It wasn’t a life somewhere in the prairies away from Indigenous tribal complexities. Home was the pebbled lip of the river; home was the bulging berry bushes when there was enough rain and heat home was the sweet smoke of fungus being burnt that wafted out from my mothers window; home was looking for rabbit trails with my Grandfather; home is all around me and that is worth fighting for.