Grief is a surprising and mysterious thing. You can feel the loss of something seemingly small, like the end of a beloved book; and you can feel the loss of something so large that you can barely recognize what it is, like the loss of your childhood. At the same time, I wonder, how can you miss something you’ve never experienced? I grieve, deeply at times, for the loss of my childhood. It was a childhood lost to abuse, dysfunction, and a deep, dark anger. I find myself migrating between poles of grief so strong, it takes my breath away: anger at what was lost, sadness at what I never had.
I know that blaming my family will keep me stuck in my grief, and being stuck is not a place I want to be. The truth is, the dysfunction started well before me, and is bigger than me. I got caught in the mess, pulled into the tornado of other people’s grief. It started because no one knew how to be a child, or how to be a parent. That was broken years ago, when my grandmother was sent to residential school, forcibly removed from home so that she would be trained how not to be an Indian. But the truth, as they say, also hurts. I have scars that run deep and seem to enter into my bones. I carry the story of my family’s pain with me everywhere I go.
A friend once told me that in order to move forward, I would have to look back. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear such things. The idea seemed more sentimental than I was accustomed to. And yet, once I started to spend time on the land, everything changed.
I was struck by and surprised at what my hands knew how to do. I found that as long as I was outside, as long as I could feel the sun, or the wind, or the cold, I could relax. Over the last few years, I have taken to the land to learn how to heal. I have done so by looking back, by learning and practicing the traditional food skills of my Indigenous ancestors. I have weeded gardens, planted seeds, and discovered how to make dye from plants. I am learning to pick medicines, a sacred and beautiful process that helps me feel connected to and responsible for my health. I have learned to fish and fillet fish, and have helped construct a smokehouse. Perhaps one day I will learn to process a goose, or another animal, but for now, my heart is tied to the plants and to the water. Listening to my heart is new to me. I have avoided that connection for a long time.
I see now that I needed to look back to move forward because it was the only thing left to do. It was the only way I could heal from years of abuse, confusion, fear, and anger. In looking back I saw a new way to connect to my heritage. I discovered the healing power of being an active participant in my food system. Every time I went fishing or learned to cook traditional foods, I did so in honour of my ancestors. Learning these traditional food practices gave me a freedom I could never have imagined. I began to see this as my heart settling in, acknowledging some larger truth to my being. Learning by doing means you connect your heart to your hands. Indeed, it’s a lot easier when you quiet the brain and close the circuit between the thinking parts of you and allow the feeling parts of you to guide the way. It’s a lesson in both trust and humility. I am part of something. There is room for mistakes if you trust that process is key, and for that I am grateful. My hands and my heart are slowly finding their way.
Each year, as the summer comes to end, I look down and see that the colour of my hands has deepened. They are darker than they were before, a reddish hue emerging in my skin. In a moment, I am taken back to my ancestors and I know that they have been here before me. My reddish skin is a reminder of where I came from, and I am finally starting to connect to the Indigenous part of my identity. It is a reminder that working with the land is a pathway to healing. But perhaps more importantly, it is a way for me to say “this is who I am.” I am Indigenous, and the land is my family. The land is where and how I belong.
A few years ago, I used branches from a tree that had been pruned in my yard to create a small tipi structure in my garden. Around these poles, I planted heirloom beans, on the advice of an Elder. My beans grew with gusto: tiny tendrils wove around each pole to create a lush cone of leaves, then flowers, and then beans. Although I had been gardening for years, I had never felt so proud. It was the first time I had planted using the knowledge of my ancestors.