In the morning, I gather everything we need for our daily ritual and lay them gently in the beams of light entering our kitchen. I then find my little boy Tulugarjuaq and lead him by the hand to the best chair at the table.
“Did you have a good sleep?” I ask, brushing his amazing long brown hair that sparkles with glints of copper and brown and I imagine a horse running across the prairie! Strong and vital, full of life, my boy’s hair is strong like that Indian pony.
“Yes, Mom, I did.”
And carefully, slowly, I brush his hair, starting at the ends and working my way up. If I sense resistance, I grab the hair further up and gently, meticulously, work my way through it, doing my very best not to hurt him.
“What are we doing today, Mom?” he asks, and looks out the window, imaging what he will wear in our adventures for the day. And as I brush his hair, then spray and part it, my mind wanders to things long ago.
In Standing Buffalo, there is a bit of shelter from the wind, as it is nestled in the Qu’Appelle Valley on the beautiful south of the Saskatchewan River. With rolling hills like patchwork, the upcoming powwow would be an experience.
Upon arriving at the grounds, there is a line of conventional tents, rows of cars and a line of tipis in a circle — rez cars with rust, people, camps, colour and energy everywhere. My first powwow was exciting!
I do not remember the people, nor where I camped precisely – I do not remember much except for the grand entry. Alone but not alone, I stood at the sidelines with my then boyfriend, Kevin, hands twitching nervously and waiting for something magical to happen. It did.
The flags, the colours, the dancers — the beat — all were singing to something long forgotten, something that flowed from deep within. Finally, during the last round of the song, the dancers burst into motion and I stood there crying like a baby.
Gone were the days of wanting to wash the colour off of my skin because I was brown in a sea of white. Gone was the shame that I had felt for coming from somewhere deemed not likeable to society. Instead, here were these beautiful people all dressed with pride and love, beads and colours magnificent as a rainbow. And all I could think was, my dear God, what have I been missing all my life?
Kevin turned to me, took my hand in his and asked, “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” I replied, unable to look away. “I just have something in my eye.”
In his young years, my Tulugarjuaq had been the recipient of society’s downcast, sour look on more than one occasion. He wore his braids proudly after I had assured him that his older brothers were strong and had worn braids at his age too. He was a kind and innocent spirit that saw the world through big brown eyes, had lots of questions and genuine appreciation for the birds and animals that trotted happily through his excursions into the wild.
He was a tornado himself, a child that seemed to not pay attention, but who absorbed everything, never missing anything. He was a vibrant child and the source of his energy made me jealous at times, but I appreciated everything about him, from his infectious smile, to the sound of his laughter — a sound like chipmunks and all the small creatures of the forest erupting in sheer joy!
“Where are we going today, Mom?” he asked quietly, happy to sit and be lathered with care and attention. He was such a good boy for his Mom in the morning, as I weaved my daily prayers into his long, brown hair.
“Well, we have to go get milk and some groceries today…” my voiced trailed off as I weaved the strands tightly and neatly into a braid. Tulugarjuaq was happy with this answer and he fiddled with the Legos on the table.
“Hold still!” I said, and he quieted, careful not to disturb this sacred daily ritual with his hair. He straightened up, proud and looked out the window.
My first teachings about sweetgrass were amazing. Such simplicity and absolute sense entered my heart, as I listened to why we braid sweetgrass. A Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Healthy Spirit are the reasons, and all must be in balance to be a good human being, someone useful who walks with respect with all of Creation. All are important, all are related, all must be treated with great care not to outshine the other. A perfect braid has all of these in balance, for when you get to the end of the braid, taking too much on one strand leaves things wonky once you get to the bottom, and it just doesn’t have that neatness.
I was famous for burning the candle at both ends.
Raised in a non-Native home in small-town Saskatchewan, I learned to do things a hundred times better to get the same recognition as my fairer-skinned counterparts. Excel and then they will leave you alone, I learned. Be mediocre and you will be devoured by the monster that is society. Rise above those low expectations — for to do so is not only an honour, but a necessity! Rise above and they forget those horrific monikers like wagon burner and squaw.
There would be no Elders to braid my hair as I grew up; my own hair was burned into perms and bad hairstyles, my teeth constrained into braces, my eyes failing in ugly owl-like glasses. resented my appearance, my darkness and my people.
This young boy would be proud.
This young boy would be raised with powwow with pride and all the things that were stolen from her childhood and her heart so long ago.
The 60s scoop was a tumultuous thing and unspeakable for so long. Now, so far away from the seas of prairie, in the land of trees and Ontario, I no longer carried the curse of being raised white. Aside from the odd Elder at a powwow asking who my parents were, I was happy to not offer explanations that pointed to the fact that I wasn’t really raised Indian I was raised white, but had felt Indian at heart for… forever. In a sea of teeth, I was a quiet one who did not ask and did not offer much of myself, for years of judgement and suffering had long since stolen my voice.
“Mom, you sprayed my eye!” Tulu winces holding his eye, as I apologetically wipe it, but continue my gentle tending of his braid, careful to divide it into even sections for the second braid. The part is perfect and I’m quite happy with his first braid. I smile a lot and he cannot see how happy it makes me, this daily prayer that I weave into his hair for all the world to see. I smile a lot and I am filled with love and pride.
Accidents happen. In my younger years, mistakes were devastating because they meant drawing attention to myself, and I preferred anonymity. It went hand in hand with silence — that need to conceal my deepest desires and dreams, the way I saw things, the way I thought about things.
My favourite place as a child was in the woods along Fishing Lake. Carved out by ATV trails, there was a wood not far from the cabins and the roads, nestled between a small river and the highway. If you listened hard, you could hear cars speeding by just beyond the treeline, but for the most part it was peaceful and quiet. Nothing but nature and animals — my true and non-judgmental friends.
Walking along in the sand trail, I often removed my shoes to feel the caress of Mother Earth, so warm and soft, forcing me to choose my path carefully, yet allowing me to look around and notice all the little creatures and birds of the wood.
I once came upon a wasps’ nest, and thought, “how misunderstood they are, but they must have a purpose.” I watched them for a while, standing below their tree, and I believe that they sensed my heart, for they made no move to remove me or hurt me. They went about their business and I listened to the buzz of their activity, the purpose in their movements. They were not mean or cruel: they were simply there to take care of each other.
I remember thinking, they all look alike.
Where are the ones who look like me? For so long, I looked in the mirror and saw a stranger, an unwelcome one. One others look down upon. I wished for a wasps’ nest of my very own.
Tulugarjuaq looks like me and his father. I see my happiness in his eyes, I see his father’s determination in his mischievous smile. I see his special thumbs that are double jointed like mine, and I am happy to know that he knows he is a part of me. Accepted and loved unconditionally, totally. Bound by blood.
“Are you almost done yet?” he asks, chomping at the bit in his chair. It’s a hard chair. Perhaps he’s uncomfortable, but I think he’s mostly excited about his day. He’s excited about the things he will see, the friends he will play with, the things he will learn and the people he will talk to.
I hurry along. Each braid is still wrapped neatly and I use every finger nestled in his hair and I am oh, so careful to not let a strand stray loose as I continue with my daily prayer for all the world to see. Oh, how I love this child who looks like me.
I think of a spider, and how an Elder once told me, “if you see a white spider, that is an Elder who has passed on to the other side — they’ve come to visit you and spend time with you!” It is an honour to be seen and visited by these little critters, and I imagine them with a smile, thinking of the sun catching the lines of their delicate but masterful webs, arms flying and web strings churning out in the sunshine! Those spiders must be so coordinated, tending and weaving just like me with my little boy in the morning sun. I smile again, because this little ritual of braiding hair brings me so much more comfort than I could ever have imagined.
I remember my older sons, and their hair had grown into long, strong braids in the years before my youngest came to sit in front of me. I love all my children, but sons with long hair are a special thing for older, Plains Cree and Sioux like me, because we are so rare in the land of trees. I think of those who came before us, the strong warriors who hunted buffalo, the medicine men sitting proudly in the tintypes between pages of a history book that never could tell me the true story of my people.
I think of my people, the Battle River Cree, and I think of Red Bull and Standing Buffalo, Flying Dust Powwow, the Treaty Four Gathering and so many places in my Saskatchewan where the Indian people are plentiful like the seas of grass that blow in the prairie wind. Ahhh, my heart is so full of memories — sights, sounds, feelings and people I have known.
My Aunt Ruth Starr braided her own hair every day I knew her. Repatriated by my biological family after I had turned 18, I wanted to know everything. Sadly, when seeking questions, one must be prepared for unpleasant answers. Still, it can be hard to receive answers we were not expecting.
Ruth was a beautiful woman. Her green eyes would often look out into the distance, and I would see memories well up in her gaze, and she would soften. Just the thought of her looking out the window with her beautiful soft green eyes and long, strong, white braids gave me comfort. She took ownership of me, a lost soul wandering the city and looking for the people who looked like me.
“You look so much like your Mother!” she would tell me, and it brought me comfort and a sense of belonging I had been searching for my entire life until then. She was my aunt, and relayed stories of when I was a baby — those essential anecdotes from childhood that give you a sense of identity.
My mother was a beautiful woman. She had dark skin, black hair and sang along with a guitar at AA Roundups throughout Saskatchewan. I know this because an old friend of hers told me so. He was blind and his name was Joe Sheepskin, and the way he spoke about my mother and her singing was beautiful. I would close my eyes and he would tell me about her voice like velvet, and her singing along with the guitar. He was her friend and they would drive to these roundups, and I learned that she tried to make her life better by not drinking and choosing sobriety. Better late than never, I would think. In his blindness, he saw everything I longed to know about her.
“Mom, can I have something to drink?” My little Tulugarjuaq was done, the last elastic in and tightened for the day. He always bounces up and hugs me afterward, and on this morning he turned and gave me the hugest smile. You know the sort, the extra-wide smile of a bright child that wants to wrap someone they love around their finger. That mischievous, playful and teasing smile that keeps you on your toes and begs for a hug.
“Of course…” I always reply and list off his choices.
In my own home, inside my own walls, I keep the house I wish I had had. There are beads everywhere, pictures of people who look like us, and lots of food, supplies, love and comfort. There are sewing machines with which I make his regalia, containers of every size for every type of bead you can imagine. There are cats, blankets, pillows, mementos from powwows and concerts and road trips and everywhere a sign of life lived with love. A Tulu-rendered Christmas drawing that was so awesome I left it on my fridge. A Lego sculpture, brushes, movies, a rock from a walk we took up Duchesnay Falls that he is certain came from an asteroid. Calendars with bad and messy writing (who writes upright, anyway) and ticket stubs, and an “I love you” written in fridge magnets by the amazing Tulugarjuaq.
My son is Tulugarjuaq, and in Inuktitut his name means “Great Raven,” and great he is. A child of so many nations, the Plains Indians and the Inuit, he is a child of so many loves before him. He is tall and thin, energetic and wise beyond his years. He is the tornado and few can handle him. In my daily life with him, I have learned how to calm the tornado because I was once a tornado myself.
I recall his baby years when his father would speak Inuktitut to him, the gentle guttural speech that came from a place deeper than I had ever known. Lost to us now, the blessing of life with this child makes all the effort worthwhile. Single parents never choose to be that way. I think they all yearn for peace and for life to provide in the years to come with an unshakeable faith that has become our hearts.
A single parent on my own far from my people and family, far from the people who looked like me. Now I have a new people to call my family, my tribe. They are my children and I was blessed with four. Three sons and one daughter now have those same deep brown eyes and playful smirks that bring light to the day and peace to the evenings when we fall asleep. Family is not who kept you, family is who keeps you now in your dreams, life, goals, and aspirations. They pick you up when you fall and dust you off, send you on your way and walk beside for awhile until you can do it yourself.
My Tulugarjuaq is my youngest, and like me, we have only each other. The rest are growing older, immersed in lives and jobs of their own — all older and stubborn, independent beings like their mother and my mother before me. There is a certain stubbornness, a tenacity and a resilience that resonates in each of them, and no matter the length of their hair, they are tied to me and my purpose forever.
Each day I have sent out each of my children with my prayers for all the world to see. I have kept their strong braids in my sacred bundle as they grew up and wanted their own styles. Wrapped neatly in cloth, I keep these braids in a special place next to medicines, forever in my heart.
Everyday I pray with sweetgrass, saying my prayers out loud so my son may see how much I love his brothers and sister, and him. In the sweet smell of that prayer, the smoke dissipates and fills my home with love.
In the sweetness of that braid, my child walks out into this world with long, brown braids and is not ashamed.