In this essay from our Fine Lines series about age, Terese Marie Mailhot questions the value of Native coming of age ceremonies she missed out on.
Terese Marie Mailhot | Longreads | October 2018 | 10 minutes (2,419 words)
I never became a woman formally in my culture. The ceremony I had once believed was promised to me didn’t come. I can’t tell you much about what a woman’s coming of age ceremony entails — not because I don’t know, but because we keep some things secret, in case the government comes after us again. The federal governments in the US and Canada implemented policies to annihilate Indigenous languages and cultures. The policies forbade many of our most significant practices. To become a woman, I’ve had to search for the truth and ritual that should have been handed down to me openly, from a grandmother and mother who had both learned to value and teach in quietude. They taught me that there is nothing stagnant about a secret; it grows and wills itself into the light, every time.
My grandmother didn’t speak much because she favored implicit instruction. She worked in the nursery school I went to, and, when she was not there, a well-meaning white teacher named Ms. Hardy used to drag us by our arms back to class. My grandmother used her gentleness to show me the possibilities of love. People who knew her might think she showed affection to us grandchildren with pinches and food, but I think of other things. When she dressed me as a child, I remember how she helped me put my tights on. She bunched each leg slowly to put my toes inside — toes she had trimmed and rubbed her thumbs along. My tights never tore and I was always clean during that time before she passed. After she died, my mother was always in a frantic rush without her help and guidance. Sometimes I tried to wear tights, but they split in the hem, or my toes caught the nylon. I could never exact her slowness. My mother valued speed — she was a bolt of a woman.
When I get my son ready for daycare, I whisper him awake. I distract him with jokes and silly voices as I dress him, and although my hands are quick, I believe he will remember them as warm. In this way, kindness can undo years of subjugation — it can turn the tide of inherited grief.
My grandmother went to St. George’s residential school as a child, which was notoriously brutal to Indians. She did not speak our language out loud, nor did she pray in our language — she prayed to Jesus in English. She learned how to pray kneeling before a Matron in a dormitory for Indian girls, who were most likely separated into groups 1, 2, or 3. They wore stiff, thin, green uniforms. In my research, I’ve seen film footage of little Indian girls filing out of the school, following their caregivers, and I can’t see any nylons or stockings; I wonder if anyone showed my grandmother gentleness. There are stories from survivors of residential schools who recall wetting their beds night after night, and then being ridiculed by the Indians and whites alike as they hung their clothes and bedding on the line the next day. The children learned military-style marches, and how to stiffen their backs at “Attenshun!” They slept in rooms under lock and key. I don’t know how anyone could herd children this way without losing their soul. In some cases, children said they felt like employees or worse. They were given work assignments like “barn-boy.” Girls had kitchen assignments, and, when they stole cookies or apples, they were punished with ridicule and abuse. When I review testimony from Native people about this time, I always look at their eyes. Kindness can survive cruelty. It’s a lesson my grandmother taught, and never had to speak. She never needed to say what happened to her, we knew not to ask. I wanted to ask her how she became a woman, but I feared the answer.
Some children were brought there in the backs of trucks. Some children wanted to be there with their cousins, and some Indian Agents convinced parents they were harming their children if they didn’t send them away to school. Some children were given Nlaka’pamux names before they left. My grandmother’s name was Little Bird. I resist telling you in her language for political and personal reasons. I don’t know what you’ll do with deep insights into my culture, and I don’t pronounce names well.