A Woman, Tree or Not

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.

***

I have some passages in my book written in the language my people claim, and sometimes after readings, before I can make it to the refreshments or cheese, white people ask me questions about my culture — like, whether I’m fluent in my language. They ask, I believe, with the intent to lament my people’s loss.

“Are you fluent in your language?” a white woman asked at my last library event.

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.

“I’m not,” I said. I explained that there aren’t many speakers, but the language was an invention, made to accommodate the forced creation of my community. “We (Stō:ló and Nlaka’pamux people) migrated season to season, and the government forced us to settle in a mixed community of First Nations people. My band speaks a mix of two languages, so it isn’t an ancient thing — it’s a thing we created to adapt.”

“Isn’t that sad it’s disappearing?” the white woman asked.

“No.” I had no time to explain how nothing ever truly disappears.

She asked if I still practiced my culture and my people’s ways of life — an odd question, as if culture is static for my people — I wanted to ask her if she practices her people’s ways of life so that she could see it sounded odd.

“Language was beaten out of my people,” I said. “Our ways of life adapted to our circumstances and I practice the teachings of my people every day.” I was repeating myself at my own event.

“Still,” she said. She looked at my white husband, who was playing with our children. “Is it hard to practice your culture when it’s blended.”

She might not have been aware I was upset. I wish I had ignored her in the first place or said nothing.

“My husband is white. He’s fine with whatever.”

She was dissatisfied. She wanted a story of loss, and she wanted to witness public grief. I save my truest grief for moments of solitude — nobody has earned my most vulnerable self. It’s a lesson I am only excavating now from my grandmother’s teachings.

***

Around the time my grandmother passed away in the ’80s, my community progressed from survival to cultural resurgence and radicalization — we were seeing the benefits of all the grassroots movements people like my mother were apart of. My mother, Wahzinak, worked in group homes and organized young boys to be taken to the mountain for their coming-of-age ceremonies. We attended language classes. We made new songs and prayers, and the elders were brought into pre-school classes to tell stories. We learned how to weave baskets and our nation had a band office where people had titles like “Wellness Coordinator,” and there were events like “Traditional Games Night.”

And now, at 35, I am unceremoniously here on staff at Purdue University, an Indian in Indiana without my people. I teach and travel, migrating with semesters. I link myself with other Indigenous communities and speak to people about intergenerational trauma. I explain that what’s been lost is hard to communicate without damaging our psyches or being exploited. It’s hard to not engage in performative measures for white people who might want to grieve us or tour genocide — or save us, or liberate us by bearing witness. I am not a relic, I say over and over at every event as if it were a conjuring, and it is an affirmation.


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How many times must something happen for it to become a ritual or rite of passage? Across North America, there are thousands of women — including the young girls in cages at the border under Trump’s anti-immigrant policies — without ceremonies, and how many of us are fighting to maintain the teachings our grandmothers gave us? How many of us feel lost sometimes, then feel betrayed by that feeling? We are not lost, only disenfranchised and disrespected. We’re still here is the mantra many Indigenous people say. Is this displacement now ceremony — is what we endure a rite of passage?

I am part of a continuum of Indigenous women. I am Little Mountain Woman. I affirm that to myself like a ritual, like a conjuring of my mother’s power in me.

It would be appropriating my own culture to reach out to elders I never knew only to find out how to become something I already am: a woman as powerful as the women who came before me — only I was always scared to say that, because it feels unceremonious to say that now, after these women, who would be so proud, have passed away. I’ve held the secret of that knowledge. I know the prayers to celebrate my womanhood and who should be present to witness, and I’ve attended these ceremonies for other women many times. I could have at some point compelled my cousins to help organize a ceremony for me, but it always felt too late. It felt too late long ago when I had first had my period, at thirteen. The women in my life call it “moon time.” It wasn’t special. The absence of ceremony has changed me. I have become literate in critical theory, and I’ve become pragmatic. I used to look up Nlaka’pamux ceremonies and search for my own, and I found that my people are well documented. I could look up what kind of lunch my grandmother was served at residential school and come up with an answer. I realized these ethnographies were positioned in a binary that my people didn’t ascribe to. Even our stories were divided: there were informative stories, stories that gave practical advice, and then there were mythological stories that held our beliefs. I realized the only record of how I was supposed to become a woman died with the women who brought me into the world. There is not a cousin or auntie who wouldn’t assert her new political ideologies onto what little she knows about my grandmother’s mother, or her mother, or mine. And still I am not lost.

The federal government wanted us to feel lost — the product of their assimilationist policies. They wanted us to feel that pain of disconnect, but all I feel is liberated now. Liberation is a Nlaka’pamux woman’s right. We are notoriously outspoken and driven. As much as I regret I did not receive a tree in my name, which is part of the custom, I can say that I will plant a thousand someday. I cultivated a life that expands beyond myself. I’m able to help people with practical things like language and money. There is no erasing a people who grow, tree or not. I know that, and it’s why I’m dangerous.

My mother was one of many activists who resisted. She wanted justice and integrity — and an Indian woman asking for that is asking for trouble. She liked trouble. My brothers and I are the products of that trouble.

When I felt lost, when I was looking for myself in research and historical text about my people, I began to feel even more lost. In an academic light my blood felt static. There was a time I could not see a future without my past. I could not see becoming a woman without a ceremony, and then my life became the ceremony.

It would be appropriating my own culture to reach out to elders I never knew only to find out how to become something I already am: a woman as powerful as the women who came before me.

I know that the rhetoric of lost culture is a white imposition. Governments have implemented policy to categorically destroy us — how we owned land, or received an education, or were treated with health care. The Indian Act is still the only policy in place put upon a race of people in the entire world. And we aren’t a race — we’re categorized as one, but we’re sovereign people who are self-identified and thousands of years old. We were here before borders and it’s why I work and live in the United States, under the Jay Treaty, which states any Native born in Canada can travel freely between the US and Canada.

I am not lost. I am not part of a static culture. My grandmother didn’t fight to survive in that school to have me feeling lost and abject or less like a woman. My mother didn’t set up food programs and house young Native men day in and day out for me to feel unloved. I am from a culture of love which is beyond survivance.

***

There is a reason why my mother didn’t organize a coming of age ceremony for me. It was because she didn’t have one herself. She was 13 when she was hurt by a man nobody in our family will ever know. She became a woman without ceremony, and later saw that as a teen I had become one, too. It was not a failure on her part; it is the failure of men.

I look back, and, after I told my mother the first time that I had been hurt, she started taking me to the mountain to witness other girls becoming women. She had me celebrate, and we learned to make feasts for these girls: baked bannock, smoked salmon, moose meat and deer. I can’t look at caramel dip without thinking of how we often bought it along with fruit for these girls and women. The memory makes me smile. We learned to celebrate women who survived, and when my mother had me sit by her desk when she worked at the shelter, it was ceremony to see her talk men off the ledge. Some came in violent, much bigger and stronger than her, and she stood in front of them with grace, and told them they were warriors. She had to move with speed to keep up with what was being done to our people. She had to be quick to fight back.

I have learned, in the absence of ceremony, that I can make my own. I was hunted and survived — sacred and unruly. I prepare my own feasts. The people amongst us who beat the odds, who survive and create life, and hope for better — we’re the ceremony and every tragedy and success will be myth.

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Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book Heart Berries: A Memoir.

Editor: Sari Botton

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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate