I didn’t think I was that poor until I came to grad school: dentalium and dreams beyond the university

I am thinking about wealth. Not necessarily money, but I am thinking of richness, and of the happiness that is supposed to come with it. That’s the whole idea, right? That being wealthy means you don’t have to worry, at least not about basic things like food or shelter. Wealth means you have a chance to live a life beyond survival. It means being comfortable. Cozy. Secure.

Things that make me feel wealthy are: soft touches, dry meat with butter, or any kind of wild meat at all, the smell of smoked hide, sage, or fire, the feel of fur; fat snowflakes, thick rays of sun, big gulps of water, warm mittens, text messages from people I love.

Sure, I need money to survive in a way that my ancestors didn’t. But wealth? When I wear the dentalium earrings with little moon charms on the bottom that my beautiful friend Cholena made for me, I feel wealthy.

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The feeling of wealth has to do with the material, yes, but the sense of abundance I encounter as I bear the weight of the dentalium on my ears is much more than material. Abundance: the feeling of the ground holding your feet, holding your whole body. That feeling of being at once held and entirely free. Abundance: the extravagant, unrepentant sexuality of walking into the university financial aid office with a pound of dentalium and beads on my ears, lips greased up with cheekbone beauty, preparing for another afternoon of trying to find a way to pay my tuition in a structure that was built with serious-colonial-money-WEALTH-wealth literally acquired from genocide.

In grad school, I’ve spent a lot of time filling out forms for financial assistance. Not even the big ones (because I have no idea how to fill out a SSHRC or anything like that), these forms are exhausting for various reasons and take hours of my life that I will never get back. Revealing the precarities of one’s living situation to a colonial university is not a task that builds confidence or self-esteem.

In completing the online form for the University of Toronto’s students with disabilities registry, adding my crip self to their management system in hopes to qualify for a small bursary, I realized that the PDF was set up so that I had to click only one box to define my “primary” disability, and all others would be secondary. To thwart that artificially programmed boundary, I printed the page out and checked off each of my disabilites in the “primary” category.

When asked where I am staying, it is difficult to simply say I have spent time moving between friends’ spare rooms because I do not have the capacity or the money to find a room of my own in Toronto. It is difficult to say I am not doing the work I thought that grad school would allow me the time, space, and security to do.

I used to believe that the work I wanted to do couldn’t be done in a place of security and stability, but love taught me otherwise.

I bought a card for myself that has a quote by Doris Lessing: “Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” This is true. It is also true that the work I want to do cannot be done while I am exhausted and sick from conditions of transiency.

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Once a man promised me he’d take care of me. He promised that I didn’t have to worry about being afraid or being alone ever again. Such impossible promises to make, and still, the way he said those words made me believe it. I do not regret that I believed his words, I only regret that we live in a society that defines a man’s love by his ability to “keep” a woman and therefore keep her under his control. When the instability of our relationship began to interfere with my ability to fight for my own dreams, I told him so. Other than that, we pretty much never talked about money.

I am not ashamed of being an intergenerationally poor person. I am not ashamed that my mom and I were poor after she ran away from a violent man to give us both a chance at life. To have a parent with that much strength and capacity is wealth. In every action that led to the decision to leave and in every step after, she showed me the very definition of abundance. Here is what it means to look at death disguised as love and refuse it. Here is what it means to claim freedom.

We are poor but we have a house. About twenty years ago, we got our house through QUINT, an affordable housing program for families in Saskatoon. Without the house, I do not know where we would be. Without the house, I do not know if I would be in grad school. To own a house is unarguably a wealth. To be admitted into grad school is unarguably a wealth. To be a poor Indigenous woman and survive to the age of 28 is – unarguably – a wealth.

In a recent administrative email, I was referred to as a financially “high need” student. The administrative assistant let me know, as kindly as possible, that they weren’t sure how to handle a student with such a high need.

As I read those words, I thought of every peer I grew up with in west-side Saskatoon who did not have the wealth I did which allowed me to go to elementary school. The wealth that moved me through high school and into university, and finally, into grad school. Even with (what I consider) that relative wealth, I still faced the constant threats of racism and being pushed out of school at every single level. When I read “high need”, I see “at-risk”. When I see “at-risk” I think of manufactured vulnerability, the kind of precarious conditions that certain folks are forced into. I see a classification system that makes me feel like I’m in grade 5 again, sitting in the principal’s office as he asks about my home life while a social worker hovers nearby.

“Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” This is true. So what is the work I want to do? What are the desires that drive me to work? What do I write upon my page before I set foot inside the university again?

What dreams do I cultivate so that I can survive grad school for what it is – a chance to meet smart, kind people with whom I hope to conspire – and not rest my hopes on the scaffolding of a university that steals land while forcing us to beg for tuition?

I want a 24-hour centre in my community that is always open. A place of harm reduction and dreams where you can come to eat a meal, rest, access programming, or be safe.

I want the folks in my community who engage in sex work to have every protection they need while they remain sex workers, and the option to leave if, when, and how they so choose.

I want disabled folks in my community to live with the freedom to define days not by how well we fit into capitalist modes of productivity, but by the joy and love we experience.

I want all of the police who harm and kill our community members to be held responsible. I want us to live without fear of the saskatoon police and the rcmp.

I want to get better at nehiyawewin and worse at english.

I do not want to spend any more energy, time, or knowledge making my community more legible to the canadian state and its institutions.

I do not want to spend any more energy, time, or knowledge making my intellect more legible to the canadian university.

I want wealth by our definitions, because their definitions will always label us needy, at-risk, poor. I want abundance, in all the ways we define it for ourselves.