For northern girls

If you knew how proud they are
that you made it to the age of 16
21
twenty-five
30
thirty-six
age 10.
in this province built up
on the devastation of universes and bodies like ours
you might never feel lonely again.

The next time you wonder if life is easier
outside of all your dark-hair, dark-sky isolation
(because we all do)
The next time you wonder if life would be easier
if you took those northern lights flashing under your dark skin
and set them free:

Remember it wasn’t the bare bone rations of canadian benevolence
but the knowledge of you
that fed your ancestors through
those naturally long / unnaturally starved prairie winters.

And your warm skin is their prophecy of spring
in full bloom


CBC: ‘This is a crisis’: 4th girl takes own life in northern Saskatchewan

My ancestors survived colonization and all I got was this lousy eye twitch

I have a medical condition called blepharospasm.

In my body, this manifests as a muscle twitch in my eyebrow that gets worse when I’m anxious or under stress. The twitching turns into headaches and irritation that make it difficult for me to focus while reading or writing.

My eye twitch developed over the past year, surely unrelated to the misadventures of being an urban Indigenous woman on the Canadian prairies, travelling to Paris for an international climate conference, and attempting to challenge the racist structures of academic philosophy.

Botox is the only treatment available for blepharospasm (no, my face is not expressionless and yes, I can still raise my eyebrows), but it is not a permanent solution. So every few months, I go into a clinic that specializes in cosmetic surgery and injectables for treatment. In my experience, the clinic serves a clientele of apparently wealthy, sometimes older, almost entirely white women.

As I hit my mid-twenties and note the already substantially different ways that academic men/all men interact with me as I get older, I should make it clear I’m not here to shame anyone who uses injectables or surgery for cosmetic reasons. Peoples bodies are their own, full stop. Furthermore, the chance to conform to certain expectations of femininity is crucial for avoiding increased violence for many people, something which ought to be recognized as medically necessary.

Still, the world of cosmetic surgery is a space where whiteness is upheld as the standard for women’s health and beauty (with the two often conflated), accessible only by the relatively wealthy.

IMG_0230

An example of the type of posters I get to read while waiting for the doctor. Those “vaginal rejuvenation” posters especially amplify my twitchiness.

And so my colonial-trauma-eye-twitch brought me deeper into the wacky world of white femininity and cosmetic surgery.

The Procedure

It costs about $550 for my injections every 3-4 months, which is covered under the Saskatchewan health plan’s exception drug status. Even though the treatment is medically necessary, I’ve had trouble accessing the proper information and paperwork to get timely reimbursement, and I’ve missed treatments as a result because I couldn’t pay out of pocket.

In the office, the workers are kind, but I can’t help but fear that I will receive worse treatment because I’m a poor visibly Native woman asking for health care in a space not meant for me. I consciously dress as well as I can for my appointments in an attempt to lessen the impacts of racism on the health care I will receive. During my last appointment, a peppy young white woman walked in off the street into the fancy waiting room with bare feet and a hemp ankle bracelet, showcasing a carefreewhitegirl privilege which aggravated my twitchy eye even more.

why.jpg

why

Sometimes my eye twitch is a mini-manifestation of my body’s refusal to exist without complaint under a suffocating colonial order. I wish this acknowledgment made it a less exhausting and expensive condition to live with.

The Healing

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 7.14.29 PM

main offenders

The doctors, nurses, and office workers at the clinic are all very white-skinned, most with platinum blonde hair. As a result, I rarely leave an appointment without getting comments on my hair, my skin color, and my appearance in general. 

Once, while laying back in the chair being examined for a condition that is likely a direct result of the stress of colonial trauma on my body in the first place, a nurse told me: “Your skin is such a beautiful color. It’s not brown, but just, like, the perfect tan.”

While this might seem like a compliment, it was also an attempt to separate my beauty from the fact that I am a Native woman. It was a statement meant to exempt me from the category of “brown-skinned”, as if pointing out my Obviously Indigenous appearance would be an insult. I wanted to tell her that my skin is not “tan”: it is brown, and my beauty exists because of my brownness and because I am Native, not in spite of it.

With Fanon running through my head and the doctor’s french-manicured hand maneuvering a giant needle around my eye sockets, I just mumbled, “oh thaaaanks!” and offered up the name of my favourite sunscreen when she asked.

(Is this #sisterhood???)

The remark led me to recall another incident, when I was in a similar-but-different vulnerable position with a white guy who also told me “your skin is such a beautiful color”. I wondered for the rest of that evening why – though I already knew the answer – he couldn’t simply have said, “you are beautiful”.

Native women aren’t allowed to be beautiful in the eyes of white folks, at least not in the same way as white women. Our long dark hair is a “beautiful” object of fascination in the same way they admire furs or hides. Our beaded earrings are “beautiful” magnets for white folks who can never resist grabbing at our ears without our consent, as if they expect we’re made of the same hard plastic as the little Indian dolls sold in Canadiana gift shops, and not of flesh that feels legitimate pain worthy of proper medical attention. Our skin color is “beautiful” as long as it is caramel or golden or tan and not brown while black isn’t even a possibility on their checklist of What Natives Look Like. Our features are prized as exotic objects, but to be deemed a beautiful subject in one’s entirety is still something generally reserved for white women.

Earlier this year, Billy-Ray Belcourt gave a talk entitled “Gallstones and the Colonial Politics of the Future”. He mentions how his doctor was shocked that as a young person, he had a condition that generally only occurs in older people (except in the case of Indigenous folks), linking it to the real impacts of colonialism on our physical health and on the health care we receive.

As the doctor empties a third needle into my face to temporarily freeze the colonial eye twitch I’ll endure the rest of my life, she chirps, “It’s great that you started this procedure so young: you’ll never get wrinkles!”

miwasin

Poetry gives me freedom, sometimes.
Sometimes forces me into shapes, corners, feminities
that are stunning, suffocating
And deliciously dishonest.

Once I said I wanted my writing to taste good
served with misâskwatômina, like sweet berries.
Like the only way Native women are valuable
is when we are consumable.
Pretty.
Sweet.

But the problem is my writing smells more like the iron in blood,
gushing from an enthusiastically miscalculated sinew needle puncture wound.
My writing is the texture of lard and exhaust,
the taste of trying to fill your belly with the inhaled dust of inner city food deserts.
My writing is too many syllables and too much rage.

Did anyone ever tell you:
Your resistance does not need to be sexy to be real.
Sometimes it’s sexy, and you deserve that too,
but your trauma does not need to be poetic to be worthy.

If the purpose of sweetness
is to make me palatable enough to balance on your tongue
jusqua
until you swallow me whole,

I hope my writing never
ever
tastes like berries.

IMG_0180

A desert tortoise named The Old Lady. She grew up in Hollywood, and is now about 90 years old and has retired to the suburbs. Desert tortoises have an extraordinary capacity for enduring harsh environments. Today I found out she isn’t much for blueberries, preferring either the flowers on my dress or the shade cast under my knees.

My Optimism Wears Moccasins and is Loud: On Paris, Heavy Metal, and Chasing Freedom

Content Warning: sexual assault; Indigenous Feminist anger that cuts like the lead riff in “The Trooper

My optimism wears moccasins and is loud.

My optimism sometimes wears moccasins and is always loud.

As a Nehiyaw girl growing up in a small prairie city in Canada, I got into punk, hard rock, and metal music early on. My “rebellious phase” was spent at the local goth club between the ages of 13 – 15. Fortunately, the rebellion never involved drinking or drugs or sex. I didn’t have my first drink until I turned 19; my first kiss (with a boy…) a few months earlier. My vice was loud music. I grew up with other Indigenous kids who loved and lived metal music, and I have yet to outgrow that love.

Paris and COP 21

bridge

On a bridge over the Seine for the #Canoes2Paris action led by Indigenous people

I spent December in Paris for the United Nations COP 21 climate conference. In the context of global climate catastrophe, metal is the only honest soundtrack.

“We’re standing here by the abyss / and the world is in flames”
– Ghost, “He Is

Hey Brown Kid!: You are inheriting a world that the powerful, rich, and greedy are fucking up. You have no money. You are told at every turn that you have no power, no chance: so you might as well have a furious soundtrack.

climate march poster

a half-removed poster for the Paris December 7th climate march in a metro station

Metal isn’t (necessarily) all about nihilism. The alternative to giving up is tending to the anger and learning from it. The alternative is coming to the realization that anger is the only humane reaction to injustice.

The trouble with cultivating anger is that it builds up inside your body, and it can rip you into pieces. Indigenous youth understand better than anyone that the cost of built-up anger with no outlet is drugs, self-harm, and suicide.

There is a stunning Icelandic film called Metalhead (Málmhaus), about a young woman who lives in a small rural community and embraces metal music as a way to confront death and hopelessness. The final scene is iconic, and will turn you into a puddle of melting corpsepaint if you, too, have headbanged in your room to Symphony of Destruction. The film’s themes translate well into the current realities of so many Indigenous communities.

I remember once, an old môniyaw professor asked me to send him an example of “your people’s music” after a conversation where he assumed the only instrument we used was “simple drums”. I sent him Biipiigwan (yes, that’s Anishinaabemowin).

Loud music is a fantastic traditional medicine.


The Show

ghost1

[Ghost at La Cigale]

On December 7th, I went to see a concert by one of my favourite metal bands, Ghost.

I have a history of traveling in the pursuit of loud music. Running away from the incapacitation of depression exacerbated by staying still – running toward loudness, speed, feeling, and life. I kept an eye out for other metal shows in Paris at the same time but was disturbed at the possibility of walking into a white supremacist metal show. Being a Brown or Black metal fan, anywhere (but perhaps amplified in Europe) means the risk of unwittingly walking into a literal neo-Nazi concert.

Ghost’s singer, Papa Emeritus III, adorns himself like a demonic pope draped in velvet (…stay with me, now) while the other musicians wear variations of dark cloaks and masks. The identities of the musicians are hidden.

The lyrics mock religion, wealth, and worship. Something about the ghoulish aesthetic resonates with me, unsurprisingly, given Canada’s legacy of church-run residential schools stealing Indigenous children from their homes. Metalhead has similar themes.

The concert was at La Cigale in the 18th arrondissement, a short walk from metro station Barbès – Rochechouart. The show had sold out months earlier, so I walked around the venue to find a ticket scalper, preparing to struggle through a shady transaction in a second language.

I first saw him standing on the street corner, texting on his phone. One of the guitarists, who I recognized by his distinctive hair and his jeans –  I think most musicians have that same pair of well-worn tour jeans. I walked up to introduce myself. Surprised that I had recognized him, we went into a bar nearby and had drinks.

I asked him how he was doing. He replied, “I’m fucking exhausted. We’ve been on the road for months.”

Explaining that I was in town for the climate conference, we talked about Sami politics and the environment. We talked about the similarities in landscapes and weather in Sweden and Canada; the isolation of small towns, the love of metal. Even in his exhaustion, he was kind and warm.

———

“It’s Paris, so they line up so neatly and always right on time.” No one in line for the concert recognizes him as he walks past; or if they do, they’re too Parisian cool to admit it.

Heading into the venue, I thought of the times I walked through graveyards in the middle of the night, with friends and a flask of red wine, listening to his music. I thought about telling him. I didn’t. I tried to be Parisian cool. (Cree taciturn?)

The After Party

IMG_0135


“In the night / I am real”
Ghost, “If You Have Ghosts

The after party was at a bar called “The Mayflower” – the name of an infamous colonial ship. I cringed and laughed and complained. I drank absinthe and felt light on my feet, even though I had been dancing the whole night. Even though we were in a bar called “The Mayflower”.

That’s the thing about Paris.  No matter how much I wanted to lose myself in the beautiful surroundings, I was unable to fully relax in such a hyper-colonial space.

Paris is a city that once had human zoos – where Black and Indigenous people were taken and displayed for the entertainment of gawking Europeans.

Paris is a city that displays colonial conquest in its museums, refusing to return ceremonial objects and even human remains to the Indigenous nations from which they were stolen.

So, forgive me for the absinthe.

I said au revoir and skipped off into the night, dancing over cobblestones to catch the metro home.

In Transit, 1

I saw this poster in the metro stations: a government advertisement promoting travel to Canada. The photo shows a vast, snowy white landscape with huskies pulling a sled. The caption reads: “Explorez sans fin / Canada / Keep exploring”. An advertisement of terra nullius – the notion of unoccupied, unused land which was invoked at contact to justify colonization of North America.

keep exploring

When I talk about colonialism, extractive industry, and climate change as having direct impacts on the bodies of Indigenous women, I don’t mean any of it as a metaphor.

———

There is something about the intersection of patriarchy and colonialism that gazes upon us in our moments of freedom and decides it will try to steal that, too. Europe’s history of colonizing (the Indigenous lands now known as) Canada is not something of the past that has vanished. Empire requires constant maintenance.

In the metro station, I was sexually assaulted.

When the man chose to randomly attack me he did it while I was in transit – on my way home from a concert by one of my favourite bands.

When he chose to attack me, I had just finished a drink with friends. I wondered if my blood alcohol content would be printed as a headline if I went missing.

When he chose to attack me, he became angry as I repeatedly pushed him away and refused him access to something that wasn’t his.

As I push the unwelcome white hands of this man away from my brown skin in a European capital, I push back on terra nullius.

In my refusal / I am real

All those times I said NO, yet he still doesn’t seem to understand –  his doctrine of discovery is worthless on the surface of my skin. I was here first, and here I remain.

Yelling “no” in his face, the words hit my throat hard, the same way it would feel a few days later to yell “no” at rows of gendarmerie – French riot police – lined up with their rifles and shields to protect oil companies.

I ran up the steps and hit the emergency call button. I was too flustered to work my way through any intelligible French, so the man on the other end did not understand me. My attacker ran away. (Later, when I tried to report it to the police, no one spoke English so I was turned away. The next time I went back with friends who spoke fluent French, but the station was closed.)

I exited the metro station, expecting him to attack me again from behind every corner of the winding tunnel. I gripped my phone with its dead battery and thought about how best to use it as a weapon.

———

In response to the extent of gendered and sexualized violence we faced on the streets and in the conference centre alike, some members of our group suggest we do not roam the streets alone; that we implement a buddy system.

In response, I hop on a train to Belgium the next afternoon, alone, without telling anyone until I am across the border.

In Transit, 2: Antwerp

moontimewarriorintransit

[On the train from Paris to Antwerp]

 

You are cast out from the heavens to the ground
blackened feathers falling down

You will wear your independence like a crown

Ghost, “From the Pinnacle to the Pit

I am happiest when I am moving; something to do with the histories of migrations in my blood.

One of the hardest things to learn as a young Indigenous person is slowing down. How do I force myself to be patient in the face of constant devastation? Why would I slow down when I might not get the chance to grow older? So, the speed of the train hurtling out of France and that loud, fast music in my headphones feels like freedom.

Upon arrival in Antwerp, I realized I had absolutely no knowledge of the Dutch language. The sudden, total immersion was frightening and exhilarating.

antwerp.jpg
[Antwerp]

I navigated my way to the show at Muziekcentrum, where I was on the guest list. 13-year-old me would think I was so cool. I danced unabashedly, learning quickly that Belgian metal crowds are apparently very polite and barely move.

The show was magic; the loudness was medicine.

Ghost 3

[Ghost]

I wanted to stay and say thank you. Thank you for your music. Thank you for helping me find freedom and anger in the face of devastation. But I had to catch a train back to Paris.

Just keep moving.

Travelling Home

republique.jpg

[reclaiming transit: in the République metro station – thanks to Katie for helping me with this photo]

“I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart /
I can see through the scars inside you”
– Ghost, “Cirice

As Indigenous women, how do we talk about sexual violence in a way that allows us to own our vulnerability?  How do we prevent our stories from becoming consumed by colonial voyeurism in nations that thrive on making us vulnerable? I want to confront how violence against Indigenous women is presented as disconnected individual narratives, blaming women who put themselves “at risk”, rather than as a systematic necessity for the maintenance of settler colonial states.

Just as understanding histories and impacts of colonization is relevant to understanding Indigenous people, sexual violence is a devastatingly usual story in the lives of Indigenous women. But it is never our only story. Iskwewak (Indigenous women) are not reducible to narratives of conquest.

I read an interview where Henry Rollins says, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” My optimism wears heavy boots, sometimes moccasins, sometimes bare feet, sometimes skipping on cobblestones, sometimes on the prairies; my optimism is fucking loud. Raining Blood loud. War Pigs loud. Forever My Queen loud. Am I Evil loud.

I dream of Indigenous women and girls being safe & free in our own bodies and wherever we go in the world. But “safety”, in the context of global climate catastrophe, means cultivating enough anger as motivation to destroy extractive systems that will kill us unless we kill them first.

Surviving as a Native girl, daring to walk down the street alone at night: that’s a revolution. Listening to heavy music and dancing and drinking and being angry and loud, refusing to let violence rob us of wanderlust: that’s my revolution.

One day we’ll get that freedom. Just keep acting it out until it’s real. Just keep moving.

The Queen’s English

Shame is the reaction requested when they look you in the mouth and say,

“lost her language”,

but I know language well enough to pinpoint each time it’s lost instead of stole,
and that
 shame alone cannot build homes or sustain bodies.

So I speak the Queen’s English, every day

and you must admit it’s fun to watch her squirm

as I roll her words on my wild tongue like they’re chokecherries

the way my fingers expand those sentences into shapes she doesn’t recognize/can’t read

Break into her locked cupboards to devour greedily the literatures, philosophies;

get drunk and daring on the poetries
all of those nice, proper words that linger on my lips a bit

too

long. as if they liked it there (imagine the audacity)

Send me to bed early with no supper

I’ll keep playing with colonizer’s languages

bringing pleasure back to written letters weaponized to rip through flesh like mine

see those syllables  m e l t  at the touch of my nehiyawiskwew softness

(imagine the audacity) brown softness

in a world of borders
and sharp corners

strawberries

holding strawberries in Italy

I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly

What truths would be written if academics weren’t afraid of losing their jobs?

What truths would be written if you followed through, in practice, the type of sovereignty and decolonization you theorize in journals?

All the times I’ve heard some version of “I’m concerned about your academic career if you talk about this publicly”: that’s not concern for me.

I knew about the systems, I knew the stories about these men. We all do. We all do, because academic aunties gossip. And academic auntie gossip saves lives.

But still, I irrationally believed I was safe, or somehow exempt.

Even after, in second year, that time I got out of that ethics professor’s car, downtown, at night, in the middle of winter, and walked home rather than sit beside him after he joked that his seats recline all the way, if I was interested.

Even after, in third year, that time your fave scholar put his 50-something-year-old hand on my thigh under the table at that conference.

I’m not talking about “complexities” or “relations” or even sex; I’m talking about a fundamental failure to comprehend power and consent.

Like last week, a friend told me about the question he heard from a colleague:

“So are you sleeping with her?”, he asked, “she’s your student, right?”

because he can’t imagine any other reason why a professor would be friends with me.

“Well be careful, that kind of thing will stick to you” (even after he replied “no”): brotherly advice.

No, it won’t: but your words will stick to me.

That’s how patriarchy works, don’t you get it? The risk will never be theirs. Just get that tenure, bro. Just keep a handle on that funding, bro. Then you’ll be safe. Academics: we look out for each other, bro. The risk will never be theirs.

The risk is mine, for daring to believe I could stand on stages and give keynotes alongside men with PhDs.

So: these men talk. But so do women.

“Don’t take a ride with him. I’ll pick you up at the airport before your talk”:

I’m thankful for academic aunties who have saved my life all those times.

and

I’m angry that academic aunties know to offer rides because they didn’t have anyone to do the same for them, when they were me.

Believe her when she tells you not to take a ride with him. Believe her.

All the times I’ve heard some version of “I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly”: that’s not concern for me.

Fuck any academic career that comes at the price of my safety and bodily sovereignty.

Fuck any academic career that requires my silence.

Fuck any academic discipline that shelters abusive men.

Academic aunties save lives.

Believe her.

And to think that I saw it on 20th Street

I walked home down 20th street, toward a small brown-skinned Indigenous girl, maybe five years old, standing on the sidewalk. She was wearing a pink raincoat, rubber boots, and carrying a big gold foil balloon in the shape of a star, but overfilled with helium so it puffed up like a marshmallow. I waved at her and she waved back, at the same time letting go of the ribbon wrapped around her little mitten. The balloon escaped into the sky. She didn’t cry or scream, which surprised me, instead we just stood there for a minute and watched it ascend.

Moments of beautiful sparkling life, the significance of which will never be known to people who hit the lock button and speed by the inner city on their daily drive from the suburbs to downtown or the east side and back.

marshmallow star

Illustration by Fatin Chowdhury: “Marshmallow star on 20th street”.
Originally recounted as a social media update, because why not?