The voices of Indigenous people have been largely missing from the #MeToo conversation. Or, perhaps more accurately, they have been silenced, elided and edited out. Recently, it was brought to light that Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, a classic memoir first published in 1973 about her Métis upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, was scrubbed “clean,” as it were, of a graphic depiction of sexual violence. In that scene, a Mountie who had raided her family home hauled a 14-year-old Campbell to her grandmother’s room and raped her. “All I can recall,” she wrote, “was being dragged to Grannie’s bed where the man tore my shirt and jeans. When I came to, Grannie was crying and washing me off... She told me not to tell Daddy what had happened, that if he knew he would kill those Mounties and be hung.” Earlier this year, a research assistant found the excised passage, covered with big red Xs, buried in the McClelland & Stewart archives. The iconic Canadian publisher says it is now planning a new and complete edition of the CanLit classic.
The archival discovery could not be more timely. While Indigenous women and girls have long suffered sexual abuse and violence, their stories have typically been suppressed, as white settler society turns a blind eye to the insidious collusion of colonialism and sexual violence. Two new memoirs by Indigenous women, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries and Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, are resisting this censorship by sharing stories of violence experienced by the writers and their families. Both books offer these narratives without reducing the teeming complexity of Indigenous women’s lives to trauma.
For non-Indigenous readers, the question is how to hold these stories, how to honour them. For too long, Indigenous women’s words have been mistreated. There is bitter irony in the fact that Sherman Alexie introduces Mailhot’s memoir: allegations have recently emerged that the acclaimed author has sexually harassed a number of Indigenous female writers over the years. For all its vulnerability, Heart Berries is written in the style of someone steeling herself against further violation: “As an Indian woman, I resist the urge to bleed out on the page,” protests Mailhot, who grew up on Seabird Island First Nation near Chilliwack, B.C. Her story trickles out slowly and tentatively, as if she is wary of the hunger for Indigenous women’s stories in the literary marketplace, cautious of the potential for words to go missing and murdered in the same way Indigenous women’s bodies do.
Details of her past emerge sporadically as she writes a love letter to Casey, her professor-turned-boyfriend, from inside a mental institution: her bearing witness to her mother’s assault; her experience growing up in foster care in four different families; her forced separation from her first son; and, finally, her own story of being used and abused by the men in her life.
In the sanitized hallways of hospital wards, healing eludes Mailhot. She finds no relief in therapy talks, nor in the daily pills she is prescribed. There is a scathing critique here of how mainstream discourses of truth and reconciliation have put the onus for healing on Indigenous people themselves. Mailhot has no patience for an individualist concept of resilience, which ignores the spiritual qualities of Indigenous approaches. “In my culture, I believe we carry the pain until we reconcile with it through ceremony,” she writes. “Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution.”
The physical thing is out today.— Terese Mailhot (@TereseMarieM) April 2, 2018
Here I am, a bestseller. The world is my oyster and I shuck that shit clean. I made my way. I told myself the world was bigger and brighter with me in it. That's the only way it could happen for me. pic.twitter.com/piFLyemoEi
Ultimately, this is a story about how to love and be loved as a traumatized person. With searing, stripped-down prose, Mailhot confronts a history of pain so as to be able to live again. It’s a love story shorn of the romantic facade, revealing what is ugly in relationships contaminated by colonialism and patriarchy.
Whereas Mailhot revisits the memory of her violation toward the end of her memoir, Tagaq, the celebrated Inuk throat singer, lays hers bare closer to the beginning. As a 17-year-old, she has returned home from residential school after a suicide attempt. There is a party. Silent Sam, as he’s called, is “lurking” in the haze of cigarette smoke and country music. He was, we learn, her childhood teacher and tormentor, someone who touched her as he taught her: “Under tables, sneaking his hand in my pants. Touching my little girl parts.” Before she leaves the party, Tagaq hits Silent Sam as hard as she can, rendering him unconscious. But her revenge isn’t merely physical; it’s also spiritual.
Through a brilliant reworking of Inuit mythology, Tagaq’s memoir-cum-novella enacts a healing ritual not only for herself, but for all the Indigenous women and girls taken by men against their will. Specifically, Tagaq reconstructs the Inuit myth of Sedna the Sea Goddess, an ancient figure whose existence predates Christianity: “She came from a time when the land was our Lord, and we were her servants.” Here we have what is potentially one of the most important arguments offered up by an Indigenous perspective on #MeToo: we need to address not only the rape of women’s bodies but also the rape of the land. “Humans have damned themselves and it has nothing to do with Satan, it has only to do with greed,” writes Tagaq.
Whereas Sedna scorns her suitors in favour of a shapeshifter in the form of her lead dog, Tagaq’s protagonist rejects the awkward adolescent boys in her class, coupling instead with animals and the natural world — a polar bear, an Arctic fox, the northern lights. Out of the euphoria of these mystical experiences, Tagaq learns a life-changing lesson: “We are a product of the immense torque that propels this universe. We are not individuals but a great accumulation of all that lived before.”
This, in the end, is a book of epic proportions. Tagaq’s reclaiming of Inuit mythology signals a way to recover from spiritual death and the colonial ravaging of people and planet. “We have lost the ritual of how to cleanse a spirit after taking a life,” she writes. In response, she performs a kind of cleansing ritual — she sings a healing song — for all the spirits in need of saving.
Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.
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