Lisa Bird-Wilson has two books: Just Pretending (Coteau Books, 2013) and The Red Files (Nightwood Editions, 2016).
My mother laboured alone, segregated, shamed.
“You should have kept your legs closed,” said the nurse with the crooked smile. “Now be quiet. You’re not an animal, are you?”
Below her sternum I fought to stay put, not wanting to leave her, already sensing danger. When finally born on that starless night, I drew a small needle from beneath my cape and pierced my child-mother’s heart as she held me close. For weeks I summoned my considerable power to obliterate the sky, dim the sun, dull the stars, and direct her attention on me, just as I aimed mine on her. I followed her every move, refused to let her out of my sight, willed her, with all my might: love me.
Although as enchanting as a pretty bauble, my shine soon dulled. Rubbed raw and sharp as a razor, her nails bitten and ragged, she eventually handed me over. The ones in charge were adults, she a mere child. Out-gunned, with the pen between her thumb and forefinger, she didn’t see the paper she signed; instead, she saw with staggering clarity that despite what the grownups pretended, she never had a choice. A couple, 20 years older than her, took me and raised me with the kind of loving severity common to the era. My origins blurred and my ability to resist receded.
The loss of a parent, in whatever way that loss occurs, produces a vital grief, bereavement in some form—how can it not? We all share a common experience in our respective beginnings. We’ve each of us breathed the amniotic fluid in the deep well of our mother’s body, taken her into our lungs. When taken away from that murky place, sorrow accompanies the exile; heartbreak goes along with parting. At birth, a being issues forth along with the pain—release, forfeiture, trauma, and bloodshed. Sometimes the blood lost is one’s own kin.
A primary mechanism to create human meaning is language. N. Scott Momaday writes in The Man Made of Words, “In a certain sense we are all made of words; … our most essential being consists of language.” As individuals we employ narrative to “write” ourselves into being: “imagine” and “create” appear together in the thesaurus. Our need to conceive, to dream and breathe into being our own meaning is fundamental and consequential.
As an adopted Indigenous person, a product of “Sixties-Scoop” colonial “common sense” practices that placed tens of thousands of Indigenous children in non-Indigenous homes, I often ponder the notion of birthright. Some would argue that ancestry is not a thing handed down, not an inevitable due. I believe memory in the blood and bone comprises my hereditary inheritance, along with an active negotiation and claiming of ancestry—like Trickster himself shifts shape and purpose—until it fits, until it is made right. The becoming separate of birth and the becoming whole again of creation and imagining: these two dynamics play together like twins.
In the practice of protocol of place, it’s polite not only to acknowledge where we are, but also where we come from. When I’m asked to speak at public events, I acknowledge the Treaty territory and traditional lands where we gather. For instance, when I go south in the province of Saskatchewan into Treaty 4, I recognize lands traditional to the Nahkawe, Nakota, and Plains Cree Indigenous Nations and the Métis of the Northwest. I have a personal connection to Treaty 4, signed in 1874 at the Qu’Appelle Lakes. One of my ancestors, by the name of Daybird, participated in the Treaty negotiations and argued for better terms for the First Nations people affected. In giving that particular greeting, I lay claim; enact my power as a strategy of resistance.
I hand the guy—a stranger—the bills first. Count four quarters into his palm, then hold out my hand.
He takes the mickey out of the paper bag, but as I reach for the bottle, he grips the black Smirinoff cap and won’t let go.
I raise my eyes from the bottle to his face. “You wanna make some extra money?” he asks. I tug at the flask, but he holds fast.
He tucks his head down and forward to be sure he’s in my sightline. Raises his eyebrows, questioning. I shake my head and take a small step back, but keep my hand on the bottle. He shrugs. “Fair enough,” he says, and lets go.
I turn and bolt through the parking lot, away from his car, tucking the bottle into my jean-jacket pocket. I’m 13 and this is my sixth time to run away from my new people—my “adoptive family.”
Shared stories and shared places form reference points for identity development among blood and kin. Momaday talks about finding a connection to physical place:
Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth…He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions in the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.
Place—that landscape Momaday speaks so passionately about—is connected to the Cree word, miskâsowin, which embodies the concept of finding one’s origin, centre, identity, and belonging. Physical landscape, the place where our ancestors reside, forms a basis for identity and belonging. I have found this to be true in my writings and imaginings of the blue hills rolling against the white sky of the Touchwood area—Daybird’s land. Daybird represents a link to my past and to a specific locale. When I think of my Indigenous self I feel the blood of my old Daybird moshum flowing in my veins, drawing me to the place on the land that was his to walk, as Treaty was being talked. That blood, the red signifier, marks me as Red.
The blood that courses through our veins links us to our people—to our bloodlines. In many Indigenous creation stories, the people are created of the earth, our blood drawn into our physical bodies from the land. The images of the Touchwood Hills and Qu’Appelle Lakes occupy my writing and infuse my poetry, taking on meaning and reverence. In my book, The Red Files, the poem “Kohkum” imagines my grandmother and her on going relationship to the land, despite distance:
in her dying she remembers
the spirit-well of home
and the mist like smoke rising
off the curved brush, the dry yellow dogwood
that dots the hills
Similarly, in “Hundreds of Boys,” the children extend across the landscape:
by five hundred they’re stretched
shoulder to shoulder
past the blue sloughs
down the valley slope
a lengthy run-on sentence
a fierce four kilometers
to the heart of the touchwood hills
Despite the prevalence of place and land in my writing, my own physical experience with this terrain is limited—I was, after all, adopted out, handed over, whisked away—raised in a city. Yet the Touchwood area remains part of my physical and psychic imaginings. The rolling-hills-land and its light is in me, the dust in my hair, the scent of the barn where my aunty was born, and the clay of the bones of Daybird and the Daybirds before him buried in my blood. A deep memory across time and space, I am the tough grasses and the baked dogwood branches that daub the landscape.
Daybird has always known me. When he talked at Treaty for better terms, he knew me, five generations away: he used his vision power to look ahead at least seven generations. He knows my grandchildren, and in turn, they will know him: bandy-legged old uncle, a scrappy fighter, “spun of red silk,” he laughs,
head thrown back so you can see
all the way up his nostrils
two neat holes so black they say midnight
him and all bird men:
a wiry bundle
of cocksure nervous dash
Daybird, graceful and ready, at the Qu’Appelle Lakes, delivering his words with wit and emotion, speaking on behalf of the people most affected by Treaty; his is a hot red presence—red like the blood we share. The ochre of sunset and the evening campfire cast a red glow in the pupils of his eyes as he dropped his blanket, stood and spoke, smart and clever, tricky with his words and gestures. Across decades and generations, I am listening, a beneficiary of his words and physical presence at that historic meeting time. My spirit is fed, my sense of place affirmed.
The crane swings its demolition ball at the derelict mansion, neglected and not worth saving.
“I was born there,” I tell my friend, another writer.
“Get outta here. Really?” she says. We have a coincidental connection, she and I. She gave up a baby once. Me, a baby-given-up. We see things from different ends of the scope.
A month later I receive an email from her: “Walking past the demo site my friend Hilda squeezed through the fence and got you a brick. Pick it up at her place,” followed by the address.
Now and then I heft the brick, a hard memory, in my hand. I imagine throwing it at itself—breaking the windows of that place and freeing any horrors trapped inside. But that place is gone except in imaginings.
N. Scott Momaday’s The Man Made of Words
I wonder how I occupy and am occupied by—within and without—two such disparate places. I belong to both—the soulless brick with its weight and heft and to the rolling hills and warm alkali lakes. And if I think too long on the subject, a deep reservoir of longing opens for those great orators, the Cree poets, the fiery red men and women.
Momaday asks: What happens when anyone exerts the force of language upon the unknown? In my experience, meanings are formulated, shaped, and changed—resistance summoned. In doing so, in exerting this force of language, I experience the world in a fresh way and develop a renewed and reformed sense of self.
Blood memory combines with the relationship to the earth and place and stories, connecting me to all my forebears; the land, the ancestors, their place and mine, brought into being and made whole. The women and men of my past are “real” precisely because they are imagined.
Lisa Bird-Wilson is a Saskatchewan Cree-Métis writer whose stories have been nominated for the Journey Prize. Her work has appeared in periodicals such as Geist, Grain, and Prairie Fire, and in anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays and cîhcêwêsin. Lisa’s fiction collection Just Pretending (Coteau Books 2013) earned numerous prizes and was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award. Her poetry book, The Red Files, has recently been published by Nightwood Editions.
This essay is part of a month long series on writing the body.