I recently came back from a conference discussing reconciliation and one of the workshops was listening to residential school survivors and visiting the burned out remnants of Spanish Residential School.
We heard stories of disconnection and fear. Children were stolen from their families, their nations and their ways of living. Without these vital connections, children were left to their own devices and often emerged lost.
Intergenerational trauma is real. After all, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission just tabled 94 Calls to Action that would seek to heal the damage done by the Church and the Canadian government. The deeper I think, the more I wonder if it is the same systems that attempted to break our nationhood are the same systems that will heal us.
I wonder if other Anishnaabek are having these same conversations. Suicide rates are astronomical, addiction rates in Indigenous communities are through the roof and over 30% of our nations are locked away in prisons. I’m sure that other people are wondering how do we fix this? How do we regenerate the gifts that our ancestors left us.
This conference on reconciliation also got me thinking about what regeneration is and how it fits into the greater scheme of decolonization and the rebirth of healthy, Indigenous nationhood.
I questioned the ability of non-Indigenous peoples and institutions to heal vital parts of our being. Will their guilt bandage the trauma built into our blood memory? I closed my eyes and imagined all the grandmothers that were denied the chance to teach their granddaughters what it was to be Anishnaabe kwe, the grandmothers that were denied to chance to teach kinship, love and belonging through rites of passage ceremonies, language and culture.
Tears welled up in my eyes and I realized that I was still grieving that loss. How is reconciliation possible when our grief is still so prevalent?
Many conversations were had with brothers and sisters at this conference. Someone wise said to me, “We have to let our grief die so that we can regenerate new ways of living in accordance with the power of who we once were.”
Slowly, I sat back and thought of my 32nd year. One of my friends told me that she was initiating a round of Berry Fasts and she asked me if I was interested in participating. The fearful parts of my colonized self balked at the idea. What would it mean? No berries for an entire year? I laughed to myself. I barely lacked the ability to say no to anything I wanted.
I told her I would think about it. The idea stuck with me for so long and deep inside I knew this was a path presented clearly to me, a path that I had been searching for had also been searching for me.
At the time, I had just finished my studies at the local university where I studied political science. I was fresh off the train that showed me exactly how Anishnaabek people lost their power. Political science is the study of power. I learned that our power is rooted in our connection to our ancestral ways of living in balance with ourselves, each other and all of creation. I learned that residential schools were deliberately created to disconnect us from our roots of power so that they can destroy our nations in order to access the resources that our nationhood seen as life giving parts of creation.
What better way to decolonize the nation than to begin with myself. I decided to say yes to berry fasting. Although I was afraid, the challenge sparked a cavalcade of inspiration in spaces that seen my descendants healed from the traumas that I was living. I would do it for my children and my children’s children, so that we can be who we were meant to be as Anishnaabe kwewok. I would be a good ancestor. That was the decision that I made.
Sitting in the lodge by the fire, my friend came over with a bowl of berries, she smiled and asked if I was ready. I’m never really sure if I’m ready for anything but with love in my heart, I said yes and took the last handful of berries that I would eat for a year. I savoured the beautiful flavours and rolled the berries around on my tongue and swallowed the berries and my pride at the same time.
There was a circle of supporters in the lodge, there were grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, uncles, firekeepers and medicines. It was explained to us the importance of what we were undertaking and I felt like I was home.
For 12 different full moons, I abstained from consuming any berries or berry products. It was one of the most difficult things I’d ever done. The scent of strawberries enticed me every single day, especially near the end of my fast. I began eating other juicy fruits, like pomegranates and grapes, a lot. My daughters were witnessing my growth during my 33rd year of life.
I became more aware of my boundaries and my abilities. I learned the power in being able to say no and mean it. There were connections made that can never be broken. Connections with myself and my ancestors and I knew that deep inside, I was repairing the broken parts of myself.
I taught myself to bead during the year away from berries because I didn’t have a grandmother to show me how to do it. YouTube showed me the ropes.
It taught me the value of ‘indigenuity’ – the power of our women to find answers and solutions in unexpected places. Kind of like McGuyver, but browner and prettier.
My daughter’s watched as I fumbled my way through finding myself. I was bandaging the trauma on my own so that my daughters wouldn’t have to work so hard to be who they were.
And there I found my power, I found the grandmother knowledge that was already there. When I would gather with my friends and sisters on the Full Moon, we would talk about our growth during this time. We laughed and we were everything the Canadian government didn’t want us to be – rooted and powerful.
The time finally came to end our year long berry fast. We sat around a small table with our heads covered until the time came to eat that beloved strawberry. I inhaled the brief aroma of berries, so bright and sweet. The experience of breaking the berry fast was incredible. I will never forget all the people that joined us the community that formed around the group of grown women that were healing broken connections with our ancestors. None of us were pubescent girls becoming women, we were broken women healing ourselves so that our daughters could live fully as Anishnaabe.
I smiled when I broke my fast because it wasn’t me consuming the berry, it was the spirit of the berry consuming my being. I was on my way to being whole again.
It’s still a struggle to regenerate my wholeness and sometimes I question my ability to ever become complete because I’m always searching for ways to be who I am. But I do know that my daughters are closer than I was at their age.
My eldest daughter completed her berry fast when she was supposed to and I’ve witnessed her grow into a strong, young kwezaance.
Intergenerational power is real. How quickly we can regenerate the power of our ancestors when we focus on healing ourselves, not relying on the government but on our ourselves and the grandmother knowledge that exists in our DNA.
The blood that runs through our veins ran through the veins of our grandmothers. As much as trauma dominates the narrative around reconciliation, it’s important that we recreate our own paths based on the ways that our ancestors once walked.
Regenerating the power of our nationhood means grieving the loss that our ancestors endured and simultaneously rebuilding the connections to our ancestors power and strength. It’s hard for this generation to be who we are because we are breaking the connection with fear and loss and we are finding our ways back home to the fires that maintain our being.
I’m still working on healing myself. It will probably be a life long process. But I am okay with that because I know I am capable of great things. Confidence rooted in grandmother knowledge — that was taught to me through experience and through communities of Anishnaabe kwewok will never leave me.
I was gifted the ability to recognize my own strength and power through a berry fast that grandmothers practiced since time immemorial. I was bandaging myself, I was regenerating myself so that my daughters didn’t have to live 33 years of recycled trauma.
In my 35th year I watched my daughter break her berry fast. I witnessed the joy on her face as she bit into that strawberry. I experienced the love that I knew my grandmother had for the daughters that she couldn’t do that with. Healing the broken parts of ourselves often translates to a lot of hard work but let’s rebuild those bridges so the next generation of Anishnaabek don’t have it so hard.