Ten years ago, I wrote a poem to express the darkness I felt growing up, a blackness I could not identify and yet was always with me.
A few lines from that poem:
Somewhere in a prairie grave rests the first half-breed throwaway
the land he lies in conquered
his women raped, his balls cut
The breath of the dead is in our mouths.
When did I first feel the breath of the dead? The breath of my ancestors? My first memories were formed in a kitchen in Calgary during the 60s and 70s. My grandma and aunties would gather there while my father, grandfather and uncles played cards and drank in the living room. The women gossiped, not in a lively way, but with a dark shadow of grief or anger or something else that was so mysterious to me. I hovered in that kitchen, observing their closed, secretive world.
I often studied these photographs of my great grandfather Jean Caron Jr. in the 1940s (above), of him with his wife Virginie Parenteau in 1912 (opposite) and of them in the 1930s (below) with their children standing behind them in Batoche. I found myself biting back the question–“Why do they look native?” But the truth was kept from me and my cousins that we were descended from Cree, Assiniboine, and Stoney great great grandmothers. That we were Métis.
I forget the words that were spoken in that kitchen in Calgary. What I remember is the simmering depression and grief. What remained unspoken among those women was branded on my heart—the bruise on an auntie’s neck, the sunglasses she wore to hide a black eye, and from the living room, muffled sounds of ice in the men’s drinks, their heavy silences, bawdy jokes, and French curses.
These men, these women spoke white words, yet I breathed their secret “red thoughts” into myself, the breath of that first conquered “half-breed” in a prairie grave, his culture, identity, and lands stolen by British colonialism.
When I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto, where I thought I could escape the breath of the dead. It wasn’t until years later, when, struggling with depression, a therapist said to me: “You were broken in the womb.” I learned that “psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages from one generation to the next.”
And that depression was often biological in origin, deeply rooted in our DNA. This researcher discovered that the children of Holocaust survivors were born with low cortisol levels similar to their parents, predisposing them to relive the PTSD symptoms of the previous generation.”
That therapist assigned me journaling, which I began with reluctance. Eventually it was through writing short stories, essays, and then a novel, that I began to express those unsaid words, to tell of my ancestor’s losses that had become my own and reclaim, if not their lands, at least a modicum of the joy they once possessed when riding free on the plains.
As Métis, whose ancestors hid our identity to protect us from racism, we might reclaim that identity by proudly wearing a sash or a beaded pair of moccasins, the kind our great grandparents wore. Or perhaps it’s through marking their tragic stories of loss that we can heal and rebuild a stronger Métis nation.