The smell of burning sage and sweet grass lingers on my skin. My hands fold in prayer and I send the smoke up to the Creator. I send it to my mom, my aunties, my uncles, my grandfather, my great great grandparents. I send the smoke that calms my spirit to their place of spirit. I thank them. They are the blood, the memories, the story that moves through me. My words capture the stories of our history. I give them away, that is my role, my job, although I don’t always understand it. The smoke clears space for them, all of the words. The smoke gives us a line to each other. The smoke, it lingers on my skin, folds itself into my hair, tucks itself into my clothing, reminds me to stop, to pray, to make space for them, for stories.
—They made me forget my Cree.
My granny speaks to me as we sit around her table with a plate of bannock, my fresh jam and some tea harvested in the summer between us.
—There is a lot of laughter when you’re speaking in Cree. One person says a few words, another joins in a few words, and then, I don’t know, we’re all laughin’. They call you the crazy people because you’re making all kinds of racket. I got most of the Cree back, although I don’t know, maybe I lost more than I know. I don’t know about that.
She is looking down at her hands, rubbing them over each other, stalling at the places where they’re knobbed. Her fingers used to be able to sew moccasins into the early hours of the morning. Hold a needle between two fingers and string beads. Her hands used to be struck because she spoke words that were deemed inferior.
—The Indian agent, he came and took us, told my mother she now had a job. He took my brother and me to a store, bought us new clothes. I got a dress and shoes. And then the next day we left Saddle Lake. They took away my new dress when I got to the school. I only got to wear it that one day. They gave me shoes that didn’t fit.
White buffalo, that’s what my family joked about over big dinners in my grandparents’ trailer, back when we all used to gather for meals. Cousins, aunties, uncles, we all spilled out of the small kitchen onto the deck and lawn, plates of food stacked on TV dinner trays, laughing. My cousins and I would all line up to get our photograph taken and they would laugh. White buffalo, because of how white my skin was compared to everyone else’s.
—We were always hungry, all of us were always hungry. There was no good food, not like I was used to, back in Saddle Lake the home. My grandmother’s and mother’s cooking was altogether different than this school. Some of us girls, we would line up to set the table. And the oldest girl who was setting out the dishes, she would bring the bread, and be pouring the milk into the cups. She would look around to see if the matron was there and as soon as were alone, the older girl would run to the double doors and close them. She would grab some bread from her pockets and throw it up in the air and we would all try and catch the bread. Some of us would be on the floor, looking for the bread that fell; we were just like little dogs looking for this bread. Trying to make a go of filling our hungry stomachs. She would open the door then and run away so we wouldn’t get her in trouble.
When I think of what my granny would make us when we went to stay with her, I think of the towering heaps of bannock, the jars of fresh pickles with their tops popped, I think of frozen berries thawed and put in a saucer of crème. I think of stew. I think of individual mini cereal boxes in front of wrestling on TV. I think of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. Of KFC buckets. I think of my granny always making sure we had enough. Pushing food into our hands for the drive home.
—When I got there, they covered my head in coal oil, the oil that they light the lamps with. They combed my head and there were all these little white worms in it. My cousin had to wash my hair after but soap wasn’t that plentiful. We had to do that every time they brought a new girl. I guess that’s why most of us have problems with our scalps.
The words struck me in the face, prairie nigger. They were meant to hurt me and they did. Violence against me, violence against our women, violence against our men. Generations of violence, striking us in the face.
—I never got to speak to my brother the whole length of time we were there, the only time I seen him was when we were walking into the dining room, the boys would be on one side, the girls on the other. I never got to see my mother the whole time I was there. She was working there, in the reverend’s house, but they wouldn’t let us speak. There was always someone watching. When you looked up, there was always someone looking at you. But not my mother, not my brother.
I grew up in the city. I spent moments of time on reserves. My mother and father didn’t enjoy camping so I never got to learn to be in the bush. I lived with my grandparents for a time in Little Buffalo. I remember berry picking. I remember selling bannock and beadwork at powwows. But I remember the city more. I heard Cree spoken by my grandparents as I laid in the dark on sleepovers. I know my mother’s dark skin. I know my father’s white skin. Her brown eyes, his blue eyes.
—I didn’t learn much there. I never got more than grade five. I don’t know what we were supposed to learn.
You’re one of the good ones. This phrase, this compliment that I am supposed to be grateful for is one strangers speak to me too often. And when I look them in eye and ask them what they mean, they stammer back, well you aren’t a drunk, you have a master’s degree, you’re working, you’re a good one.
—A lot of boys ran away from school. They got to work outside, on the farm, and they ran away most times in the winter, and they froze on the road because they had no warm clothes. We lost many. There are lots of graves there.
You’re not really native, my friend said to me, you’re only Metis. I stood up then, I am Cree and Metis. Cree from my mom, Metis from my dad. And I am what I am. Sometimes I feel like people want me to wear my status card around my neck, to offer proof of who I am. But what does a status card prove anyways. It’s just a hard piece of plastic with my picture and letters and numbers on it. I am my experience, I am my grandparents’ memories, I am my parents’ stories, I am.
—I had an infected ear from being beaten. My cousin who was there, Nellie, she would clean my ear because it smelled so bad. None of the matrons, the women who looked after us, would maintain it. If you got caught talkin’ Cree you got hit, your head more than anything else. That’s where I got my loss of hearing from.
When I first learned about blood quantum, about the charts and the amount of blood you needed to be considered native I was disgusted. I am disgusted.
Am I a half-breed? Or am I stories? Am I memory?
—My brother and I didn’t understand English. My grandpa and grandma didn’t understand English. It was only my mother, because of her time at the residential school, who understood when the Indian Agent came and told her that she had to come work there and that we had to come too. It was only the next day when he came back, driving up in his big car, that it sunk in to my grandparents and they started crying and we were all crying because we had to leave them there and they didn’t want to let us go.
Smoke. It lingers on my skin. My prayers, they linger in the breeze. Our stories. Those linger in my mind, and now yours.