When It Got Real

On my right forearm I have a tattoo of what I know to be the Trinity Knot. In Christian symbolism, it’s three fish symbols (the “Icthys” – an early church-era symbol that fearful believers used to identify themselves on the down-low. . . Also where our crossed fingers for luck comes from), overlapping at the tail with an unbroken circle that runs through them all. The icthys is a symbol of Jesus, the circle is a symbol for eternity. I chose it because it’s a simple thing – just a few lines – that held spiritual meaning and also referenced my own immigrant roots.

It was uncomplicated. At the time.

On August 8, 2019 I was so pleased to welcome a group of mostly Siksika people to the homestead. It was a beautiful day, hot and sunny, and our goal was to visit, eat and gather traditional plants. What was going to be a small gathering had grown – in those halcyon pre-COVID days – from “five or six” people to about 17. The picnic table on the verandah was covered in food. There were people wandering around, clipping bits and pieces and adding them to a growing stash of green things our much-loved Elder would use in traditional ceremony. There was laughter and gentle leg-pulling, recipe swapping and a spontaneous foray down to the edge of the pond looking for sweetgrass (there wasn’t any). There were men and women, young and old-ish and everyone seemed to be having a good time. . . I was happy. I had been very nervous about the day. It was important to me that everyone felt very welcome, very appreciated. Everything seemed to be going so well.

The undisputed guiding light that day was an Elder – I’m not going to share his name – with an eagle feather tucked into his hat band. He was in his 60s, slightly built with a lot of life clearly under his belt. We sat on the verandah, he and I, and he told me a little of his life and sang me songs in Blackfoot. I was very much enjoying this early getting-to-know-you session when he spied the tattoo on my arm and the mood of that moment changed like a snap of your fingers.

“What is that?”

“What do you know about it?”

“What does it mean to you?”

“Why do you have that on your arm?”

The tone was abrupt, almost hard. He demanded answers and he wanted them right now. I was being put on the spot and his voice had been loud enough to draw the attention of those nearby. I was wriggling in embarrassment for something I didn’t understand. What was passing as an easy day had become something different and I was in the crosshairs of an Elder who was having a deep reaction to something that had come – almost literally – out of a clear blue sky.

I can’t remember the exact words I used to try and explain myself. I think I probably gabbled something along the lines of the explanation above. I’m sure it wasn’t particularly articulate but whatever it was, I saw him slowly relax – I had meant no harm. His body sank back into the chair, he took a deep breath and looked at me.

“I am a residential school survivor,” he said.

As a child, he had been sent to school – a school run by a religious organization, a group that had some connection to the Trinity Knot – and he had been taught. O yes, he’d been taught what colonizers wanted his people to understand. That they were unimportant, less than human, expendable, exploitable, negligible and useless. He had been taught that his language was uncivilized, his culture barbaric, his family and ancestors dirty, stupid and unwanted. He had absorbed those lessons – lessons that saturated his mind, his heart and his child’s body – and had lived with the burden of them, the infection of them, for many years before he found his way out. To him, the tattoo on my arm was a symbol of oppression, abuse, neglect, death, pain and isolation. On the white skin of my inner arm I had voluntarily taken a mark that caused a physical, spontaneous reaction so strong that this senior citizen couldn’t stop himself from confronting me. He had to know WHY and he needed to know NOW.

There was no shame in him that day – he was a residential school survivor. He had seen and been through all the very worst and he had survived. He wasn’t ashamed of his story – it was facts. Plain, straight, uncompromising facts. I had never met a residential school survivor – for me, this moment was sharp, pointed and breathing right in front of me.

We all come to crossroads in our experiences where we have to decide what we’re going to do with the story we’ve encountered. Will we engage? Will we defend? How much will we absorb? What are we going to do with the facts?

My world changed that day – what had been a terrible but largely unrelatable episode in Canadian history was wearing a cotton button-down shirt, pressed jeans, boots and a cowboy hat and was sitting on the edge of his seat beside me. The mouth that had spoken the language - the back that had taken the beatings for speaking it - was ramrod stiff in a chair on my right. There was no room for storytelling that day. The words of a survivor was wearing skin – had been made flesh – and I was encountering it.

For all of us on this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, there is a choice to make. Canadians new and old, young and not-so-young, from every point of the compass, from sea to sea to sea, whether your family has deep roots or shallow ones, we all need to encounter the truth, make it personal and decide how to proceed. Make no mistake, the truth will come for you – it always does. You will have your verandah moment.

I’m not sure what will come of that conversation on a golden September afternoon. I can’t predict the future. I don’t know if the Elder thought I was worth his time in the long run but one thing I DO know – he put my feet on the first square and he pushed me to get started. I don’t have an excuse any more. It’s personal. His truth is part of my world now and the goal is in front of us. It’s time – and far past time - to begin.

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