The land we came from: My people are my homeland
I hate to think the place I played in as a child might someday become unrecognisable, but I still give thanks.
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In this series “The land we came from”, we asked writers to reflect on the environment they grew up in and how it has shaped their lives. Here, author Terese Marie Mailhot reflects on the land of Seabird Island Band in British Columbia and the people who make it home.
White people dug up the things my grandmother planted. I felt betrayed by my own family for letting it happen. How could they rent the land to those Yé xwelítem (white) farmers? But I love my people. My God – they are as much my homeland as the land itself. How could I fault them for exchanging the blueberry bush for groceries? An apple tree for meat? Our snowball tree, and the cedar – for rent? My mother did the same when I was young. I remember summers in a white man’s cow corn, running through the field with my brother, kicking stalks, feeling less like it was our land, and more like it was theirs. Even to a baby, like I was then, it seemed unfair that money can snatch up every sacred thing.
The land is like the women – as my auntie said. And I believe it. I also believe the land is like our children, forgiving and too good – asked to bear too much to survive. What we do to the ground comes back – what is done to our children will be avenged and the stories will be retrieved, each one. Everything buried, everything hidden, will be uncovered. White people took our children and buried babies without ceremony. And every few years there is a grave or mass of them found. I do not know what to make of our loss, but if it is easy for the Yé xwelítem, or even our own, to degrade a mountain or a child, what will happen to the Nlaka’pamux women who talk loud, the ones who play the slots and tell dirty jokes, the ones who say “keep six” at the bar, who need rides to the store, who post a selfie or two a day to say, “I’m still here, Motherf*****, come get me.” These women – as sublime as mountains, are never looked at right by some men in the camps, the ones making pipelines, or the ones living in the white town over, or our professors, our bosses, our mentors and bartenders …
I mourned yesterday for my mother. I thought about how she had never been to a Native stylist, and that for her entire life she had never had a hairdresser touch her hair as if they liked it. I think of my mother’s horsehair when I brush my own down. It is why I am gentle with myself, and why I tell other Native women to be their own best friend, their own auntie and cousin, their own elder when they are too afraid to tell their people how someone treated them. Because we fight for our women, blood and tooth and nail.
I always say this story, but when I once felt uncertain about my anger and volition, my cousin or auntie said, “When our women are born, they receive a club and a bowl. One to provide, one to protect.” That is how it feels to be where I am from. If you are insecure, you have a 1,000-year-old story about your power, your community – your being.
As the white farmers deplete the land with pesticides and they run the dirt to nothing, we will have each other. We will have more than they can ever hold.
I have been gone a long time, getting my degree, becoming a creative writing professor: things a little useless to my people. But the last time I went back, I was welcomed and praised. That is my homeland too.
We have this teaching about humility because it’s elders’ and your mother’s and your cousins’ job to praise you. If you are too boastful it means you have no people. “I love that girl! She just got her degree! Check her out,” my grandmother would say, if she was not lost to cancer. “Look at you living, girl!” my friend Candice would say, if she was not lost to cancer. “Keep your head,” Mom would say, if she did not die as I was just becoming. I boast about myself sometimes to perform the grief of losing them. The women who loved me most are mostly gone, and the land – it’s rented out.
I hate to think the place I played in as a child might someday become unrecognisable, but I will still put down an offering and give thanks, because somewhere beneath the foundation there must still be life, or something ancient still tied to my people, to my grandmother. My elders always say we have to let go of the pain. I try. I can try to revere a new development or the self-determination of my people, but I cannot revere it as much as when I was in the mint and willow that grew there. When I was a child, I thought those things sang to me.
“Everybody gets a song someday,” Mom said.
I thought mine was nearing, but there was always so much chaos inside the house, so many things weighing on us: the mould in the walls, the most recent infestation, the jobs that came and went – my mother would have spent her life on a mountain if there was no need for formula, for us to go to school, to “do better”, which often meant whiter, and more removed from the land. Sometimes, I wonder how long she would have lived had she always had some cash. These lives of struggle in my family are not the exception, and that is what hurts me most.
The stories of my origin are so tied to things that have been violently uprooted. In a good mood, Mom would tell me one about how I would get off the school bus and go straight to the strawberry patch, beneath a crab apple tree. I was a little girl in the sun when I considered the life cycle of a strawberry. It begins with a crown – like we get clubs and bowls. My children might never know this kind of day or their homeland. I pulled them away to a “better life”.
The greengage tree, the raspberry bushes, the grapevines near the sweat lodge my mother built – the wild dogs that ran through the 40 acres (16 hectares) of my home are gone and culled. And still, when I go back home, I will not be mourning as much as laughing, because my sister is still there, my nieces, the auntie cousins with big laughs and righteous anger – those women are still there, and that is enough to celebrate.
We might not have the land the way my grandmother intended: a utopia beyond colonisation, but we have laughter – we have our jokes and stories. We will have appetisers on the gentrified land that used to be Indian, we will have cocktails. We will go to the mountains the day after and remember the women ceremonies we once attended, and touch old trees our mothers prayed to, and we will tear up, and as sure as I know our women, someone will make a joke or offend. And the reason why I love, the reason why I understand the world, and know the women of my homeland – is because, for us, we all dream about the land, about becoming flush with cash so we can build a good home, and be back to the place of our grandmothers, where we can plant trees like hope – where our babies can dream about strawberry crowns in the light.