98 and One Day
Yesterday was my grandma’s 98th birthday. She would have been 98 and one day today. She went on ahead December 16, 2019 at 4.44pm with family by her side. Two planes, one rental car, weather delays, costly travel, and stressful holiday crowds were a challenge but I made it from Montreal QC to Vernon BC to be with her at the end. She couldn’t speak when I finally arrived but I think she knew I was there.
Her leaving has been an intensely private experience for me. It’s a secret I’ve been keeping that seems to hurt more every day instead of less. She was no spring chicken, but I thought she’d stick around for another year or two. She is one of my favorite people.
I remember walking behind her one day down the hallway to her room. She shuffled along behind her walker with brightly-coloured tennis balls on two of the legs and her purse hanging off the side and I shuffled along behind her. I had bought her a bag that attached to her walker that was big enough so she could put her purse in it. She stuffed that bag full of tissues instead.
We reached her room at the end of the hallway and she laid down on her bed and I sat in the armchair beside her. She looked at me and said,
“you’re my child. I didn’t give birth to you, but you’re my child”.
And this is truth.
When I was younger, I worried a lot. I still worry a lot, but I’m working on it. It’s a process. One of the things I worried about when I was young was that I would forget the stories my grandma told me over and over tens and hundreds of times. As we both got older, I made sure to record her stories whenever I could so I wouldn’t forget. Turns out that committing her stories to memory wasn’t the point.
I’ve learned a lot and changed a lot, over the past decade especially. I would like to share some of the things I learned from my grandma about relationships, stories, and identity.
On Relationships and Stories
When I was young, my grandma was everything. I built a very high platform for her and helped her climb up it. At the time, I couldn’t see what I had done – I couldn’t see the precariousness of her situation; a situation I had created for her. I made up story after story in my head about what my life was like and story after story about the people around me. I told myself some very nice stories.
It’s taken me a lifetime to learn that, just like anything else, stories can be kind and comforting but they can also be deceptive and they can tell lies. They do, however, always serve a purpose. The stories that I made up in my head helped me to hide. It’s much more fun to pretend that everything is ok. It’s much more fun to pretend that my family members are all super NDNs and all the tradish things and funny things that go along with that, thanks a lot Smoke Signals.
The reality was, and is, much more complicated. And terrible.
As my grandmother became more dependent on my sister and I and the Alzheimer’s disease progressed, it became more difficult to keep telling myself the stories I had made up in my head. These types of situations can and do break families apart. But what happens when you head into a situation like this already broken as part of a heavily shattered family? What happened for me was that reality became too big and my stories got too small and this process continues to confuse and hurt.
What also happened though is I got to know my grandma as the funny, kind, flawed, occasionally manipulative, complicated woman that raised me and that did the best she could in the circumstances she was in. She wasn’t my grandma in that she didn’t belong to me. In fact, she didn’t belong to anyone, although some people certainly thought she did and still do.
What I learned from her is that by making up pedestal stories, I thought my grandma belonged to me or at least that I owned a version of her that was 2-dimensional and bound to fail. What I learned from my grandma was that she belonged to no one but herself and I was just lucky to be able to get to know her, really know her, over the past few years with the good and the bad and the everything in between.
On Being NDN
I remember learning, as a young woman in university, about some protocols around Indigenous women’s menstruation. I think this came from an Okanagan woman, but I don’t really remember. At any rate, as I’ve been fortunate to visit more places, many of these protocols seem to be the same or similar.
When I was younger, my grandma didn’t teach me about all the things I wasn’t supposed to do because I was female. This included not teaching me what I wasn’t supposed to do when menstruating. When I first learned about these protocols as a young woman in university, I felt betrayed and confused. Why didn’t my grandma teach me this? Does this mean she’s not a real NDN? And does this mean that I’m not a real NDN either? It was quite the early 20s existential crisis and I felt embarrassed that I wasn’t taught to limit myself because I was female.
Trying to be the best NDN I could be, I readily accepted the idea that women who were menstruating could not go certain places or do certain things because we were too powerful at that time. Today, I interpret this idea as women who are menstruating can cause a lot of trouble and basically take down an entire world with our super mega menstrual powers of mass destruction. In other words, I interpret this idea today as a bullshit mechanism to control women, although if we did have super mega menstrual powers that were used for destruction of the patriarchy, this would be good.
My grandma didn’t teach me to limit myself because I am female. She refused cultural protocols and traditions that limited women and girls in her teachings to us and by example in the way she lived. As long as I knew my grandma, she didn’t participate in ceremonies or in traditions or rituals she didn’t believe in. Today, I am so very proud to have known her and to have learned from her how to be NDN. My grandma is Nlaka’pamux and I am too. She didn’t teach me limitations and she didn’t teach me to participate in traditions because they were traditional if I didn’t want to.
I learned from my grandma that I belong to myself and that I can do what I want. However, I also learned foundational Nlaka’pamux principles from my grandma from the time I was born. My father’s side of the family is Dine’. I remember the first time I read a book about Dine’ people that I borrowed from the library and it blew my mind, it was so strange to read about yourself as being different when you thought you just were. My grandma just was and so I just was too. I didn’t identify my world view as “Indigenous” or even Nlaka’pamux or Dine’, these principles and these values just were and this is just how we fit in the world. Despite being surrounded by a lack of practiced principles growing up, they remain. These are principles that form the foundation of who I am, where I come from, and how I work: honesty; respect; fairness; courage; relationships.
I learned from my grandma that I am no less Nlaka’pamux because I think putting limits on women when we are menstruating is bullshit. I learned that protocols and ceremonies and rituals are ways to express a worldview and that I can choose to participate in those protocols, ceremonies, and rituals or not or I can make up my own but whatever I choose to do or not do, believe or not believe, I still am who I am and I still have an understanding of the world and my place in it that I was taught from birth.
I’m working on finishing a PhD. The longer I’ve been in university, the more I’ve come to realize how much I dislike university. Academia likes to tell a lot of made up stories about their greatness and purpose, particularly when it comes to ideas like “Indigenization” and “decolonization”. It has been my experience that universities absolutely love the “Indigenous” protocols, ceremonies, and rituals – they love these expressions of culture. There is a belief that cultural interventions will work to decolonize and indigenize universities but I don’t believe this.
I’ve encountered many different people during my time as a student including some super-mega-academic-NDNs who work to out-NDN all the other NDNs. The most important characteristic of super-mega-academic-NDNs is that they are very good at offering criticism but terrible at offering alternatives or solutions. Super-mega-academic-NDNs are, like universities, all about cultural protocols, ceremonies, and rituals. Super-mega-academic-NDNs and universities make a good team.
As an Indigenous woman who is feminist in university, I know this institution wasn’t made for me and I’ve always felt like an outsider. This is true at home too, I’ve always felt like an outsider. As an Indigenous woman who is feminist in university who is not a cultural relativist and who thinks that women’s liberation is separate from culture has increased the outsider feeling ten-fold.
What I have witnessed and experienced in universities is cultural expressions without a solid foundation. Whether you’ve known your entire life or not that you were Indigenous, you can participate in any number of protocols, ceremonies, and rituals but if you don’t have an understanding of the world and how you fit in it and don’t live these principles, this participation is surface-level; an empty performance. This is not to say it can’t be helpful but that help is limited when you don’t know what you don’t know.
I was so fortunate to get to know my grandma and for her to teach me and for me to learn from her even if maybe what I learned is not what she intended to teach. Sometimes the learning process was very painful and it continues to be. My grandma has given me principles and a foundational world view that is not the same when learned later in life. I know many do not have the opportunity to learn from birth for all kinds of reasons. However, I do believe that important principles can be learned later in life although the result will be different – not less, not more, just different – than from a lifetime of learning.
What I witness in universities is an eagerness to learn cultural protocols, ceremonies, and rituals and a lack of willingness to learn and live “Indigenous” principles. I know this because I’ve witnessed and experienced hostile and unethical behaviour too many times to count from Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics, students, activists, and organizations. Telling an Indigenous woman when she presents on Indigenous methodologies to your class that she’s not allowed to actually talk about the focus of her research because she doesn’t think the same as you but let’s all sit in a circle and acknowledge territories and use language like “sovereignty” and “allyship” (I’m looking at you Concordia) is an example of the rejection of foundational principles and eager acceptance of “cultural” practices that don’t change anything beyond making white people feel better about themselves.
I was so fortunate to get to know my grandma and to get to spend so much time with her. I miss her every minute. There is lots more to say about what I have learned and how I apply this knowledge in my everyday life. I’ll tell more stories later.
I wrote this poem for my grandma a few months back and I got to read it to her after she had left. I hope she would have liked it.
KICK ASS GRANDMA: a poem by cherry smiley
Threw rocks every year at the woodpecker who was pecking on her chimney because he was being too noisy too early in the morning.
Went after a young bald eagle with a broom because he was staring at her grandchildren through the window at night.
Threw grass snakes as far as she could by the tail so they couldn’t eat little birds. Frogs, ok.
Threw rocks into the water to shut the frogs up because they were being too noisy too late at night.
Would shoot a .22 in the air to stop the owls from hooting at her.
Said no way she wasn’t going to go into the woods by herself for days and fast.
Dug a hole with her brothers and sisters at the old home place to make sure they had a place to go and hide in a squatch emergency.
Asked why Elders don’t just go sit in a corner then if they don’t want menstruating women walking behind them.
Wouldn’t let grandpa forget that half of everything belonged to her.
Gave advice like don’t ever get married and always have money that he doesn’t know about and I find all menfolk are problems somehow or another and why is he being stupid grandma because men are stupid hun.
Can never remember the Nlaka’pamux word for “muskrat”.
Came first in her class to become a military policewoman during WWII.
Would smuggle money she earned from fruit picking across the border in hair rollers on her head.
Never learned to drive a car but would drunk drive her walker on Christmas.
At 95 said she didn’t want to be around seniors because she doesn’t like old people.
Likes her old mill let’s go to the beer parlour.
Is quiet and loud and small and big.
Is not afraid of anyone. Except ghosts, sometimes she’s afraid of ghosts. Makes sense.
Have a good sleep chicken.
 Feminism refers to radical feminism.