Interview with Lorelei Williams
By: Anishka Nagji
Above: Untitled by Brendan Stephens
As a front lines legal advocate, I’ve been working in solidarity with Indigenous Nations, in particular, with indigenous women, asserting their sovereignty in the face of extreme oppression, ongoing genocide and state sanctioned violence. I was very excited to speak with Lorelei Williams as she’s been a strong and creative advocate for Indigenous women, particularly around the call for a nation wide inquiry into the epidemic of missing and murdered women in Canada.
The work she has done and continues doing is a testament to the strength and resilience of Indigenous women who continue to rise and resist, despite the imposition of a colonial system that directly threatens their land and lives.
Anushka: Can you discuss a bit about who you are and some of the work you’ve been doing?
Lorelei: My name is Lorelei Williams and I am from Skatin Nation on my mom’s side, and Sts’ailes on my dad’s side, and I do a lot of work around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. This has had a huge impact on my own family with my missing aunt, Belinda Williams, and my murdered cousin, Tanya Hollick, who was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton. So I started a dance group called Butterflies in Spirit*, and that was to get my missing aunt’s picture out there somehow, and also to honour my cousin Tanya. I work at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, where I work with families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. I do a lot of work with women in violent situations, with women in the Downtown Eastside, and I try to build positive relationships with the community and the police as well. I know that relationships between our communities and the police are bad because of our history but I feel like there needs to be changes somewhere. I also volunteer at the Vancouver Women’s Memorial March, the Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition. I’ve been doing that since I got involved in the Wally Oppal inquiry**, that’s where all of my work started.
Anushka: Thats a lot of history. We have reached a point now where the federal inquiry for missing and murdered women is getting going, after the provincial inquiry. Tell us a bit about what that looks like for you personally, and also for your community as well.
Lorelei: In the beginning when the inquiry was first announced, I found it very hard to believe. Ever since I started working, I’ve been pushing for this national inquiry, and with the change of government, we got it. It took that change in government for it to happen. I would be up there speaking against Stephen Harper, because he always said it wasn’t high on his radar, those were his words. I had a lot of hope at the beginning, especially with Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. When she became the minister, I actually cried because one of our women was in there.
Right now, at this point, I’m starting to lose hope. This inquiry has been a slow process. You know, maybe they’re taking time to hire the right people, but now I’m thinking okay, if we only have two years, is this taking time out of that? How much time will that leave us? Two years isn’t a lot of time. Even in the Oppal inquiry, that was six months I believe, and at the end families were pushing for an extension and they didn’t get that.
I know that this inquiry is opening a lot of wounds across the country, too. I don’t know if I or anyone else from my family will be testifying. We don’t know what the process is going to be like. We don’t know if families are going to be testifying directly in court, or if it’s just one family member who can testify, or a whole family. We’re left in limbo right now, and that’s eating away at me, that not knowing.
I get their emails, and that’s how I know they’re still in the hiring process. I hope that’s why it’s taking so long, that they’re taking the time to hire the right people.
Anushka:You talked about the BC inquiry. Tell us about some of the lessons that can be applied to the federal inquiry.
Lorelei: First of all, my family wasn’t even involved in the BC inquiry from the beginning. We only got involved because I stumbled upon a rally that they had outside of the inquiry. All of a sudden I met this lady from The Province newspaper, Suzanne Fournier, and she was very curious about me cause she didn’t know who I was or who I was representing. I noticed family members getting blanketed, and they had pictures on them of the women that had been killed by Pickton. I was thinking, I wonder if they made one for my cousin or if the family has to make one themselves. So I walked up to one of the organizers, and I asked her, and they started to look for Tanya’s blanket. Sure enough, there was a blanket for her with her picture on it. They blanketed me, there was this whole ceremony around it. At the end of the ceremony, Suzanne Fournier came up to me and asked me a bunch of questions, like why my family wasn’t involved. She introduced me to other family members, and they introduced me to the lawyers, who said “your family needs to be involved.” Right away I called my auntie Lila, and we got involved.
So that was a huge mistake from the beginning- not getting all the families involved. There were a lot of flaws in that inquiry. I missed a month of the inquiry because my mother passed away, but I remember, at the beginning, there were police officers on the stand- there were officers testifying and being cross-examined for days and days. When it came time for the community, who actually work with these women, they put five of them on the stand and I think they all had half an hour each and I was thinking they can cross examine a police officer for days – just one officer – but they put five people up with around a half hour each. That’s not a lot of time.
I remember one person specifically; Bonnie Fournier. She had a lot of information about those women because she worked with them and she had to say what she had to say in half an hour. I was like ‘how could they do this?’, they weren’t going to get a lot out of this. I was pretty upset about that but I know that some organizations were shut out of the inquiry and that’s how the coalition started; The Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition.
They have to make sure that the non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and the community is involved somehow because they work with a lot of women that are missing or have been murdered.
There’s a lot of issues with it, I know there’s some big ones I just can’t remember.
With the actual report itself, I haven’t actually looked at it fully. I tried to twice, but both times I was drawn to my cousin’s’ letter. My aunt had given them a letter that my cousin wrote and in the letter she states how much she loves her cousins. So both times I tried to read that report I just couldn’t. I just read her letter and shut the book closed. I still want to try to read it. This lady read the whole thing and she actually advised me not to read it. She said “Lorelei, don’t do it, it’s just too much for you”, like emotionally right?
There’s a lot more that I’ve said publicly about that inquiry and I don’t want the national inquiry to look like that inquiry. From what I remember, somebody told me that they called out the police and the RCMP a lot. The national inquiry should have reflected this aswell, but what I notice from the terms of reference for the national inquiry is that it’s not in there. I feel that’s very important. From what I hear is that Wally Oppal is saying “well we covered it”. But that’s just the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Coquitlam, that doesn’t cover all the RCPM and police officers across this country. These officers are a problem as well. They are the ones abusing our women and girls. That’s one important thing that needs to be brought up in this inquiry.
Anushka: Let’s talk a bit more about that because it’s come up a couple of times now where you’ve mentioned your communities and other Indigenous communities in general in relation with the police and specifically in regards to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tell us a bit in regard to your personal experience and larger experience of what that relationship is like. I know it’s a big question.
Lorelei: Well in our history, the police were the ones taking our children and bringing them to the residential schools. This is where that bad relationship started. To this day, they are still sexually and physically abusing our women. Even with what’s happening in Québec where all those officers were actually being charged***. That one’s upsetting. You get these women who finally get the courage to go against these officers which is really hard. It’s really hard to talk about this issue let alone call them out. And then for that to happen. I know there’s an incident here in Vancouver and I don’t know all the details about it yet because it’s going to court.
I’m just shaking my head. It’s just a slap in the face.
In my own family stories, in Tanya’s case there was a VPD Clerk; Sandy Cameron, who was racist and judgemental when taking my cousins case. She even closed my cousin’s case a month into it without even checking to see if Tanya was at this party. Even before that she was saying a lot of racist things and calling my aunt down to say “Tanya’s probably in Mexico partying”, “she’s just a drug addict”, and “I should take her son from you”. So not only are the police abusing our women, but these officers are flawing the cases if they’re taking reports like that.
Even in my aunt’s case; she wasn’t technically listed as missing or murdered until 2004, but she went missing in around 1977 or 1978. My family tried to report her as missing several times. Even during this Pickton stuff they tried to report her missing again but because my missing auntie Belinda Williams wasn’t a sex worker or a drug addict they wouldn’t even take her case.
Then there’s also the cases of women that were deemed as a suicide; those need to get looked into because a lot of them were not suicide. Where police just say “oh it’s a suicide” without even really looking into the case. I’m actually unclear whether that is even going to get brought up in the inquiry and I want to do more research into that and voice my opinion on it.
I hear stories all the time of police officers abusing women physically and sexuallly. Even in the Wally Oppal report, it stated that the police officers were throwing womens in the back of paddywagons and driving down alleys with them so they would be bumped around in the back. I know of one woman that was in court who lost her hearing because of that. These officers need to be held accountable for all these types of cases.
Above: Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown East Side, Coast Salish Territoies
Anushka: In this Federal Inquiry, that’s slowly coming together, do you feel that the police will be held accountable?
Lorelei: I don’t know. I really don’t know and that’s what’s bothering me; not knowing what this is going to achieve.
Anushka: What are some things you would want the inquiry to achieve? What are the objectives?
Lorelei: Well, those 700 recommendations that are already out there about missing and murdered women and violence against women need to be implemented. There’s already recommendations out there, there just needs to be a process where they are implemented, even the ones that come out of the inquiry. It’s something I noticed in the Wally Oppal inquiry, that these recommendations don’t get implemented and that’s what these inquiries are for.
So, I am on the Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition and we actually did a an open letter recently (December 2016). I’m just going to read some of it.
“The Coalition acknowledges that there are positive elements of the Inquiry****, but we are concerned that the larger issue of Indigenous women going missing and being murdered in this country every single day will not be adequately addressed given some clear limitations of the Terms of Reference*****. We also acknowledge that it may be very difficult to change the contents of the Terms of Reference now, but we ask you to not only seriously take the following issues into consideration when conducting the Inquiry, but actively work to include, solve, and answer them.
1) There is no explicit provision to examine the role policing has had in causing or contributing to the violence against indigenous women. The RCMP and other police departments, such as the Vancouver Police Department, have an extremely damaged relationship with indigenous communities, and ignoring this reality is deeply problematic. Several Indigenous women and families in Canada have reported instances of racism, brutality, and negligence on the part of law enforcement. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also recently recommended that Canada ensure that the Inquiry clearly covers the investigation of the role of the RCMP, provincial police, municipal police and police complaints commissions across all Canadian jurisdictions. While the Commissioners may be able to look into policing if they choose under the final Terms of Reference, we feel that this must be an explicit mandate. The recent horrific decision by the Montreal Police investigatory committee to exonerate the Sûreté du Québec in thirty-seven cases of sexual violence against Indigenous women leaves us disheartened at the prospects for justice for Indigenous women and girls. Corruption in the form of internal investigations of policing authorities and the systematic disbelief of survivors’ experiences continues to shield police officers from prosecution for violence against Indigenous women and girls.
2) The final Terms of Reference, released August 3rd, 2016, places emphasis on the examination of systemic causes of violence, proper and inclusive accommodations for victims and witnesses, and healing for families and communities. The Coalition is pleased that the federal government has included these provisions, as the MWCI****** largely ignored these issues and alienated families. That said, we are also concerned that without a provision specifically for the investigation of policing, the Inquiry will not lead to tangible change.
3) The final Terms of Reference state that if family members wish to contest old cases or report misconduct on the part of the police, the Commissioners are to direct them towards the “appropriate authorities”—presumably the same authorities who caused them this injustice in the first place. This does not, in any shape or form, provide families with proper or adequate redress, or any form of closure or justice. Again, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recently reiterated this concern and recommended that Canada establish a mechanism for the independent review of cases where there are allegations of inadequate or partial police investigations.
4) There must be an accountability framework in place to ensure that final recommendations from the Inquiry are fully resourced and implemented. During the course of our meeting with Minister Anton on August 3, 2016, she and her staff acknowledged that the provincial government cherry-picked which recommendations of the MWCI to implement (and which would be dismissed) without consulting with indigenous community members and organizations. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also expressed concern that Canada has not developed an action plan or coordinated mechanism to oversee the implementation of that Committee’s 2015 report, resulting in thirty-seven recommendations that have not been implemented. This cannot happen with the National Inquiry.
Finally, we urge the National Inquiry to interpret provincial legislative tools like BC’s Order in Council establishing a parallel provincial inquiry as broadly as possible so that they do not place additional and varying restrictions on the scope of the National Inquiry’s work from province to province, or inhibit the Inquiry’s ability to meaningfully investigate key subject areas.”
So, yeah I feel like I covered most of that.
The Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition is where I get a lot of information and support with my family’s case. They’ve helped me a lot with my family’s case.
Anushka: Much more than the authorities it sounds like
Lorelei: Oh yeah, for sure.
Above: Women’s Memorial March in the Downtown East Side, Coast Salish Territories
Anushka: How much participation do you feel like you’ve been able to have with the federal inquiry process?
Lorelei: Nothing. We did get to meet with the two commissioners in September but other than that nothing really and that wasn’t even supposed to happen. I think Michelle Audette arranged that. She just thought “Okay, they’re going to be in Vancouver to look at a space to set up their office” and she just set up a meeting which is great for thinking of us but ever since then we haven’t heard from them. I’ve just seen on their website that they are hiring.
Anushka: And you’ve mentioned, the positioning of Jody Wilson-Raybould in the government as an Indigenous woman was important as well and was something very important to you. Now that we’ve had some time to see what the Trudeau government is like, what they’ve been doing and maybe more accurately what they haven’t been doing, what are you opinions and feelings around that?
Lorelei: This is where I am starting to lose hope because of this process right now. I think Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is the only one that is giving that little hope that I still have. Honestly, even when they announced this national inquiry I heard Minister Carolyn Bennett and Patty Hadu speak but I felt like I wasn’t really listening or believing them and It wasn’t until Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould spoke that I started to cry and I couldn’t believe it was happening. I do have a lot of trust issues with the government and it’s only been Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould that has been giving me a little bit of hope and that’s all I got for this National Inquiry because I am starting to think is this actually going to achieve what is is suppose to achieve. Our Indigenous women’s and girl’s lives depend on this and it almost feels like they’re going to have this inquiry and that’s it, done, but our women and girls are still going to go missing and be murdered so what do we do after that and that is where all of the front line workers and our Indigenous communities have to figure out something, because the violence against women and girls is still going to happen. This is an issue here but it is also happening around the world, Canada being a first world country we should be leading by example, there isn’t one country that isn’t violence free for our women and girls and children; babies even. I heard a story recently about babies being taken, just stolen after they are born and taken to a place in the forest, I believe this was in Guatemala. We live in a world that is full of violence against women and girls and children, it has to stop somewhere.
Anushka: With that difficulty, it is very admirable and powerful to meet with someone like you and for you to be one of those voices of your community out there banging on the walls and rattling some of those cages. That’s an acknowledgement that I wanted to make clear.
What are your misgivings with the Canadian Federal Government, what we acknowledge as the colonial government, to be running this inquiry?
Lorelei: I really don’t trust them, especially after the Wally Oppal inquiry and after what they did to our people. They took our children, they tried to take the Indian out of us, how could I trust these people? During the Wally Oppal inquiry my mom passed away and she died from alcoholism. She was trying to numb the pain from what happened to her in residential school; physical and sexual abuse and even in her own home and it was there because of residential schools. When she died from alcoholism, trying to numb that pain of our history I was so upset, first of all that’s my mom dying but I blame the government and I actually wanted to sue the government for killing my mom. I even spoke to a lawyer about how i could do this. We talked about how I was going to try and figure that out,but after burning my mom, I just left it alone.
Anushka:What do foresee for your community in terms of how you want them to be involved, also how you would you want to deal with the continuing organizing around this kind of stuff?
Lorelei: There are a lot of people out there in the community pounding the pavement, we just have to keep going. If we are burning out though we actually have to take care of ourselves, i’m actually at the point right now. I had an elder tell me I’m burnt out. With our allies they need to just be there at the rallies, support the families the best they can, listen to the residential school survivors stories, listen to the families of missing and murdered women because that is where their journey starts, when they can finally open up about what happened to them, just having someone sit there and listen. There are so many experts out there that can help with any kind of situation, we have lawyers, journalists, counselors. Offer your expertise to help us.
Anushka: Where online can we go to see these open letters being written by the coalition, information and updates about when events are happening and how to contact and offer skills and financial support and other kinds of help?
Lorelei: When we do those letters or press releases they usually come out of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs website because that’s where we meet every month. That would be the best place to reach the missing or murdered women coalition. They can be reached at the UBCIC facebook page.
Anushka: Thank you so much to taking time with us, I know this is a busy and difficult time for you, we do look forward to keep in touch and support your work and your community.
L: Thank you
*Butterflies in Spirit is a Vancouver dance troupe started in 2012 by Lorelei Williams. Their mission is to raise awareness of violence against Aboriginal Women and Girls and the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls across Canada.
**A report published in 2012 by former B.C. attorney general, Wally Oppal, on how authorities handled cases involving missing and murdered women in the wake of the Robert Pickton case. It is also known as the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Policing in British Columbia
***In October 2015 a complaint was filed against six Quebec provincial police officers in Val-d’Or after several Indigenous women came forward with experiences of abuse from members of the force. This led to the officers involved being suspended with pay. In November 2016 the Crown prosecutors refused to charge the officers.
****The national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women
*****The scope of the inquiry
******Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry
Above: Still Dancing by Jonathan Labillois
A single mother from Skatin Nations and Sts’Ailes BC. Lorelei Williams is dedicated to raising awareness of the horrific issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Lorelei works at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre as the Women’s Coordiantor and is on the Missing and Murdered Women’s Coalition. She also created a dance group called Butterflies in Spirit, to commemorate Aboriginal female victims of violence in Vancouver and across Canada. Starting with her own missing aunt, Belinda Williams, and her cousin, Tanya Holyk, who was among the women murdered by convicted serial killer Robert . Pickton, Lorelei Williams sought to ensure that all missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada would be remembered.
Anishka is a queer Indian-Muslim writer, performer and anarchist revolutionary with burning buildings in her dreams and the weapons of love and chaos in her hands.
By Karen L. Culpepper
Greetings and much love coming to you from the Washington, DC metropolitan area (also known as the DMV). As you may have heard, we have a new president in town and my, my, my what a time it is to be a healer. At Freed Bodyworks, a space committed to radical inclusion for every body, my schedule is usually fully committed and I am holding space for more and more folks these days as both an herbalist and a bodyworker. On the one hand, there is a general sense of clarity and solidarity amongst communities that I am affiliated with as a healer. However, from the practitioner perspective, I am witnessing a great deal of grief, anxiety and uncertainty as I continue to do my work in the world.
Here are a few pearls and concepts that I have harvested from holding space for folks since the election in November and how I plan on tending to myself as a heart centered healer.
Tend to all of your bodies
In my role as a bodyworker, I am very appreciative that I am able to take my time and have a conversation with each client about how they are feeling in their bodies. Yes, that’s correct. We have multiple bodies, which include: the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual body. In my observation, what shows up in the physical body is usually the result of an upset in one of the other bodies.
For example, the other day I worked with a client that came in with discomfort in their shoulder, which had shown up previously from overuse. When they came in, they were guarding the shoulder to prevent further injury by limiting the range of motion. Towards the end of our intake, they casually mentioned that they had a heated discussion with a family member that had created some upset mentally and emotionally. I decided to include cupping during the session, specifically on the back and around both shoulders. At the end of the session, they felt very relaxed and I mentioned that the gallbladder can have referred pain around the shoulder and part of the gall bladder meridian runs near the shoulder. The next day upon check in, they felt better in their body, their shoulder felt relief with less discomfort upon movement and they had a larger than normal bowel movement that morning. I was impressed at the results of the cupping and thankful that their body decided to let some things go.
How do you tend to all of your bodies? Here are a few ideas on how to tend to each essential layer.
Physical body: Mineral dense food to feed your cells and higher self. Schedule a massage. Try energy work. Sensual touch. Hydrate with clean water, fresh juices and mineral rich teas like nettles and red raspberry leaf.
Mental body: Unplug from the electronics. Sit in silence. Create healthy boundaries. Schedule a talk therapy session, if it serves. Purchase a coloring book and a nice set of markers and embrace your inner child. Perform self scalp massage with warm sesame oil.
Emotional body: Laugh until your belly shakes. Design your mood every day by choosing it. Ask for help and check in with folks if you are in breakdown. Dance. Connect with plants and nature. Breathe deeply. Purchase a few essential oils that resonate with you to reset your mood and clear the energy in your spaces.
Spiritual body: Design and practice self care rituals. Remove yourself from the presence of toxic people, places and things. Discover crystals that resonate with you and have them on you for protection or rejuvenation. Soak in healing spiritual baths.
Do YOUR work
I am blessed to work with an amazing team of activists and practitioners. I also have the honor of holding space for clients in the social justice realm, which includes: artists, activists, educators and healers, who are actively and tirelessly showing up in their prospective movements. I am saddened when I hear about a lack of vitality and the health breakdowns in this population as a result of not putting their own oxygen masks on first. Some folks are so invested in the movement, yet are emotionally unavailable for their loved ones or can brilliantly strategize a plan of action, yet cannot work through personal issues. Liberate yourself FIRST. Take the time to work through those unresolved challenges at home and in the personal realm. Trust and believe, it will rear its head. I have a wonderful colleague who held space as a facilitator for a group to work through their organizational challenges. The main source of the upset: personal matters were showing up and getting in the way of an entire local movement. Get off the ego stuff and do the shadow work for the sake of those closest to you and your movement.
The mind creates the clutter
Be aware of your thoughts and words. In graduate school I learned the following two concepts, which I still use with clients today: “we word our worlds into being” and “there is what is so, and the story you make up around what is so.” When we speak into someone’s listening, we are creating our reality. Be mindful of statements such as “this headache is killing me” and the infamous “I can’t” because my response is usually “ok you just decided you won’t, now what?” With your speaking, are you choosing to design a small world with limitations or a large world full of possibility? What is so is this: in November 2016, a new president was elected into office in the United States. Now you pick a story about what is so because there are so many to choose from at this point. My request is to use your word medicine wisely.
Note to Self: stay in formation
In the words of Erykah Badu “who gave you permission to rearrange me? Certainly not me.” Do NOT join in on the suffering of others. That is not your game plan and that is not your battle to fight. As a practitioner, I will not create the capacity to join in on the suffering of others. As a bodyworker, I trust my guides to lead me to the places in the body where there is holding and resistance and create space for the client to just be; perfect, whole and complete as they are. As an herbalist, my intention is for spirit to guide me to the plants that will best serve in the moment and create ease and transformation for the client. My gifting is to hold space for your highest self to come through and express itself in the biggest way possible.
Pleasure and self care as acts of resistance
Guess what I did for the first time ever this year? I created the fiercest, juiciest sex goals with sex educator Lisa Swinney of Afrosexual. She introduced a concept that blew my mind away: pleasure as an act of resistance. Many of our ancestors did not have a say about aspects of their bodies, specifically in the realm of reproduction. As a result, I am choosing to invite more fun into my life (and bedroom). My high school sweetheart and I have 24 years of beautiful partnership and the thought of creating space for higher vibrations, more spontaneity, healing and deeper connection in the form of sex majick brings healing, joy and pleasure into all of my bodies.
Self care is an integral part of my practice. When I neglect self care, I do not feel well in my bodies at all. I created a clearing spray and a protection spray for use on clients and in between each session to shift the energy in the treatment room. I have personal clearing rituals at the beginning and end of my work shifts. I create boundaries and cutoff times for communication with the outside world once I get home. I do head to toe spiritual baths, which include salts, herbs and my home made florida water. Please take any of these sacred steps (and create your own) and apply them to protect and preserve your energy so that you may come to the table more fully.
My movement is in mason jars
The two things that have never let me down are my spirit guides and plant spirit medicine. I set the intention to drink quarts of herbal tea every day because it literally sustains my vitality. Tea is an ancient and very simple ritual. It helps create pause and invites patience and beauty into the day. I currently have two different tea blends in rotation. First is my heart space tea, which is a combination of organic red rose petals, holy basil, hawthorn leaf and flowers and damiana and it helps me stay grounded in and connected to compassion. My other favorite blend is my holy basil chai, which is a combination of holy basil, cinnamon chips, dried ginger root, cardamom pods and ground cloves and is a source of wonderful, warm aromatics that help me stay focused on the tasks for the day.
In the face of change and uncertainty, let us not forget the sacrifices of our ancestors, the strength of community and the wisdom and resilience of the spirit. Right after the election I got so clear and connected with my work in the world: I am space holder for healers to heal and do their work in the world. That is my offering, medicine and movement. What is your medicine? What is your balm that will bring soothing and healing to your communities? Create space to figure it out and do it with all your heart. We need you. Right now. In this moment.
Karen L. Culpepper
Karen L. Culpepper is a clinical herbalist and licensed massage therapist in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. She can be reached at email@example.com.
by Bahar Orang
What do you carry, so soft and heavy
inside that swollen, crooked belly?
Is it the lumpy globe, round as bum-cheeks
fecund as forever, green and blue and brown ?
Is it a swinging basket, filled to bustling brim
with apple-bosoms, flower-fleet, rustling, rising leaves?
Or is it a little pot, rich and rushing earth, with simple-seed,
lifting its gentle palms to your aching skin?
What’s in that heaving hammock, that glowing, lilted lantern?
Is it every star and every moon, every celeste and all the rest,
dust and dove and dream, filling your fiercest belly?
It might be beauty, so much inside of you
But agony for sure, as baby-bud lifts its branches,
rearranging you, making and unmaking you,
breathing you in and breathing you out,
as it does and undoes your body-home,
stretching riven-roof, pushing upon unready-door.
Do you know how strong and brave and bold you are?
To give, to give, just like you do
Sharing blood and limb, knowing love and pain
To bloom and burst just like you do, to move slow, breathe fast,
and to listen, like this, to something else, to someone else.
We’ll take care of you, precious magic that you are
caretakers of each other, where all babies should be born.
Bahar is a student from Hamilton who cares about rad healthcare, poetry, kissing.
By Cassandra Thompson
Healing is not an overnight occurrence, nor does it look the same for everyone. What works for me may not work for you and that is entirely okay. Commonalities I find in most personal reconciliation processes is trial and error, taking the well-meaning-but-poor advice of friends and family and mitigating triggers and painful re-livings. There’s immense affirmation and beautiful re-learnings of self. It’s full of making hard decisions, full of following what makes you feel good
We are healing, all of us, all the time.It takes days, years, decades, lifetimes, but it can be a reality. We just have to find a way to the first remedy or ritual. The breakthrough. The beginning. It is our right to access it. And yet it is so challenging. Especially when we seek to find healing methods that are inclusive of our lived experience as IBPOC. How can we resist and heal simultaneously?
I found my answer in Hoodoo. I found it through strengthening communion with my ancestors in a practical way, alongside finding remedies for physical and energetic ailments. It has long been appropriated and repurposed, but my resistance is reclaiming it for myself, my ancestors and other queer, Black folk like me.
Hoodoo uses the natural elements (earth, water, air, fire & spirit realm/ether) to alchemically shift energy to generate specific results, predominantly centered around healing and justice.
This is my medicine. This is my freedom. This is my reclamation of my power. This is a reclamation of my ancestry. This is afro-diasporic and accessible, rooted in the Continental African religion of Yoruba, and given continued life by Black and Indigenous womxn of the Southern US and Canada.
We have forms of herb work and root work in all of our communities. We can access our ingredients from grocery stores or health food markets, bulk barns and our own gardens. It will be in the rituals you saw family engage in; it will be in the mixtures your family gave you when you were ill or the superstitions that were followed (though no one quite knew why they believed them anymore). It is in between the lines of these common practices that we find magick. In what we eat, in what we wear, bathe in or adorn our home in. It’s in ritualizing your connection with your ancestors. Spending time giving thanks to those who came before you, fuelling your spirit with theirs such that you can always be brought back to a rock steady. Strength. Resolve.
As a descendant of enslavement, a displacement that has had deep and long term generational effects, I seek to reconnect with my heritage through magick & herb work (Hoodoo) to mitigate this, along with continued, communal and personal trauma. It is tangible and effective, and it shows me how much of my power to heal and change and resolve and redefine, truly comes from within. I realise that the answers are all inside, because that’s where the ancestors reside.
When reviewing texts, consulting elders and others, only work with what resonates; claim only that which speaks to your spirit. Right and wrong are relative. Only YOU know what you need. I often get asked what books to read…but go to your grandmother first; your grandfather; your family. There is magick in your lineage. Start there, for that is where it will end.
Here’s a few tips that I’ve found effective when on the path of healing through ritual and herbwork:
1. Never let them steal your magick; drink yarrow and mugwort tea to keep your ancestors close and your spirit unbothered.
2. Plant rosemary around your home, speak to her, love her up, give her lots of water; she’ll protect you when you aren’t looking.
3. Asafoetida worn at the waist will keep the police away. FUCK THE POLICE! Everybody sing! Let that spiritual ring! A’se!
4. Each morning, pour some water in a clean cup for your ancestors; welcome them home. Bless the water with your heart. Promise to protect it by any means necessary. Feel your ancestors smile down upon you; they will strengthen your spirit with their light.
5. Hang sage on the door to bring strength to the womxn, femmes and gender-queer folks in your home. It’ll also protect ya neck.
6. Mix lavender, rose, calendula and peppermint to make a great drink. Hot or cold. With honey to taste. Burn benzoin on charcoal. Take a smoke. Have a glass of wine. A cup of kombucha. Slip back into your body.
7. Carry salt & eucalyptus in your pocket. Add gravel root when seeking ideal employment.
8. Soak your body in oats and chamomile to soothe the skin. Boil them a bit to release the good stuff.
9. Rub your sore spots with a rag soaked in boiled comfrey and a few drops of cannabis oil. Have a lover do it. Have all your lovers rub you down. We ain’t bout monarchies over here, but damn it feels good to be treated like the king you are!
10. Keep a bowl of water under your bed, where you lay your head, to increase dreaming.
11. Light a black candle, blessed with black pepper & agua de florida, to keep the fuckbois away.
12. Mix your drinks with kombucha to keep the probiotics in your belly. It’ll help your food (whatever food you get) do more for your body.
13. Your ‘intuition’ is your ancestors. Trust that tingle across your back, that feeling in your belly, or that sensation in your chest. They’re trying to speak to you. They always have and they always will.
14. Write yourself love notes when you’re feelin’ your damn self; you may need the reminder on cloudier days.
15. Take selfies.
16. Take more selfies.
17. Hibiscus and dragon’s blood will keep you feelin’ like a baaaaaddie while cedar and cinnamon will allow you to stay boujee.
18. Put your whole body on the earth; feel the expanse of this omnipotent mass of life under you. Do this as a reminder that the earth will always have your back and hold you up. You have the earth’s back, and the earth has yours. Keep the fight up and go back to her when you need someone or something else to be strong for you. It’s okay to retreat.
In fact, it’s necessary.
19. TURN THE FUCK UP! Your joy is the ULTIMATE resistance and the most soothing of medicines.
Artwork by Thomarya ‘Tee’ Fergus
Cassandra is a queer conjure womxn & founder of Crystal Root & Conjure; an apothecary that ‘doctors the root’ for protection, healing & self care.
Thomarya “Tee” Fergus
Tee is a visual artist, tattooist and documenter who uses multiple mediums. Inspired by her Caribbean roots and the socio-political aspects that impact our lives.
Excerpt from the upcoming e-book “Quantum Healing: Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves.
by Sharrae Lyon
Illustration by Eli
When I think of darkness, two things comes to mind. That of the Hindu goddess Aditi and the many nights I spent as a child afraid of the bumps, the eerie shadows. One representation of darkness is expansive, the other an experience of fear, replicated in other life experiences portrayed as real dangers.
I’ll start with my nighttime childhood experiences.
Actually, I wasn’t entirely afraid of the dark. I never wanted to go to sleep and spent my nights watching television with my mother. When I would retire into my room, I would lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling where glow-in-the dark stars would reflect back at me. I liked nothing more than standing under a starry sky and feeling so tiny and insignificant, but in total awe that I could possibly exist.Night was in some senses, enjoyable. But it also unearthed many fears of being kidnapped and alien abductions. This probably didn’t help that I watched The Learning Network’s (TLC)’s primetime programming that always talked about serial killers and aliens! I remember lying in bed, unable to sleep, recounting the possibilities that something bad could happen. I’d look over to my wall, and I would see a shadow bouncing on it’s surface, my ears told me that there was something rustling out my window. I would lie there, frozen, petrified. But I decided that I needed to see for myself what was dancing on my wall. I slowly took off the covers and sat on my knees and gently peered through my window. To my total relief there was nothing but a tree outside my window, and of course it was its branches that were playing on my bedroom wall. I would sigh in relief and my ever-pattering heart would slow down and I would drift softly to sleep.
I think as children we all had these monsters in the closet type scenarios. We live in a society that conditions us to fear the dark. In fact, our obsession with escaping the dark can be seen in our need to always have artificial light to make us feel safe and comfortable. It almost seems that we as little children have actually not grown up. This is the case for those who live in urban. For those of us who live in the country, the darkness covers like a blanket. A moment to retire, to slow down and regenerate towards the next day.
Indigenous cultures all throughout the world have remarkable understandings of the rhythms and purposes of the sun and moon. All of which align with their own community connection to the cosmos. In no way is fear and darkness synonymous entities, but the darkness, much like fear are lessons, messages for us to look deeper at who we are, and what drives us forward.
Aditi, The Hindu Mother of the Sky, the Mother of all the planets, galaxies, she is the Mother of all Life. It is through her dark womb that all is dreamed and born. She is the embodiment of Time and Space. The Mother of what we know to be the zodiac. She is the Darkness, the Void and within her endless black darkness of space, lies all possibilities. She is the Mother of the Past and the Future and it is through connecting to the dark reaches of our soul, that we can birth the Light.
I have lived with anxiety and depression, having many bouts and episodes. As I’ve aged and deepened my spiritual practice, some truths have come to light. Three of which will be the premise for this e-book.
- Our fears are actually clues to our deepest desires
- We do have the capacity to control our mind, and thus impact our feelings and lastly change our behaviours.
- Love transforms all.
When we are moving in and out of our days experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, we are in essence living unhappily. We feel that we don’t have control over our lives. We look at our defeats and lose all confidence that we are able to deal with the complexities of life. We may look also at our triumphs and accomplishments and they may make us feel better for some time, but something just doesn’t seem to stick.
Many spiritual traditions talk about the importance of learning how to transcend our circumstances, to ascend to a transcendent consciousness, one that builds our mental, emotional and spiritual resilience.
But how the hell does one do that?
Starting With Self — So within, So without
Indigenous traditions understood that we as humans have the power to self-heal. We once lived intimately with nature, understanding that we were one with nature. We didn’t see ourselves as separate or above plants, animals or other creatures. Instead, we had a great respect to the many beings that existed, and found ways to co-exist. When we needed the meat for survival, or to pick plants and herbs we always expressed gratitude in the form of prayer, not only to whatever name of the Creator we had, but also to the animal or plant that sacrificed themselves to us.
Of course there has always been periods of history where this was not the case. It is so important not to essentialize indigenous cultures or to blame solely European colonization for the ills that we have today. However, the events of European colonization and enslavement of indigenous, African, Asian peoples plays a more vivid role in our contemporary means of existing. But even with this being said, there are others who may not function from this lens. In order for us to move forward towards a harmonious future, we need to develop the capacity whereby we do not force perspectives on each other. Though, because there does exist pockets in our society that desire to spread fear and division, it is important to name it when doing the work of undoing unhealthy patterns to come back to our communities more strong and capable of standing to the values of truth, love and harmony.
However, to change our circumstances, we must do the difficult work of traveling within. In indigenous understandings of the intricate relationship between the individual and the external, they all say that what is experienced in the Self, is experienced without.
But what exactly is the Self?
If we are to accept that we are Human, which is by no means a low status of being, we will need to start to recognize the powerful role that we play in this natural world. We have to begin to challenge the notions that we have been fed of limitation and constraint. To be human, is in fact to be a representation of divinity. However, because we live in a high consumer culture that would rather have us dumbed down and distracted with junk that doesn’t feed or nurturer us, whether that be in food or culture of consumption, we have to struggle to remember who exactly we are. You are not your possessions, you are not what you do, you are not an identity, you are a Being that is consistent of the ingredients of the five elements: water — your blood, semen, saliva, fire— , earth—-, wind—your mind, thoughts, and metal. You consist of a body, a mind and a Soul/Spirit. When we are fed things that do not feed our minds, or bodies and spirits, we become sick. When we are surrounded in environments that do not nurture us, we become sick. When we are sick, we descend into a darkness, we land in perhaps the most fertile soil. The soil of change and transformation.
The first step to healing our lives is by taking responsibility and acknowledging the fact that all the things that seem to consistently be misshaping comes down to us. We cannot blame anyone for where we are, because we are where we are due to the ways that we have respond to all that happens to us. In fact, we cannot even blame ourselves. We have to just accept where it is that we are and give ourselves the permission to move forward. There will be days that will feel like you are going backward, but just keep on moving.
Stillness in motion. Motion in stillness.
I speak from experience. I have felt beaten down after losing jobs, being betrayed, surviving toxic and abusive relationships. It wasn’t until after one particular relationship that literally threw me in the ring when it came to psychological and emotional trauma that I had to say — “wait one minute, how did I get here? To this place where I would allow someone to literally come into my own home and dump upon me all their own warped traumas?” I had integrated their false claims of who I was and identified with it. I had lost a sense of who it is that I truly was. It was tough and it influenced many areas of my life. However, what I didn’t know in the moment that I was experiencing it, is that it actually was preparing me for an entirely new chapter of my life. A chapter that I am only beginning to surrender to and unfold. If it were not for that relationship, I perhaps would still be living my life, an artist not practicing her art, living in a city that didn’t inspire her. Since that relationship I have gone up and down in establishing balance within myself. I still have bouts of depression and anxiety, but with each episode I learn more skills of not only how to cope, but also how to gain balance and solidity. In my dive into my mind and emotions, in addition to establishing a spiritual practice, I learn the teachings of the powers of love, the interwoven co-existence of light and dark, and the ability to greatly transform.
All we gotta do, is let go.
When I realized that it is the pillars of beliefs that I hold and the attached thoughts that are used to uphold those beliefs that were dictating my life, I took it upon me to dive deep and challenge these beliefs. I’ve recognized that many of the beliefs that I have been operating under actually were never mine to begin with, but were adopted by family conditioning, a current friend group, or absorbing other elements of society. I consistently have to challenge my notions around purpose, love and relationships, what is possible, by asking myself the question: what is it that I want to believe? What is that I want to create?
It is there that we begin the journey of healing our lives. It is then, that we realize that we are our own medicine.
Sharrae Lyon is a facilitator, writer, filmmaker and public speaker. Her work is grounded in reframing mental health as transformation. To inquire about current workshops, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eli is queer artist residing in Toronto. They are an aspiring illustrator and writer. You can contact them at email@example.com. Check out their bigcartel: @piscesprincx , or their instagram, twitter and tumblr by the same names
by Joanne Kewageshig
Honey itself is a wonderful health enhancing food! Adding herbs to honey enhances both the health benefits of honey, as well as the taste. Honey makes an excellent dressing for wounds and has been used throughout history on open wounds and ulcers on the surface of the skin. You do not need to use a herb infused honey for this. It has also been shown that honey can help soothe coughs in young children and even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving honey to children to soothe coughs. By carefully selecting herbs suited to you, your child or whoever is taking the herb honey, you can enhance the benefits of taking honey.
So how do you make a herbal honey at home? It’s really simple! Before we proceed, however, a word about what kind of honey to use. A lot of commercial honey that you can purchase in stores has been pasteurised. This means it has been heated to kill bacteria. Although this may sound like a good thing, the pasteurization process also kills or removes many of the healthy, natural compounds found in honey – the good bacteria, enzymes, micronutrients and small amounts of pollen which can help alleviate allergy symptoms. To get the full health benefits of honey you want to use raw, unpasteurized honey. Also you don’t want to boil it or raise the heat too high when making syrup. If you do, you will be pasteurizing the honey and looking the health benefits. In Canada, any honey that you see in a store that says “Pasteurized” has been, well, pasteurized. If it doesn’t say pasteurized on the label then you have raw honey!
Dried herbs in the pan.
Here we have White Pine (Pinus Strobus) and Cherry Bark (Prunus virginiana)
What you need:
2oz dried herbs or 3-6oz fresh herbs
4 cups water
2 cups honey
A strainer basket
Cheesecloth or other cloth to line the strainer
Coffee filter (optional)
Put your herb mix in a pot and cover with 3 to 4 cups of cool water. Cover with a lid and turn heat to medium low. When the water and herbs just begin to boil, you can the turn the heat down – and take the lid off- and allow it to simmer at a very low heat. Now we want to let the herb and water mixture simmer or steam very gently until about half or more of the water has boiled off.
Here the herbs and water have come to a boil. At this stage I will turn the heat down, take the lid off and allow it to gently simmer for an hour or so minutes. After simmering, turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes. Next, strain the herbs out through a strainer lined with cheesecloth or other light material. I strain the tea a second time through a coffee filter. This ensures that you have removed all the tiny herb particles, but is not necessary if you are making syrup for your own or your family’s use. The herbs have been strained out, the tea simmered down and now to add the honey
Next, pour the tea back into a clean pot and put it on a burner over low heat. In this step you want to evaporate some of the water until you have approximately one cup of tea left. This will give you a really concentrated herbal tea. Turn off the heat and allow the tea to cool again for a few minutes. Now you can add 2 cups of honey to the tea in the pot and stir gently until the honey and tea are completely mixed together. Turn off heat and pour the honey into a jar or bottle. Melting and mixing the honey and strained tea over low heat. So now that you know how to make a syrup, what herbs should you use? That depends on what you want to use your syrup for. Herbal honey’s are great to sweeten and flavour tea. One of my favourites to use this way is a syrup made with Ginger, Cinnamon and Elecampagne.
The possibilities for herb combinations for syrups is really only limited by your imagination and what you have on hand, so go ahead and be adventurous! Elderberries (Sambucus sps) are very popular for making syrups and Elderberry Syrup is excellent to have on hand during cold and flu season. Other popular herbs for treating coughs and colds include: Mullein (Verbascum Thapsis), Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), Horehound (Marrubium vulgare), Ginger (Zingiber officinalis), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Wild Cherry Bark (Prunus virginiana, P.serotina), New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae,) Evergreen species and more. You can always research what herbs may be suitable for your situation or look up the individual herbs. There are different kinds of coughs, and different herbs are suited to treat each individual person and their own particular circumstances.
My name is Joanne Kewageshig. I am a settler in Anishnaabe Territories and live with my husband and four children at Stoney Point First Nation, aka Aazhoodena. I have studied and worked with herbs for over 20 years, completing the Dominion Herbal College course, “Chartered Herbalist” in 2000. Our family seeks to live a traditional Anishnaabe way of life; we hunt, fish, gather and grow food and medicine and attend powwows and ceremony. We run our family herbal business- Honey Pot Herbals- from home. www.honeypotherbals.ca
Decolonizing Indigenous Youth Suicide
by Tunchai Redvers
My heart weeps
For those who feel they are not good enough
That they are not strong enough
That they are not worthy to themselves, to their communities, to their country
My heart weeps
Because Canada has made it near impossible for Aboriginal youth to feel supported
They are not supported
They are pushed to the peripheries of our society
Of our land
Of our nation
We have made a choice
To value certain lives over others
To ignore pain so strong that communities are painted with blood
To make excuses and half-assed statements
To not even try to understand the trauma that is present
My heart weeps and nobody cares
Hearts are weeping and nobody cares
We have entered a new era
Where children are no longer taken from their culture and families and sent off to residential schools
But instead where children are left alone to do the deed that Canada could not finish
Canada can now deny blame because its hands are not getting dirty
Because Aboriginal children are killing themselves
A suicidal genocide
A turned head, a pocket full of resources thrown past those who need it most
How many hanged children does it take for a nation to care?
In the 1880s the Government of Canada implemented the residential school system, where Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and families and placed into church-run schools where they were subject to assimilative and abusive practices, and where many of them died. The last residential school closed in 1996, yet in 2016, the suicide rates for Aboriginal youth in Canada are five to seven times higher than non-Aboriginal youth in Canada. The response to this ongoing crisis has been one that centers on the injection of government dollars into crisis-oriented and short-term solutions. In many of the isolated communities where these youth are attempting to (and succeeding in) taking their own lives, non-Indigenous social workers and mental health workers are flown into the community for a few weeks to a few months at a time to counsel broken youth and families, only to leave and never come back again until the next string of suicides. The same response would, however, not be deemed appropriate or even considerable if a string of suicides occurred in a non-Indigenous community. A key characteristic of colonialism is the effort to govern Indigenous peoples, and therefore at its heart is the construction of unequal relations of power between the colonizers and the colonized.
In 2009, the National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy Program Framework identified suicide as the second leading cause of death among Aboriginal youth. Seven years after this prevention strategy was released, suicide is now identified as the leading cause of death. Clearly then, the response that Canada has given to the issue of Indigenous youth suicide has not been adequate Considering that conditions have only worsened, Canada’s response (or lack thereof) appears to have only made things worse. In order to appropriately and adequately address the injustice of Indigenous youth suicide in Canada, the response to Indigenous youth suicide needs to be decolonized.
How does imposing colonial perspectives of helping and a Western mental health framework onto youth now differ from the imposition of religious and colonial values onto children in residential schools? We cannot discern between the two. Western narratives of mental health and helping need to be scrapped and replaced with practices that are guided three key pieces of social justice: fostering positive identification, opportunities for self-expression, and invitations to participate in decision-making. Indigenous youth need to have a say in how they are being helped and be invited to create their own mental health programming; they need people working with them who they can relate to and whom they trust; and they need programming that reflects their communities and culture. Three practices that reflect these key pieces are listening, using role models, and challenging current norms. These three things are grounded in a preventative and holistic rather than reactive approach to addressing suicide.
and it is not
take out the
keys we already
and listen with
that we can
a nation’s pain
How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement. The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives whom we constantly try to fix — is in part due to a mode of ‘helping’ that allows us to dismiss each other. My brother was holding a workshop with Indigenous youth in Vancouver prior to the launch of our organization, We Matter, a national multi-media campaign for Indigenous youth who are going through a hard time. During this workshop he had posed a question to the youth aged 13 to 19 years-old: “What would help you most as youth (who have either contemplated or attempted suicide)?” In response, a teenage boy said something along the lines of: “We want people to help us not because they have to, but because they want to.” When my brother shared this anecdote with me, the first thing I could think of was the millions of dollars’ worth of non-Indigenous social workers being flown into Indigenous communities to counsel youth attempting suicide. It also made me wonder how many of those social workers asked these youth “What would help you most?”
Friere, argues “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building”. Indigenous youth are never going to feel hopeful in their existence so long as they are entrenched in a culture of silence, and only prescribed with solutions from others. Youth in these communities are the experts in what they are experiencing and know exactly what it is that they need in order to feel supported. Any attempt to empower youth out of suicidal ideation without listening to their needs only perpetuates what has become a common narrative since the time of residential schools: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. Preventative and proactive solutions to youth suicide simply involve sitting down and listening to the needs of youth, and encouraging a dialogue that affirms youth struggle and their capacity in determining solutions for their own well-being.
You are as strong
As the ones who
Walked before you
We come from the blood
And the heart
So when you
Hold your head low
Look for the path carved
In front of you
Rather than the current mental health mechanisms that favour Western evidence-based practices and therapeutic models that are used by individuals going to and working in communities, Indigenous youth can be introduced to people who have experienced what they are experiencing and who can build mentoring relationships with them. Role modeling is an indirect and non-confrontational way of helping that can serve and support youth to see their own potential. I recall being a young teenager who was always so lost in my identity due to the limited number of positive Indigenous role models who were portrayed in textbooks and the media. The strong, intelligent, and successful native was never a person that I thought existed, so when I started to struggle with mental health and other issues, I felt completely helpless in my ability to overcome.
When I began to hear life stories from people who had experienced struggle and overcome that struggle, people who I could relate to and who inspired me, I began to feel better about the process of working through the tough parts of life and moving forward. Storytelling yields powerful solutions in the lives of those who speak and of those who listen. Indigenous role models and mentors are an incredible asset that can be utilized in communities. Investing in mentorship programs and the promotion of Indigenous faces in media, on posters, and in schools can yield much better results in addressing youth suicide than imposed workers who do not understand the culture, language, or environment where youth reside. Indigenous mentors and role models have life experiences that have bred lessons, and these lessons are much more powerful when they are shared truthfully and thoughtfully with those seeking guidance rather than therapy.
My tongue grew up weighted
And for every word I learn
To speak in my language
It gets a generation
Through the trees
My breath is clear
The whisper of a new day
Lingering on my tongue
As my heart is lulled
Into the timeless warmth
Of a moon so tranquil
That suddenly everything seems
- full moon
For over a century, Indigenous peoples have been forcibly disconnected from their land and culture. The children that were taken to residential schools lost their languages, culture, and connections to the land and water where they were from. Today, seven generations later, this disconnection has been passed on to many of the youth. Ross notes that everything healers explore seems to boil down to connection and disconnection. Mental health, land, and culture are three things that cannot be separated. When mental health is discussed separately from land and culture,(as is the case in Western discussions of mental health), there is disconnection. Positive identity comes from understanding where one comes from, so when youth do not have the tools present to explore and learn about who they are and where they come from, parts of themselves are missing.
I propose two scenarios. In one scenario, multiple youth in a community are on suicide watch, and the government has allocated money for a crisis worker from outside the community to rotate every week into the northern community to meet with these youth. A few months have passed, and either the crisis worker chooses to discontinue their work, or the money for the short-term crisis work has run out. In another scenario, multiple youth are on suicide watch, and the government has allocated long-term funding for the community to hire a respected traditional knowledge holder and hunter to take these youth out on the land on a regular basis. The youth are able to spend time learning traditional activities, connecting to the land and water, and listening to teachings about the history of the area. They are able to build relationships with each other and a local community member, while also skill building and spending time connecting to everything around them.
Mental health programming needs to be done in a way that encompasses Indigenous understandings of wellness and that fosters positive identity among youth in their regional contexts. This can so easily be done using current community strengths and drawing on resources such as culture and land as healing processes. Long-term and sustainable community-based programming that encompasses Indigenous values has the potential to transform the way youth understand themselves. Decolonizing Indigenous youth suicide means involving youth in programming processes, promoting positive identity, findings ways to share with and connect to youth, using local community strengths, and defining mental health in a non-Western way. An elder told me once that “spirit lives on love, patience, and understanding”, and this is exactly how we need to feed the spirits of Indigenous youth.
Comack, E. (2012). Colonialism Past and Present. In Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police. (pp. 66-68). Fernwood Publishing.
Friere, P. (2003). Chapter One. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (pp. 43-69). New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group.
Gale, T. (2000). Rethinking social justice in schools: How will we recognize when we see it? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4(3), 253-269.
Michael, H. (2002). Foundations of an Aboriginal Approach. In Seeking Mino-Pimatsiwin: An Aboriginal Approach to Helping. (pp. 39-59). Fernwood Publishing.
Palmer, P. (2004). Deep Speaks to Deep: Learning to Speak and Listen. In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. (pp. 113-128). San Francisco: Joseey-Bass.
Tunchai Redvers is a Dene/Metis 2Spirit social justice warrior, writer and wanderer born from Denendeh roots in what is now the Northwest Territories. Through her writing, work, studies, and being, she actively works to normalize and decolonize discussions on hardship, hope and healing, and indigenize mental health, identity and self-love. She is the the co-founder of We Matter, a national non-profit organization committed to Indigenous youth empowerment, hope and life promotion.
by jay bird
I would like to acknowledge the position I am speaking and living from. I am a white european settler living in the occupied territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Neutral nations. The privilege that I hold because of the color of my skin impacts how I am received in spaces, how I access resources, and how others view me. I recognize that my experience as a white, queer, trans/non-binary person shapes my experience and perceptions of community care.
Community is a fairly new concept to me. In fact, it wasn’t even until recently that I acknowledged the importance of one. I moved around a lot as a kid. Twelve times before grade ten to be exact. I lived in three different provinces, five different towns (seven now), and went to eight different schools. This was partly because of work (there’s not a lot of options in Newfoundland, and most people leave to find money somewhere on the mainland) and partly because of finances, and inability to pay rent, and the “on again off again” relationship between my parents.
I got pretty skilled at making friends fast, but not getting attached and didn’t get along with my family much. My brother was physically and verbally abusive, my mom was emotionally abusive, and my dad mostly worked out west and would be home for a couple weeks at a time. When he was, he would also be verbally and physically abuse – although he seemed to exclude me from those actions. I had very little else to compare it to so I figured it was just how families functioned. I don’t remember much about my childhood. If I think extensively about it, I can get glimpses. But most of it is clouded and blurry, if not missing entirely. I’ve been told by many books written by and/or for survivors that this is a pretty common defense mechanism. Something that I didn’t know until this past year as I started to have memories appear – seemingly – out of nowhere. I went from thinking that I experienced one assault when I was 11 years-old to realizing that I was working through flashbacks, memories, and feelings from what I believe to be a two to three year long assault by a family member (I say “believe to be” because the edges are blurry and time and dissociation makes it hard to remember when things actually started).
I attempted to work through them alone, spending long nights reading and re-reading entire chapters from The Courage to Heal, dissociating for hours if not days at a time, and coming back to it again. Confused as to why I wasn’t “getting anywhere” (I had this uncomfortably common idea that the only form of progress was forward movement – whatever that looked like). I played scenes on repeat in my mind, trying to figure out if they actually happened or if I was making them up. It’s funny (in a very non-funny way) how easily we write off traumatic situations as over exaggeration or imagination. And for almost a year I couldn’t separate who I was from the jumbled, out of order and fragmented memories I was trying to sift through. Honestly, most days I still don’t think I can.
And of course – as with many other intersections – being queer and trans complicates these thought processes even more. It’s not uncommon to hear folks say that people are queer because of their assault and subsequent distrust of men. Or that one doesn’t want to associate with the gender they were assigned because of the assault. Inherently I know these things are false, at least for me (if your experience of trauma has influenced your preference in partners – that’s super fucking valid too!) But it made me question who I was and if any of it was real. Especially when the thoughts of queerness and gender surfaced around the same time as the assault.
It wasn’t until I began to feel truly lost in these thoughts that I realized I needed a community. I needed to say words out loud, tell stories so I could make more sense of them, and have someone validate that I wasn’t entirely breaking apart at the seams. And even if I was – that it was okay. I give an endless amount of credit to my partner and best friend – who was there for me from the beginning, but it’s hard to not still feel isolated when you only confide in one other person.
But even when I started to build a community of survivors around me, I was missing out on people who shared my story. Queer folks who struggled for years thinking that the only reason they were queer was because of what happened to them as a kid. Trans folks who thought that same thing. Folks who were willingly handed over to their assaulters by their family members almost on a daily basis because they (through no fault of their own) trusted them. Folks who don’t remember their stories because they were too young, and folks who spent years struggling with addiction and reckless behaviour – no regard for a body that felt more comfortable when it was high. I don’t say this to invalidate anyone else’s story. All of our trauma is real and valid. But when I look at the statistics and realize I’m not alone, that queer and trans youth are more likely to be assaulted, that substance abuse and distorted senses of reality are common reactions, I wonder where the countless other survivors like me are.
Lately I’ve been throwing myself out on a very long, very breakable limb and have been sharing my story with more people. It surprised me how quickly I began to connect with folks and build what are still new but mind-blowingly supportive relationships. I’ve found validation in their passion to do whatever is within their power to help themselves and other survivors to heal.
I’m not writing this as someone who has found any sort of closure or sustained peace. But instead as someone who has only just come to terms with the fact that there is no healing in isolation. That I need to trust the ideas that I have been supporting for years. That community is what builds us, what sustains us, and the constant that we can fall back on when we need some extra support and love.
All of these ideas have terrified me for as long as I can remember. They still do. But I’m also recognizing the medicine in it, the healing that it can provide, and the potential it creates. These are hard times. And a lot of us are facing harsh realities, have been facing harsh realities for a very long time. And isolation makes these realities harder to carry. Healing and recovery are not linear, and every day is going to be different from the one before. But we can start to build something consistent. Hold space for each other, hold space for love, care, reflection, laughter, depression, anger, anxiety, confusion, acceptance, and for whatever else we need. It’s not about putting our problems off on another person, but holding a space that’s safe enough for us to feel comfortable setting down the weight we’re carrying for a while.
Jay is a white settler residing on the illegally occupied traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Neutral nations (as well as on the Haldimand Tract). They are a queer, trans non-binary person who is passionate about a range of social justice and environmental issues; including prison abolition, trans and queer justice, and the protection of the land and water.
An Interview with Black Girls Magazine founder Annette Bazira-Okafor
By: Savannah Clarke
When I was around 10 years-old I used to collect magazines for fun. I loved the posters, quizzes, horoscopes and all the gossip. I use to love getting the free magazines from friends and different offices. The only thing was the majority of these magazines didn’t have many black folks in it. Aside from the obvious teen hip hop magazine like Word Up! The rest of the magazines I collected were just white.I would get annoyed but had to overlook this very large detail because “that’s how it was”. Even though I enjoyed collecting and later collaging because it was meditative, I had little images or stories that I could relate to. Many black teens have felt this frustration with not seeing themselves or hearing their stories in media especially in magazines, something that use to be synonymous with teenhood. While most of us accept this as fact and relish in the moments we do see ourselves, others create those moments for themselves. Founders and contributors of Black Girls Magazines is a perfect example.
BGM was created by a group of black middle school students within the GTA as a response to not seeing themselves in the magazines and apps that they used. BGM is a magazine that offers unique perspectives written by black girls for all girls. It aims to reflect the images, interests, and stories of black girls. I contacted Annette Bazira-Okafor founder and mother of one of the young contributors to learn more about BGM and how these young girls are creating the content they want to see.
Savannah Taylor: Can you let us know who you are and explain to us more about the Black Girls Magazine?
Annette: My name is Annette Bazira-Okafor. I am a doctoral student at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), University of Toronto. I am also the founder and editor of Black Girls Magazine.
Savannah Taylor: What was the moment that brought you to want to create Black Girls Magazine?
Annette: Part of my research at OISE has been on African youth and popular culture. I came across the work of Dr. Craig Watkins, and in his book he speaks about the fact the black girls are the most underserved and undiscernible demographic in popular culture. As a mother as well, I have always observed the lack of black representation in the online makeup and dressup apps that my daughter and her friends love.Creating Black Girls Magazine was a way for me to get them to create representations of themselves and write about their own interests and experiences as black girls.
Savannah Taylor: I know that the girls write the material in the magazine, what are some of those topics?
Annette: Some of the topics are stories about their hair like ‘weird things people ask about my hair’; movie reviews in our section called ‘Hollywood scoop’; recipes; sports, particularly basketball by one of the girls who is a basketball player; the girls’ travel experiences to different countries; and our last issue included a christmas section and a section on “people in black history” in anticipation of Black History month. We publish twice a year so we try to include diverse topics that cover both current and upcoming events, seasons or holidays.
Savannah Taylor: When I was younger I use to love collecting magazines, having access to this magazine would have been very refreshing for me to say the least, how do you feel like this magazine could be medicine or healing for other black girls to read?
Annette: I feel very grateful and overwhelmed that it turned out this way, because when I first started, I was simply doing this with a small group of girls, unaware of the interest that it would garner, not only in the black community but in mainstream media as well. I am so grateful that I have been a part of creating a platform for other black girls as well. In the magazine we request black girls to send us their stories, artwork or anything else they would love to see in the magazine, so we can have more diverse voices from black girls represented.
Savannah Taylor: So often marginalized youth don’t see themselves in magazines, tv shows, books, etc. how can teachers and youth workers play a role in supporting youth to create and access media that speaks to their experiences? Why do you think that is important?
Annette: Often books that represent black people and their cultures are very few or rare in schools, and often they are limited to non-fiction or slavery, basically history or social studies, and may be used only during black history month. I think teachers should include such cultural books as a daily part of student learning. Teachers should put in extra effort into making story books, magazines, and and many more reading resources that represent black people and culture a part of school curricula. Young children in schools regardless of race should have access to more picture books that represent black people and culture. Positive images and representations of black people should be normalized in mainstream institutions so as to dispose of stereotypes often perpetuated in media and schools. Youth workers and teachers create lasting impressions on the minds of black youth. Validating black youth by normalizing their cultures and representations go a long way into giving them confidence and guiding their journey to success.
Savannah Taylor: How has the journey of creating Black Girls Magazine changed yours or the girls perspective on what representation can look like?
Annette: Being able to create representations of themselves and write stories embedded in their cultures and experiences, I feel has given the girl’s confidence to speak about their stories and to boldly represent themselves through images that are normally invisible in popular culture.
Savannah: Do you or the girls have any big ideas for the future of Black Girls Magazine?
Annette: We hope to build the readership of the magazine and invite more black girls to contribute to it. We also hope to attract corporate sponsors who can help us move the project forward. I finance the project out of pocket, and foot the all printing costs and other costs associated with the magazine. Hopefully with sponsors, we can start publishing quarterly rather than twice a year.
Savannah Taylor: Where can people go to learn more and possibly get their own copy of Black Girl Magazine?
Annette: People can buy copies and subscribe by going to our website www.blackgirlsmagazine.ca
Annette Bazira-Okafor is a PhD candidate at OISE, University of Toronto, department of Social Justice Education. She is the founder and Editor of Black Girls Magazi
Savannah Clarke is a young performing artist. She has recently graduated with her undergraduate and is an alumni of the Watah Theatre. She is now currently growing her art form. Her art has always been attached to her identity as a black queer woman and she strongly believes that storytelling is essential for the movement of black liberation. While she continues to unearth what her artistry can look like, she stays committed to connecting and understanding the integrity of its roots.