Together & Alone: Recovering Family Histories of Healing

a photo of small area of greenery on a beach with small human statue

by Tina Zafreen Alam

trees
the dead
stand stark and defiant
among the living
twisted, pale
limbs stretched skyward
still
in seas of lush green
naked, bare
together and alone

I ask questions. If I were to think of the most notable thing about me, it’s that I ask questions and that sometimes, these are the questions that no one else around me thought to, decided to, wanted to or was prepared to ask.

In March, I went to a free workshop on herbal medicine for stress and anxiety in hopes of finding ways to cope with a violent and oppressive school environment. The facilitator/knowledge-sharer spoke about traditional and Indigenous practices in general and gave us information about Ayurvedic traditions in particular.

I left the workshop with questions. Though I have a very limited and basic understanding of Ayurveda, I didn’t know if it was the practice that my ancestors in Bangladesh would have been connected to. So, I asked.

First, I asked my Mamoni (term of endearment meaning mother, dearest and what I call my mother’s second sister) and she told me I had an ancestor that was a herbalist. I then asked my Khalamoni (term of endearment meaning dearest maternal aunt and what I call my mom’s third sister) and my mother about it and everyone gave me different answers. Finally, I asked my Nannoo (my maternal grandmother) and she told me about someone who practiced traditional healing. It wasn’t until I checked back with my Mamoni that I realized that they were speaking of two different relatives. I set out looking to learn about one healer in the family and ended up hearing about two!

What follows are interviews with two family members on my mother’s side, my Nannoo and my Mamoni. I sent them both the same questions:

What is your name and your relationship to me?

Nannoo: My name is Hasna Begum and I am your maternal grandmother.

Mamoni: I am your maternal aunt. I have been very close to you, having lived with your family in Canada for a couple of years. And you lived with my family for a couple of years, your junior and senior years in high school, in Montreal and in New Haven.

What is your personal relationship with traditional healing practices or traditional medicine?

N: I have almost no personal relationship with traditional healing practices or traditional medicine. I am science oriented.

M: I have no formal connection to herbal or traditional medicine. I do usually have a tube of Arnica that I apply to myself and offer to others for minor aches or bruises. My maternal grandmother used to have an old wooden chest of small bottles of liquids and sugar balls that she would open to treat our minor cuts and bruises when we were kids. I found this chest very intriguing and was distressed to find it gone when my grandmother passed away.

Is there a particular name for traditional healing practices and traditional medicine that is practiced in the area now known as Bangladesh?

N: Yes, traditional medicine is still widely trusted and practiced in rural areas.

M: Yes, there are terms for traditional medicinal practices in Bangladesh. The first is Kobiraji, strictly speaking, herbalism, and the second would be loosely termed as Ojha, who engages in “jhara/pura,” or spiritualism mixed in with some herbal prescription. This is when the medicine man or woman would do incantations as well as a blow on people as part of the cure. Probably more to it but I have not actually watched one. I would say that about ninety-nine percent of Bangladeshis will have gone to one or other form of herbalist/spiritualist in their lifetime (just guessing here).

I heard that we have a family member who was a healer and herbalist, can you tell me her name, how she is related to us and what you know about her practice?

N: Her name was Zohra, my mother’s youngest sister. She was a healer and herbalist too! She often visited my mother, Rabeya, sometimes along with one male healer. They sat on a mat. Lit candles in the middle and meditated for hours before starting any treatment. They chanted some unrecognizable words and brought out herbs from their bundles for treatment of the patient in front. My response to these activities is skeptical!

M: My paternal great aunt (my grandfather’s sister) was such a person. I know very little about her except that when some member of her family was really ill, some herbs were revealed to her in her sleep by an angel and when she procured and prepared these, it is said to have cured the patient. My understanding is that this happened more than once.I do not know her name but, she was supposedly very spritely and smart and picked up lessons when her brothers were being tutored. As a girl, she would not have been tutored. She married and had four children, three boys and a girl. She died at childbirth after her last child, the daughter, was born.

Did you ever receive treatment from her or through her direction? And if so, can you describe what your initial concern was, what the treatment was and how you responded to it?

N: I, myself ever received any such treatment.

M: She was gone long before I was born.

Can you let me know how her practice was received or perceived by the rest of the family?

N: Most of the family members thought that the whole affair was fake and senseless.

M: I believe her family appreciated that her herbs helped her family member. Also, I do not think that it bothered anyone that this was ‘alternative’ medicine. I believe she was very well loved and I get the impression that she was what we would call an engaging and happy young girl/woman.

Have you yourself ever felt any personal connection to her practices or have any of your children (or grandchildren)?

N: My children received such treatment and sometimes got healed!

M: Strictly speaking, I cannot say that I have. My experience has not been medicine oriented. I have had strange dreams and urges to call home when there was no particular reason to but I have not sought out any of it.So here are two or three stories when my connection to my family seems to have driven me to make phone calls to my family only to find that there was grave news awaiting me. The first instance was in 1986 when I was away in Harare, Zimbabwe, doing field research. I lived in Montreal and was a graduate student at McGill University. Most of my family lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In Harare, my then husband and I were renting a room in the suburban home of a Mrs. Jackson. She had a phone, but it was not one that we had access to. Also, this was a time when people wrote letters and phone calls were difficult – especially as it was still required to go via long distance call assistant to make the connection. Also, it was a relatively costly venture.

Anyway, I felt the sudden need to call home to Dhaka. Mrs. Jackson was reluctant. She only rarely used the phone to make long distance calls herself. In the end, she gave in when she saw how desperately I wanted to make the call. Also we gave her about Zim twenty dollars in advance. This was way more than the call would end up costing her.

When I called, my father answered the call and told me that a shadow had been detected  the x-ray of his liver the day before.

The second story was when I called my mother in Dhaka from New Haven on the same day that she found a lump on her breast. This turned out to be benign.

Do you feel it’s important to pass down and chronicle these stories and traditions?

N: My ignorance is responsible for not giving much importance to this particular method of treatment. But I think, it may be important to pass down and chronicle these stories and traditions for the knowledge of social and cultural heritage of a particular region.

M: Yes, I do feel that these stories are good to relate to family and let them deal with them in their own terms. I know my ex-husband completely downplayed the spiritual aspects of my dreams but my sisters do seem to value them.

How do you feel about discussing and sharing this information?

N: I find this discussion and sharing interesting enough!

M: I do not usually tell these stories to people other than to close family. Since these are about my close ties to them.

My Nanoo had aunts on either side of her family who were practicing herbalists, though she only knew of the one she told me about, Zohra.

My Mamoni only knew of the other aunt, whose name we don’t know, because her grandfather (my great grandfather, who I called Senior) told her stories about his sister. But, my mother and my Khalamoni didn’t know about these stories and thought I had misheard or misunderstood when I asked about them. So, I wonder if she, like me, was asking questions no one else was asking. I know that she, like me and like our ancestor before us, receives messages in her dreams.

The very process of trying to find this information has been a painful example of how I personally have been forcibly and violently disconnected from direct access to my ancestral knowledge through colonization, assimilation, loss of language, genocide, displacement, migration, and the valuing of certain man-made ways of understanding the world (science) through simultaneously devaluing other ways of understanding the world (everything else). Yet, traces of those traditions live on in me and in my Mamoni, and maybe in other family members as well.

Whose knowledge is positioned as truth and fact? Whose knowledge is revered? Whose knowledge is taught? Whose knowledge is passed down? Whose knowledge is shunned?

The barriers I am facing might have started out as overarching structural forces, but they are being perpetuated by many factors on a personal level as well.

The information that we are given is often directly tied to the questions we ask and who we ask them of. If we want ties to our cultural knowledge, especially as Black, Indigenous, People of Colour or diasporic people that might mean a lot of digging for clues and work as these disconnections are here by the design and intent of white supremacy. The traumas and traditions of my family are buried somewhere beneath the surface and I am trying to uncover them, one question at a time, following the wisdom that already lives in my bones.

Tina Zafreen Alam
Tina Zafreen Alam is a poet and a member of the Bangladeshi diaspora living in Toronto. She looks to name and illustrate the ways that transgenerational and intergenerational trauma have marked her life, while also affirming the wisdom that has passed down along with it.

Rites of Passage

by kahsenniyo williams

She came running in the room frantic and doubtful. She said, “Mom I think I got my period.” Despite me giving her teachings on this day, this moment since she was little, I could hear the insecurities in her voice. Her words echoed in ancestral tones. “Mom, I think I got my period,” she repeated. These words began a continental movement in my life. It was like the earth cracked and shifted for us to reveal the new road, the new path and journey for us. Womanhood. It is important for me to acknowledge that her muttering these words meant a change not just for my daughter and I, but for our community, the aunties, her sisters, the grandmothers and all of the women in our lives. I certainly did not raise this child alone. Numerous wonderful, powerful and loving women worked together with me and my husband to create this little girl that was standing in front of me. This meant change for all of us.

Illustration above: Quiet girls are seeds 2 by Mia Ohki 

I had been preparing for this beautiful moment for a long time. I stayed up nights wondering to myself and the ancestors “how do I as an Indigenous mother in 2017 bring my daughter into womanhood given everything my people have lost”? I knew that we as Haudenosaunee had to have some sort of ceremony or way of doing this, prior to contact. Unfortunately, it had, for the most part been lost in the dust and avalanche of colonization. Stripped from our way of life during the residential school era. If you take a child from their home to colonize them, you remove child rearing practices. Fundamental to those practices is the ways in which we transition our young people into adulthood. The ceremony, the process. At some point the sacredness of this time was gone. The residential school era forced shame and humiliation on us as a whole. It turned this once beautiful time in development into an secretive embarrassing time. This presented huge challenges for me as a mother. It felt as if my daughter was in front of me, her arms extended with a basket in her hands, waiting for me to fill it. And I was standing in front of her empty handed, with nothing to offer her. Not only was it necessary for me to do the work of overcoming the colonial shame of my womanhood and body, but I also had to overcome the shame of not having the cultural knowledge. The reality of being a mother with no tools or knowledge given to me of how to do this thing was often at times overwhelming. I often reflected on how young people are transitioned into adulthood today and was bothered. Today the first drink, the first time having sex, the first-time smoking weed. I didn’t know much other than I didn’t want any of these as the marker for my daughter’s transition into womanhood.

I spent time exploring and seeking answers on how to do this, in a way that felt good for me, my daughter, our family and our community. I spoke to knowledge holders, grandmothers, men and women. I talked to kids and I had countless conversations with the women in my life. I even went to Akwesasne (a Mohawk territory) to learn from them.

Here are some key points I learned.

This time in a person’s life is crucial to their development. It is a time that we as caretakers of these beings (not just parents) should hold our young people the closest. Today our youth hit a certain age and we often let them go. Off to explore and develop on their own, with very little supervision or guidance. This colonial mentality goes against all logic. We must intentionally and lovingly bring our sons and daughters into adulthood. We must put intentional lessons in front of them to shape them, to give them guiding principles and values. We must give them challenges and healthy obstacles to overcome.

Just because I did not receive these teachings does not make me an inadequate mother. The shame I felt around this was not mine to carry. It is far more beneficial to do somethings instead of nothing. We need to be brave and we need to make space for our own knowledge and intuition in transitioning our young people. We need to call upon the knowledge in our circles. To hold up mothers, fathers and community. We need to collectively put these young people at the centre of community during this time in their lives.

Culture that is alive grows and changes to meet the needs of the people. This concept is necessary for the revitalization of Indigenous child rearing. It requires the openness to make mistakes and create somethings new out of the old. It requires being bold and prioritizing the children here today over our own trauma and egos. If we continue to function from a place of fear and secrecy we will lose the little that we have and ultimately our children will miss out.

Her birth into this world was my birth into motherhood. A process that is never ending. With winding roads up mountains, through valleys and flat lands.

My daughter was the first woman in my family in generations to get some sort of intentional community-based transition into womanhood. Being that this was the first time in generations and that my daughter has struggled with self-esteem we had a big celebration. There were women from all corners of the world who attended. We had a full moon ceremony in her honour. This was an inter-generational affair. We ate, sang songs, shared stories of womanhood, gave words of encouragement and wrapped her in our love. This was true healing, for all of us. All of these women who in their own ways had been robbed of a similar experience. Although we were there for her, we healed parts of ourselves. On this night she would start her berry fast. A yearlong ritual fasting. To teach her about commitment. So that she would experience the satisfaction of following through. To teach her about self-regulation and temptation. So that she could have the experience of dealing with wanting something but knowing that it’s not the best decision for her. How to say NO. To teach her to listen to her body and what she is craving. For her to know that her body belongs to her. To teach her about sacrifice. To give her the security of knowing that a community is surrounding her and keeping her accountable. To give her a sense that her decisions should be purposeful. So that she knows the moon and berries are there for her.

It is yet to be seen the long terms effects this will have on her. But I know as the person who is teaching and guiding her that I have reference points of times she learned all of these different teachings. I keep bringing her back to those moments and have a feeling that I will throughout the next several years. This journey is just beginning. She has more process and challenges that will intentionally be put in her path before we can fully welcome her into the circle of women. But it is comforting to know that we are on our way.


Kahsenniyo Williams
Kahsenniyo Williams is a mother, poet, spoken word artist, and community organizer. She is from the mohawk nation and the wolf clan based in Six Nations.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Bringing Back the Flower Dance: An interview with Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa, Yurok and Karuk woman currently working as an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her upcoming book We Are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-age Ceremonies (which is set to be released this spring), and learn more about her work supporting the revitalization of Native American arts and culture.

Illustration above: Teach her by Mia Ohki 

S: First off I wanted to thank you for taking your time to do this interview. I recently came across an advertisement for the book and have been exploring your writing ever since. Do you want to tell our readers a little bit about your work both through academia and in your community?

B: My work focuses on Native people and communities to help tell the stories of our strength and resilience. I try not to separate the work I do in academia from the work I do in the community, although it is sometimes hard because of the way that academia expects certain kinds of discourse. I’m always thinking about how my work can show the important ways that Native people have always been foregrounding land and environmental based knowledge and how they have built a very long tradition of education and intellectualism that most people do not learn about in schools. My academic work is focused on elevating Indigenous voices and the work being done by Indigenous peoples on the ground. Some of the most important things that we can learn about how to build a future that is liberated from patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy should come from Indigenous teachings. Since the beginning of time we have been theorizing our worlds – so I know we have a lot to offer when it comes to addressing major issues that are part of this contemporary culture.

The work I do on the blog is trying to use humor to break down people’s ideas about Native peoples and issues. A little while ago a friend asked me what I thought were my most powerful tools that I have to continue the work we do to liberate and elevate our communities and I said “humor.” I’m always telling students that Native people are probably the funniest people I know, usually inappropriately funny, but people don’t learn that about us, or even see that in movies or on television. We laugh all the time. My grandma was always saying to me “everything is a funny story…later” and “if you can laugh at something it doesn’t have power over you anymore.” That’s how I feel about colonialism. Colonialism is counter-intuitive, doesn’t make a lot of sense and it is just dying to be the punchline in a joke. I’d like to think at some point I’ll find a way to bring a lot of humor into my academic work, but I haven’t done it nearly enough yet.

S: So, your book We are dancing for you, is about to be released this Spring. Can you talk to us a little about the book, about what inspired you to put these experiences into words?

B: The book came out of my personal experience with the revitalization movements for our women’s coming-of-age ceremonies in the Northern California region. When I was 12 years old I started menstruating and my mother offered to do a dance for me, but I refused. A lot of it was internalized ideas about menstruation being dirty or shameful, but it was also internalized ideas about “primitive Indians” and how they celebrate women. After I turned it down my mother continued to do work with the women in our community to bring this dance back. It was important to them to center young women so that we could teach our young women self-determination and self-worth. Part of the idea was combating our recent history of colonization that had targeted our women’s ceremonies for eradication, and part of it was also to empower the entire community by showing how we value gender equality and that young woman are an important part of our cultures and futures.

The more work I have done with Native communities and peoples the more I see how our Native feminisms were silenced by colonialism and that we are working now, not just to decolonize, but to decolonize in a way that dismantles patriarchy. When I started going to these ceremonies, and singing over these girls I wouldn’t have used these words to describe what we were doing, but the more I listened and learned and the more research I did in Native feminisms, the more I realized that our ceremonies were and continue to be an important praxis of decolonization. My original thought was “how can the women who did this work on the ground tell this story?” For too long, the story of Native people and Native cultures has been told by mostly white, male anthropologists and ethnographers. So I wanted to make sure that this story, one that is about our survivance and our resilience, was told through the voices and memories of our people. And this also becomes the theorizing and demonstration of what Native feminisms actually look like. Our cultures are about balance and equality and that’s feminism.

S: So often the ceremonies and histories of Indigenous people around the world are written about through a colonial and anthropological perspective. More often that not, these writings are deeply influenced by racist assumptions. Can you talk about the power of writing about stories from your own community?

B: You know, I grew up knowing who the anthropologists were that studied our communities. I could name some of them, including Alfred Kroeber (one of the most famous). And I knew what he said about our people – but almost in a joking way. We joked a lot about how wrong assumptions were about us. Many people think about our cultures and peoples as in the past, almost as if we stopped existing because we were not the “pure” Indians that were being described by anthropologists in their books. So I do think it’s important that now we are finding ways to tell our own stories and interpretations, using the knowledge we have to decide what the narrative of our cultures and histories are going to be.

What is interesting about revitalization movements like these, is that in our community the women actually used the anthropological research to help understand the ceremony. So while Kroeber was writing these things down because he believed that the people were dying, or that the ceremony was going “extinct,” instead, they became part of the record that would be used to revive the dance. That’s a powerful moment. We are not dying, vanishing Indians, we are revitalizing, living peoples. And these books don’t hold our dying, in the past cultures, they are part of our living cultures. I like to think (and I theorize in the book) that many of the Native people working with the anthropologists at the time envisioned that moment from the very beginning. So they didn’t buy in to the “you’re dying and should tell us stories so we can document them before you disappear,” instead they were thinking “one day our people will find these stories and these descriptions and I want them to be here for them when they do.” There are transcripts that I’ve read which are Native people saying just that, like in one case a woman offered a song and she opens it with something like “this is a Flower Dance song, it hasn’t been sung in a long time. I hope one day someone will sing it at a Flower Dance again.” And then we did. That’s not the story that Kroeber or other anthropologists were telling when they wrote and published their books, but that has always been the real story. That’s the story that we are going to tell.

S: How has the reclamation of this ceremony impacted the young people in your community?

It’s hard to summarize, because there are so many ways that the ceremony has affected young people. Some of the   young women I interviewed talked about how it showed them the amount of support they have in the community, so they felt like they could do anything and would always have people to help them. Others talk about how it gave them the confidence to do things that they might not otherwise do. People talk about how it demonstrated for them that women can be central to ceremony and that seeing women singing together showed them how much support we can give each other. At first when we did the dance many young women didn’t want to do it because it is usually done after a girl starts menstruating. They were worried about people knowing because of our western menstrual taboo. But now young women are planning for their dances their whole lives. They talk about them. They are excited for them. It has made people in the community excited for young women as they grow up. So instead of young women feeling ashamed about puberty etc. they are excited and happy. Most of the young woman I’ve seen who have gone through this ceremony are now doing amazing things, reaching for their goals in life, and making sure to pass along their own lessons to younger generations. I love that young people see women singing, because for a long time you didn’t really see women singing in our ceremonies. Now, you have young people requesting women to sing for them, or you have them complimenting women singers. These types of things change very quickly, I have found. For instance, when I was 12 and my mother offered to do this dance for me I said no because I was scared and didn’t want people to know about my period. After we did the first revitalized dance, young girls were still hesitant. Now we’ve been doing the dance for over 15 years, and guess what, this is just what we do. My daughter is 10, she’s never known a time when we didn’t dance for young women who had their first menstruation. She hasn’t known a time when we didn’t come together as a community to show young women how much support they have. She hasn’t known a time were we didn’t reach out and provide support for young woman as they move from being a child into being an adult. So in her mind, this is just who we are as Hupa people. That only took 10 years.

S: What kind of advice do you have for people wanting to revive ceremonies in their own communities?

B: I would say, start by listening. Go to as many elders and people as you can and just listen to their stories, their memories, their questions, their visions of what this could look like. Collect all the stories and memories and ideas that you can. Listen to them and then listen to the people who left their stories in the archives. It takes a lot of listening because you are helping to wake these stories up. All of the women I interviewed they kept saying all it took was to “scratch the surface.” They said “we just had to start going to people and hearing their stories and then another person came and another. We found one story in the archive and then another and another.”

The best advice for the archive is to read the books but also read the notes. Anthropologists and ethnographers usually kept detailed notes of their interviews. This is where you are going to really be able to listen to the words of those who worked to leave an archive behind. The notes are very often different (more detailed, more focused) than what is in the book. In some cases they can completely contradict what is in the book. So read the notes, read the transcripts. Listen to those stories.

And after you’ve started “scratching the surface” be open to what else comes your way. At first there were not very many songs that people had to sing, but that’s okay. We came and sang the three or four songs people knew. But then after that other people started remembering songs. Or other people started to get songs. I got a song once while I was making mashed potatoes. It just came to me. I started singing it and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I sing it all the time. So the women like to tell me,   you start this journey, and everything comes together, because these ceremonies have been waiting for us to search for them again. They’ve been waiting for us.

Anthropologists like to say they went “extinct” or “disappeared” but I like to think about what my mentor Ines Hernandez-Avila taught me. They never went extinct, they were just waiting for us. So we scratch the surface, and we listen for them, and they will come back to us.

The last thing the women told me was “just do it.” They said, start the listening, do the research, put some notes together and then just do it. Don’t wait for it to be the perfect time, just do it. After the first one there will be a second one and then a third one. You just have to do the first one. So, just do it.

S: How can people get a hold of your book?

B: You can pre-order it now on the University of Washington Press website or on Amazon. It will be released in May-June 2018. I know for sure it should be at the Native American Indigenous Studies Association Conference this year in Los Angeles, CA. I’ll also have a link to it on my website.


Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy
Dr Cutcha Risling Baldy is currently an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her research is focused on Indigenous feminisms, California Indians and decolonization. She received her Ph.D in Native American Studies with a designated Emphasis in Feminist Theory and Research from the University of California, Davis and her M.F.A in Creative Writing & Literary Research from San Diego State University. She also has her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University.