Healing Through Connection to Land, Sky, Stars, and Ancestors

A black and white watercolour of a woman walking in water

By Stephanie Morningstar

Artwork by Zeena Salam

I wish I could say that I come from a long line of badass Onkwehonwe womxn, (which I do), but the image that statement evokes may be misleading in that there’s no legacy of deeply-held cultural knowledge in our story. In fact, our familial story has many fractures and deleted bits from the pervasive and seemingly universal interruption of colonization. There’s a lineage of cultural experience, but they’re dysfunctional experiences unique to Indigenous people- residential school, the 60’s scoop, loss of language and knowledge- experiences that alienated my family from our birthrights as Haudenosaunee. Those fractures informed my expression of healing, land, and body as a Haudenosaunee womxn in ways that are only now beginning to manifest and speak deeply to the resilience of my people. I want to share that resilience in my own story of deep healing that started where my people started- Sky World, and how that healing informs my life and connection to my ancestors and land today.

Sky World is all around us and within us, as we are all made of stars. It’s where our ancestors come from, where Awenha’i (Sky Woman) comes from, where she fell from. Awenha’i brought medicines and food when she came from Sky World. The first of these fruits was niyohontéhsha’ (Fragaria vesca/wild strawberry), known as the “Big Medicine” because of its powerful healing properties- enough to warrant its own ceremony, enough to welcome the beloved dead as they walk the pathway along the Milky Way, lined with niyohontéhsha’, back to Sky World.

The other reason I love the name “Sky World” is a little more personal. My mother’s parents lived far from the reserve our family comes from (Six Nations), having emigrated to the United States (Buffalo, NY) in the mid-1940s. My family didn’t have the connection to “traditional” Haudenosaunee culture, so there aren’t stories of aunties teaching me beading and dancing at the longhouse. In fact, they saw traditional culture as a backwards, mysterious, and dark history that we were told not to look into too deeply. My mom and aunties may not have taught me how to bead or make corn soup, but they did however teach me how to laugh- and survive.

My family wasn’t raised “traditional Longhouse,” because of the legacy of harm of the residential school system. My mother’s father attended the residential school known as “The Mush Hole” in Brantford, ON, and his experience there, along with the looming threat of the ‘60s scoop, informed my understanding of my identity in that he discouraged connections to our Indigeneity out of a necessity for survival. Because of this legacy, my family had to create other traditions to express our spiritual connection to each other and the land.

One of my favourite ways to spend time with my mother when she was still here on Turtle Island was to climb the one-story set of steps up to the top of a stone building at a nearby state park and Star Watch. We lovingly call this place the “Stone Tower,” because, well, it was stone, and a tower. One of the traditions we created was to designate the space of the Stone Tower as sacred, a place for rites of passage like blessing new babies and honouring the women of my family before transitions, and most of all, Star Watching.

It was my mother who taught me how to Star Watch and sparked my passion for learning about Sky World. Star Watching is a practice in patience and presence- the trick was to soften your focus just enough to let the periphery of the sky encompass your vision, and scan back and forth searching for anything that seemed to move, shine brightly, blink, or change colour. I was around 10 years old when my mother started becoming more active in her passion of exploring the possibilities of the universe and questioning the reality we are conditioned to believe. That curiosity and questioning led me down my own garden path as an herbalist/

I’m a western trained herbalist and trained a bit with traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe medicine helpers, experiences that helped me understand more about myself and medicine ways than I can ever begin to share. When I decided to start my own practice as an herbalist, I was indecisive at first about what to name my apothecary. I come to this name, Sky World Apothecary, the product of a childhood that was filled with what others might consider abnormal or strange, but to me was a vector for mystery and connection to something larger than myself.

As I have grown more familiar with my culture I began to recognize my own passion for inquiry, especially regarding Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of which Star Knowledge is a facet. When I heard the Sky Woman story, the Haudenosaunee creation story, I knew I had to pull that thread and see what emerged. I wanted to honour my mother’s memory when naming this new path in life, making medicine for those still here with us, while honouring my ancestors in the Sky World.

Ultimately, Sky World Apothecary finally came to me after a long day of hiking and learning and picking medicines with some fellow herbalists. I came home sore, sunburnt, and bug-bitten, full of bliss and scratches on my legs. As I lay in bed I felt something click open in my heart centre, something activating inside me. It felt pink and soft and vibrant. As I lay there, drifting down to sleep, I saw nothing but strawberries. Big Medicine from Sky World. I felt the call to honour my ancestors and my dream of healing people through (re)connection to the land started to grow.

I recently stepped into the role of the Co-Executive Director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), a new organization dedicated to advancing land and food sovereignty for BIPOC folks in the North-Eastern region of the U.S. I knew this was my dream position when I read the Vision statement: “Working to advance land sovereignty in the northeast region through permanent, secure land tenure for Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian farmers and land stewards who use the land in a sacred manner that honors our ancestors dreams — for regenerative farming, sustainable human habitat, ceremony, native ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation.” Win!

NEFOC’s work is essential not only because our vision is dedicated to advancing land sovereignty, but because it’s doing it through a healing lens. One of the most insidious forms of colonization is the manifestation of lateral violence. We know the project of colonization is successful when the colonizers no longer have to expend energy to disrupt our relationships to each other and the land — when we do it to ourselves. This “divide and conquer” piece of the colonial project is exactly what we aim to collectively heal. Both Sky World Apothecary and NEFOC’s vision embody this at their cores. NEFOC is dedicated to repairing relationships with the Indigenous communities of the Northeast. Our goal as an organization is to restore right relationship to each other and the land, starting with listening to Indigenous leaders and people to hear and co-conspire with each nation on how to establish sovereignty.

I often go back to a statement made by Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal elder and activist from Queensland, Australia, who says it way better than I ever could: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We need to establish solidarity as BIPOC earth workers and land stewards. This work isn’t about centering any one way of being, doing, and knowing. It’s about picking up our universal responsibilities as Indigenous people (and we are all Indigenous to somewhere) to steward the land as a relative, to remember our ancestors’ dreams and pick up our roles as future ancestors, and to do this, not just for the next seven generations, but for all generations to come. I want to acknowledge the work of those who have come before us and paved the way for what may seem like a fairly idealistic and radical concept: advancing sovereignty and transforming the concept of “ownership” of land to a collective agreement to pick up our responsibilities to the land as a relative requiring respect and careful, intentional, mindful, and sustainable stewardship so that all Faces to Come have equitable access to home, health, and happiness. To me, that is what achieving healing looks like.

Stephanie Morningstar (She/Her) OnΛyota’a:ka – Oneida, Turtle clan, Lotinosho:ni/Haudenosaunee & German/English ancestral lineages. Herbalist, scholar, student, and Earth Worker dedicated to decolonization and liberation. She is the founder of Sky World Apothecary & Farm, serves as a Leadership Council member for the New England Women’s Herbal Conference and the International Herb Symposium, and is the Co-Director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust.

Black and White portrait of Zeena in a black hijab and fur hooded coat. She is smilling with a closed mouth.

Zeena is currently living in her home town Najaf, Iraq. She is studying accounting at the University of Kofa along with pursuing an art career on the side. She enjoys painting and drawing pieces that relate to Arabian culture, nature, and landscapes.

3 Poems

Poems and artwork by Kamika Peters

Mealand

He slinks away in the night
And returns in his home on wheels
Bedding made of the devil's wrappers
A woman took an axe to his knee
He cut a woman's face
A scar across her eye
I stayed invisible
when I went to school with her son
He wants to see me
He says he'll pay
with cash
But he can't afford time wasted
I used to fight through her to see him
Arms soft like fresh bread
But strong
I would sing my song at the door
Pools for eyes
God
She's not in today
I would cry
Sit tight
I will be back
as quick as peanut butter
In a garage parking lot
during an Algonquin winter
He puts a lime in the cash box
For the wicked people dem
Bad mind people
be aware
But don't mind
He is going in
I might be 26 or 29
He might be 49 or 52
Either one of could be dead
More for me for him to miss
More of him for me to forgive
More of me for myself to forgive
During the time

Lily of the St. Micheal

She throws her napkin at me
I don't need to see inside
I know
It's filled with the usual
Chewed grape skins
She laughs at me
Soft lips over hard gums
Hard knuckles in the air
She asks me if I want a sandwich
And sticks out her tongue
I shriek for her
I laugh with her
I am a cackling hen
I love her
She calls me monkey
In any other context
Other than her love
I would be upset
She sings me a song
About a brown skin girl
She laughs at the end of the song
Always
After she's gone I realize
She changed the ending
As sweet as the sugar spoons
For her Orange Pekeo
To me
I miss her everyday

Nisam

Your mother twisted your words as if it was her tongue
Wove a narrative for you to be a saviour of which you never asked
Couldn't hold you unless she was upheld
Couldn't kiss you unless it was a spell
I am rooted in an understanding that I must convey to your foundation
To illustrate my love in words you should have learnt from birth
Nisam Mama

Portrait of Kamika

Kamika Peters
Kamika Peters is an odd, twenty-something years old budding multi-disciplinary artist who happens to be a black, queer, femme with disabilities born on Algonquin territory to West Indian guardians. Predominately self-taught and interested in exploring  complex truths in their identity, their trauma, and the oppressive paradigms that exist in their world using many mediums.

Healing is Already Happening: A Reflection

by Akua

I consider myself as a life long learner.

When my friend called me in emotional distress as I was writing this reflection, a number of things were going through my mind about her: empowered community worker, champion of human rights, supporter of Indigenous education, and a creative, innovative spirit. It became apparent that she was becoming deeply triggered – very deep past traumas coming to the surface, seemingly all at once, through events converging in an overwhelm of grief and emotion…While one part of me focused on staying present and centred as we spoke over the phone, another part of me was in a place of complete TRUST. A part of me knew, as we spoke, that whatever was coming up, was coming up for release and we needed only to make space for it. To be present, to make space for the body-mind wisdom arising (although it doesn’t always initially look that way initially). That part of me knew that healing was already happening. On my journey through my own healing and the study of what it means to heal, I’ve learned so much for which I am grateful. For what it’s worth, here are some reflections thus far.

Contrary to conventional notions we are nature, we are not other than or separate from it. Nature knows how to balance itself. From a healing perspective, we might see a disease, for example, involving the production of phlegm or pus as the organism of the body in its innate capacity, generating a response to imbalance. Some Naturopaths working with very physically ill children experiencing Autism will reassure the parents and rejoice when the child’s immune system finally gains the strength to generate a response, such as a fever.

We have a microbiome in this organism called the human body (or we could say it the other way round; this microbiome has us). Three to ten times more bacteria make up this organism, than the cells of the human body. When these cells and bacteria work in symbiosis, optimum health occurs. When there is disharmony ill health follows. Our organism is self regulating and self healing. We are nature.

We have a microbiome in this organism called the human body (or we could say it the other way round; this microbiome has us). Three to ten times more bacteria make up this organism, than the cells of the human body. When these cells and bacteria work in symbiosis, optimum health occurs. When there is disharmony ill health follows. Our organism is self regulating and self healing. We are nature.

Without the prescribed/conventional separation from the body, we see that when the mind is stressed, the body changes; the heart rate rises, blood vessels in the gut contract, the pH levels change, etc. Hans Selye(1), as quoted by Gabor Mate(2) in a talk I attended said “…the biggest stress is emotional, and the biggest emotional stress is being something you are not; not being who you are.”

We know the body-mind connection is real. Many of us feel it in our gut. And we know that many others consciously or unconsciously, follow constant media suggestions telling us our body signals and feelings must  be overridden with pharmaceutical chemicals.


1. Hans Selye coined the term “stress” in the 1960’s.

2. Gabor Mate is the author of When the Body Says No- The Cost of Hidden Stress

When we see ourselves as nature and understand nature’s capacity for balance, an intimate understanding of such processes of life give way to trust. When I was in rural and remote locations (Mennonite farms and Nunavut), it was consistently the case that the midwives I worked with had different parameters for length of labour. Anything over four hours was on the long end of the scale, whereas when I worked in urban areas, fifteen hours was on the long end of the scale and twenty-four hours was not unusual especially for first births.

A key difference appeared to be trust, grounded in an intimate relationship with the natural world and the trust and acceptance that comes from it. For many generations, Healers have known this intimacy with the processes of nature, and the trust and deep acceptance that comes from it.

A deeper study of the meaning of healing came upon me with the experience of debilitating disease. I started to realize that no amount of healthy eating can heal the self-limiting beliefs I carry within or the hardening of the heart; the closing of connection with that which gives me life and creativity from within.

I was so desperately ill and so adverse to seeking help from the conventional medical system. I had to go deeper and ask what was happening within my system (mental, physical, emotional,and spiritual). I had to reexamine my notions of the healer and what it means to heal. My conditioning started to reveal itself. Seeking healing and healers in my community also meant a review of history and culture. It meant realizing my own resistance to healing and to the healer within me. Healing means wholeness. Healing involves growth and change. I came upon healing modalities and healers that were completely outside of my previous radar – what appeared to be physical illness put me on a blessed path of education. My gratitude often goes out to those Healers who are often invisible to the conventional modern day consciousness.

Midwives and Healers have a similar role; they help to facilitate what is already happening. Nature knows how to balance itself. We are nature. Are we listening? Healing requires an unconditional acceptance – to see, to look openly. Healing involves safety, and healing is optimized in a caring environment which involves a deep acceptance grounded in the skill and experience that comes from mature work with the self and with others. I was privileged to come across healers that provided a sacred space born from their own work within. Since we are nature, healing is already happening, in nature the movement is constantly towards balance. “Healing always comes,” I was told by an angelic stranger on my travels in the Southern US and I would add that healing is already happening – we just have to get out of the way.

I like the three wisdoms described in the Buddha’s teachings (the third one being the most revered). There is the wisdom you hear about, the wisdom born of intellectual discourse, and the wisdom of your own experience (experiential wisdom –’bhavnamayi panna’). Healing is ‘direct experience,’ depending directly on one’s own capacity to open to it. My own healing brings me to a deeper connection with my ancestry, an integral connection with my natural environment, and healing brings me to a place that allows for the safety and the sacred space to grow and change.

In recent living history, the circumstances on this planet have become less and less hospitable to life. What this happens for the human organism, is called sickness and disease. And the body-mind knows how to heal itself as we learn to trust we learn to get out of the way. Healing is already happening. Nature knows how to come into balance. In the ancient language of the Buddha, Dhamma means Nature, Law, and Truth. The more we reclaim an intimacy with the natural world within us and as we develop the trust coming from this capacity for healing and balance, the more we see possibilities around us, and the more we become an active part of the process of change.

Today I received a message from my friend of many years who had called days before. “Thank you so much for your accompaniment on that wild ride that was my processing, it really reminded me that we do have the medicine within us and we can create that space for it to work…”


This reflection is in dedication to Robert Hinds of Pinnacle, a very successful, self sufficient community in Jamaica (a contemporary of the more known figure, Marcus Garvey in the 1930s). The community of Pinnacle did not bow down to the queen of England, which was a huge act of resistance at the time, when all over the world brutal colonialism was the order of the day. Robert was a community leader, a political and spiritual leader. Robert was known also as a Healer.

This reflection is also dedicated in gratitude to Mary Kate Brennan. Though she grew up in a Gailic speaking home, she would avoid discrimination by not claiming her Irishness. She would in her late years tell her daughter that she avoided claiming ‘the sight’ though she admitted to having it. It came through her anyway and healing came through her in the form of unconditional acceptance and love. Many unexpected faces showed up at her funeral with stories of great compassion and love (she and her mother had their own ‘underground railroad’ for orphaned children during the troubled times in occupied Ireland).

These examples and others are part of the healthy flora in my ‘microbiome’ on another level. We are nature and I trust that nature knows how to bring itself into balance. And I’m so glad I know now that healing always comes: it’s already happening within me.


Akua
Akua has been studying nutrition and health independently for over twenty years and stress and trauma for the past ten years. She has attended around 400 births in her studies and practice as a midwife.  Akua has received training in plant medicines, Chinese Medicine and other forms of natural medicine and through indigenous ceremony. She has received some of her most profound education on her travels. Akua recently has focused on the study of Autism.

Akua is drawn towards Healing Trauma and changing self limiting beliefs and has studied and worked primarily in this area for the past ten years. Her mother was born in England of Irish and English parents. Her father was born in Jamaica of African/Jewish and African/Arawak parents. 

contact: akuahinds@gmail.com

Deep Medicine: Cotton Root Bark and Reproductive Justice

by Karen L. Culpepper

Herbal medicine, or plant medicine, is a healing presence and a major healing tradition across the globe. Every culture in this world uses plant medicine in some form for food, healing and/or ritual. As a clinical herbalist with a deep love for folk medicine, I have always had a profound interest and curiosity about how groups of people, specifically Descendants of Africans Enslaved in the United States (DAEUS), used herbs traditionally. I discovered the opportunity to explore folk medicine in depth while studying herbal medicine in graduate school and cotton root bark became my teacher. I was guided to write my thesis about cotton root bark from a historical perspective through the lives of enslaved women who used the root as medicine from a space of social justice and reproductive empowerment.

Who and where was the original source of this understanding about cotton root bark? Knowledge about the cotton plant dates back to Mandingo women who used cotton root bark as an abortifacient during the first trimester of pregnancy. In doing research, I found that these women had the knowledge of long lactation for birth control, ritual abstinence, abortion and other forms of contraception. By using the root bark of the cotton tree, they were able to control their fertility during stressful times when there were limited resources, such as during drought or famine. This brings up the notion that enslaved Africans brought along with them their own traditions, values and existing knowledge about various plant medicines. In fact, in the Carolinas, plantation owners wanted enslaved Africans from very precise areas of Africa specifically for their knowledge around the cultivation of crops such as rice. Although enslaved Africans were eventually taken to a new land with a new language, there were some similar plants, food and herbs and quite naturally the knowledge of cotton root was easily transferred into the cotton fields of the southern states in the US.

The horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, from the interior trek in Africa to the middle passage from, to the breaking in period to enslavement in the Americas, are indescribable and beyond imagination and comprehension. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss summarized in their book From Slavery to Freedom (1994) somehow things went from producing crops to the “traffic[king] of human souls.” There are accounts of women being taken from their native land in Africa who grabbed soil and swallowed it as they begin their trek, possibly making it to the foreign land of America. The middle passage, a journey from Africa to the Americas, took anywhere from 1 to 4 months. Enslaved Africans were packed so tightly on ships that they were forced to lie on their backs with their heads between the legs of others in poorly ventilated area devoid of fresh air and sunlight, filled with urine, feces and blood. Arrival to the Americas did not bring relief. Sweltering weather conditions, the further breakdown of the family unit, forced pairings and rape accurately describes plantation life, not to mention the labor intensive crop called cotton, which required year round tending, harvesting and processing.

In the midst of this horror, a new branch of medicine was born called Allopathic medicine, with a specific branch dedicated to enslaved Africans called Plantation medicine. Enslaved folks were seen as less than and not human, therefore should be managed differently. Scientific racism began to rear its head with diagnosis such as drapetomania: is a mental illness that caused Black slaves to flee captivity. Dr. James Marion Sims “the father of gynecology” restricted his research to enslaved women, yet all the illustrations were of white women. Even though there was anesthesia available, he did not use any because enslaved women had a higher tolerance for pain (interestingly there was recently an article in The Washington Post (April 2016) about this very subject: pain management and racial bias). Doctors were working to perfect c[aesarean]-sections on enslaved women without using anesthesia because of their “high tolerance for pain”. As a result, this reinforced to both enslaved Africans and enslaved African Americans to take their own health and wellbeing into their own hands.

Self care became more of an underground phenomenon amongst the slave community, specifically in the realm of women’s health. Enslaved women had knowledge passed down from generations within their families, other herbalists or root workers and from Native Americans. Oftentimes an herbalist tended to the slaves because a visit to the doctor would cost the plantation owner. There were slaves that were granted their freedom because of their skill-set. Some plantation owners even acknowledged “Black doctors sometimes produced better results than white practitioners” and there was even a case in which a Governor freed an enslaved herbalist for their knowledge around venereal diseases. With slave women already claiming the role as herbalists and keeper of sacred recipes and remedies, they naturally fell into the role of being a caretaker and midwife amongst their peers in the community.

Women’s health concerns were very common amongst slave women and cotton was ubiquitous. Enslaved women used fresh cotton root bark as contraceptive by chewing on it throughout the day. There was one incident where this enslaved woman was forced to marry someone and could not stand her husband. She was not sleeping with him at all and he reported this and she received quite a few lashings. Furious, she said you all will never get any property out of me, since the status of the child took the status of the mother. She kept her word by chewing on cotton root bark and never bore a child. In The Eclectic Medical Journal (1860), there was a first hand account of the power and efficacy of cotton root bark to induce abortion. “My attention was called to the bark of the cotton root by two or three planters in Mississippi, during the Fall of the year 1857 and I witnessed it’s action in one case of abortion. A Negro woman collected some bark of the fresh root and some green seed (about a pint she told me) and made a quart of strong tea and drank about half of it. I was sent for by her master, but the drug had brought about such energetic pains that it was impossible to check them and she lost her child”.

Using scientific language, we now know that cotton root bark is an emmenagogue and oxytocic. In other words, cotton root bark has the following effects in the body: increases oxytocin, contracts the uterus, inhibits implantation and in higher doses induces abortion. There were accounts of plantation owners learning of the use of cotton root bark amongst slave women. As word began to spread to white physicians, they began to use another herb, black haw, as the antidote to stop miscarriages or abortions already in progress, however they often ran out of their supply of black haw because cotton was so abundant. It is fascinating to think in the midst of such suffering, enslaved women created a subtle and impactful way to protect their fertility, empower themselves reproductively and support themselves and each other through the use of plant spirit medicine.


Karen L. Culpepper
Karen L. Culpepper is a clinical herbalist and licensed massage therapist in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Her work in the world is to heal through touch, her healing presence and the use of plant spirit medicine. She can be reached at embracingrhythm27@gmail.com.

Within & Beyond The Sugar Bush

by Jayal Chung

Over the years, through participation in a few sweatlodges, ceremonies, and in paying attention, I have learned about the practice of offering semma (tobacco). It has been foundational to my sense of being grounded, my connection, and understanding my relationship to this land as my birthplace in Thunder Bay on Fort William First Nation Robinson-Superior Treaty territory as a Chinese Canadian woman. It is being in friendships, and connecting with resilient Indigenous women who have shared generously with me that I witness and find so much healing and community with.

I have learned to set down semma or give it as an offering to say meegwetch, especially when loved ones?? or something feels hard in the community. I offer it when traveling or when I’ve returned, for myself or for others. I ask questions, I ask for guidance when especially when I do community-based work around sexual violence, like campaigns such as Take Back The Night. I remember once, Helen Pelletier put it so clearly, “Tobacco connects you”. From medicine walks and being in ceremony with Jazmin Romaniuk and with folks participating in Walking With Our Sisters, I feel a tremendous sense of community and connection. There is exciting momentum for Stephanie, Helen, and Jazmin. Their personal growth since the time that I have met them is profound, seen and felt, and physically tangible in the healing work they do and what they share in creating community.

These relationships, the stories, my memories and reflections layered upon each other in my mind’s eye, fully before me as I joined classmates in the Indigenous Governance and Leadership class to visit the sugar bush in April.

To give us context for our visit to the sugar bush, Damien Lee came to speak to our class. He disclosed that he was adopted and claimed by the community of Fort William First Nation and acknowledged his whiteness, giving us as students the opportunity to accept what he was sharing with us as bullshit or a perspective to work from. Stephanie MacLaurin was our guide, as we stepped gently along sticky snow to arrive and be part of the sugar bush process. Before this, Damien’s mother met up with us at the top of the mountain (anemki wajiw) to give us bannock and tea. In class, we discussed some initial thoughts as a class when it came to approaching the sugar bush and I shared that my question is: “How can I prepare?” “What are my responsibilities?”

This is a question I keep returning to, beyond the classroom. I think about it when consultations with stakeholder groups of people are discussed in media. As Damien highlighted, Europeans believed that Anishnaabe people had no laws, no governance. Anishnaabe have been seen as ‘inferior’ and ‘savages’. Christians themselves broadly viewed that their mission was to save.

This past year, I thought about my responsibilities as a student and the space I would take as for most students, this was their first experience in the sugar bush and I have a connection with Stephanie and Damien prior to this class.

With Damien, our class openly discussed how we approach the sugar bush and he offered us history, theory and a perspective to really help us understand the sugar bush as a form of governance. I reflected on our class discussion, my intentions with taking this class, and my friendship with Stephanie and reminded myself that if I make mistakes, I would hold myself accountable. I brought a tobacco offering; Stephanie shared about the mother tree that is wrapped in cloths of different colours, which ceremony took place for the tree and trees being tapped. She showed us how to tap and the collecting process. I allowed myself to be present, and I appreciated the morning as it unfolded.

‘The Land Is Ceremony’—Erin Marie Konsmo, Native Youth Sexual Health Network. This quote sums it up for me. The land tells us stories. The maple trees, as Damien and Stephanie share, tell us when they are ready and show us; there is natural law if we acknowledge it. Leanne Simpson references Basil Johnston and windigo stories to talk about hunger for natural resources and over-exploitation. With the sugar bush, it’s so amazing to see that this is a grassroots, community-driven initiative. Leanne Simpson captures this when she says that the “real gift was in the making, and that without love, making just wasn’t possible”. Resurgence.

This year, visiting the sugar bush felt even sweeter. I see the women and two-spirit teachings and leadership. I hear about and see how collective is growing, how the process is in making mistakes, owning up but giving yourself kindness, how skills-sharing is constantly happening and how dedicated and caring people are and all the gifts of the sugar bush within, and beyond it. With leadership, as Damien shared—its’ an emergent style. No one person is the leader. Each person has opportunity to learn, practice and acquire ongoing knowledge and sap is medicine.

Through individual and collective effort, the work of chopping, collecting dead wood, values, teachings, stories and ziiwaagmide— sweet brown syrup is possible and is shared. It is undeniably good, as Damien said. This was the starting point for him—its goodness.

It felt really peaceful, relaxing and good to go to the sugar bush as a class. For me, I had visited prior with invitation from Damien Lee to assist him in collecting. I also visited during the boiling process, on a few occasions. For example, one time I remember Ash had taken two fat Canadian geese and he started to process the geese by taking feathers, scraping the skin, revealing the roughness and roasting a bit. I heard stories about Ryan and Stephanie hunting geese and then folks with knowledge of roasting, sharing that in very organic way. I also recall from Damien’s blog Zoongde where you can find his writing piece titled “Indian in a Jar” on settler colonialism and about boundaries being broken between an instructor, Damien and Gail who had been working hard in the initial stages to revitalize the sugar bush and sap production for future generations.

As Damien makes the point, writing sugar bush as just culture negates the leadership and governance of what I observed, participated and experienced over the two years. Damien sharing his framework was a powerful moment that I felt in my body. Treaty constitutionalism: he drew a diagram and posed what kind of permissions, process, protocol would one go through when it came to mining or fishing as examples.

In this moment, as he drew – I could sense in an unexplainable way what he was referencing. e.g. drawing information from the land, the wisdom of ancestors, from clan, from Aadzookuazag sacred stories, from Confederacy, Creation and observing natural laws versus hunting and fishing regulations which would start with regulatory assessment, consultation, land, education training, sector agreement/direction, ministry of mines, Parliamentary province of Ontario section 92 constitution jurisdiction and the Canadian state.

There are dimensions beyond the page and the economical system that is different from the Anishnaabe way of governance. Competition doesn’t work. Being present is paramount to relationships and requires work and commitment. Values and intentional decisions matter.

What is a community? How did I come to feel so connected and why did I take this course? Some of the answers came through as I read Chapter 4 of Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back. I think I will start with learning the ‘nish word, mino bimaadziwin. Living a good life.

How do we do things in a good way?

How do we take up more space?

How is sugar bush source of governance?

I have shared my reflections, observations and personal experience at this time. I feel like through creative process like making art with other people I will learn next, Chibimoodaywin – spiritual visioning. Leanne Simpson highlighted Nishnaabeg mobilization. What part can I play in reconciliation? What individual commitment and actions going forward can I step into even though I might mistakes? What vision can I tap into?


Jayal Chung
Jayal Chung is a queer and Chinese woman, born and raised in Thunder Bay, ON. A self-taught visual and spoken word artist, she is passionate about arts, community organizing and community building, advocacy, making zines, and co-hosting Queer Radio Hour on CILU 102.7 FM.

2 Canes 2 Crips 6 Legs

An editorial essay on Disability art, healing justice, the hustle of the emerging marginalized artist.

by jes sachse

“We begin by listening. We are People of Colour, Indigenous people, disabled people, and survivors of trauma, many genders, ages and classes of people. We centre the genius and leadership of disabled and chronically ill communities, for what we know about surviving and resisting the medical industrial complex and living with fierce beauty in our sick and disabled bodies. We say no to the medical industrial complex’s model of “cure or be useless,” instead working from a place of belief in the wholeness of disability, interdependence and disabled people as inherently good as we are.”

– Healing & Health Justice Collective Organizing Principles, US Social Forum Detroit 2010

‘I have great immunities! I think it’s because I was born in a hospital,’ I say as you unlock the door of the apartment where your cat eagerly awaits our return.

‘What??’ you laugh in confusion.

 It was not what I meant. I remember fumbling with my words and eventually discarding them and hopping on your bed in playful distraction, hopelessly smitten in my first SDQ (sick and disabled queer) relationship.

I meant I was raised in a hospital. The mothership. Among others of my kind. Paranoid of cops and public transit officials trying to return me. One time wheeltrans slowly followed me for a whole block down Sorauren Avenue and I was like ‘aw shit! It’s happening!’ Turns out they were just looking for an address.

When I moved to Toronto with them big city dreams, it was from a smaller town nearby. Disability art was a new and burgeoning thing to me then, and to the Canadian scene, and I was eager to explore it. I resolved that in order to do that I needed to be around people that could grow me. I needed to know what was out there and I figured Toronto could tell me, with its rumours of other disabled queers.

This cold shoulder of a city has fulfilled its promise and then some. I’ve learned the art hustle of the emerging marginalized artist. Connection across disciplines, politics, and identities. Negotiations between steep rent and steeper poverty transformed into sweet poetry on the social media surface of me. I have made a home and it only took five years to get here.

Here for me is more literally the city’s southwest neighbourhood of Parkdale. I suppose Parkdale is as good a place as any to think about being disabled. Poverty and gentrification coming in from all sides. A place where scrappy meets yuppie in an elbow of streets just before the lake. Years learning the sidewalk dance of dodging the wheelie cart bubbies of a still very Polish Roncesvalles Village cuz no they don’t see your shared crip identities and they will RUN YOU DOWN.

The word disability has a lot of whiteness to contend with. It comes from institutions, which have an inherited colonial history: the medical industrial complex and the academic industrial complex.

I receive a lot of speaking engagements from academic institutions. The academy did not create disability art, but it did brand it. With the brand comes the decree of legitimacy. (I was once asked to give a presentation at a conference at Yale. It didn’t matter that no one paid me; it was Yale! Yaaaaale. Although when trying to board the campus shuttle, right on cue, I was asked if I was looking for the hospital shuttle).

I think I really did believe that a growing interest in disability art meant a growing care for disabled people. But that is a harsh untruth of being a marginalized artist contending with institutionalized power. With the apparent success of my own growing brand, I feel a growing emptiness. Hunger pangs that the McD’s value menu never seems to fill, despite repeated attempts at slinging toonies at the problem.

In a Canadian art context, marginalized identities ask for commodification in order to sustain an emerging artistic practice, while the work produced is often valued for only that: its marginalized quota. In the process of naming oneself over and over as marginalized artist, for funding, for work, for survival, an oppositional isolation is deeply felt. As though that is all one’s work is or is doing: marginalizing.

I can remember my first review in NOW Magazine, during my very first solo show for CONTACT Photography Festival. The images spanned the work of two years of vivid, visceral, queer and erotic digital self-portraiture; early photographic attempts at visually locating myself across my identities and communities. Although positive, the paragraph written about the series amounted to ‘These photographs show sachse just living life!’

Since that time, I have been given several platforms to speak from. And yet I still long for the missing care in my work’s curation. Disability art has in many ways revealed itself to exist to legitimize the very whitewashed disability studies academy. The disability studies academy will engage with disabled artists insofar as they prove of value to scholarship.

This problem is further perpetuated by organizational funding structures like the Ontario Art Council’s project grant specific disability art, which insists on a full disability roster (of almost circus-like variety) in order to be considered. If the entire slew of the projects participants are not disabled, the project does not qualify, which is a forced segregation having nothing to do with craft or medium.

Sadly, disability art is not inherently healing justice, as the spaces it takes up do not centre care or healing, but commodification. I have at times made bad art that speaks to non-disabled feminists before because it meant getting heard from at all; the ache for intimate artistic engagement is real and fuels the work of survival of artists working from the margins.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016. It’s late. I just left Lynx, horizontal on one of black pleather couches in the lobby of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), spoons(1.) low and on the phone with their Vancouver sweetie.


1. Spoon Theory

The word disability has a lot of whiteness to contend with. It comes from institutions, which have an inherited colonial history: the medical industrial complex and the academic industrial complex.

I receive a lot of speaking engagements from academic institutions. The academy did not create disability art, but it did brand it. With the brand comes the decree of legitimacy. (I was once asked to give a presentation at a conference at Yale. It didn’t matter that no one paid me; it was Yale! Yaaaaale. Although when trying to board the campus shuttle, right on cue, I was asked if I was looking for the hospital shuttle).

I think I really did believe that a growing interest in disability art meant a growing care for disabled people. But that is a harsh untruth of being a marginalized artist contending with institutionalized power. With the apparent success of my own growing brand, I feel a growing emptiness. Hunger pangs that the McD’s value menu never seems to fill, despite repeated attempts at slinging toonies at the problem.

In a Canadian art context, marginalized identities ask for commodification in order to sustain an emerging artistic practice, while the work produced is often valued for only that: its marginalized quota. In the process of naming oneself over and over as marginalized artist, for funding, for work, for survival, an oppositional isolation is deeply felt. As though that is all one’s work is or is doing: marginalizing.

I can remember my first review in NOW Magazine, during my very first solo show for CONTACT Photography Festival. The images spanned the work of two years of vivid, visceral, queer and erotic digital self-portraiture; early photographic attempts at visually locating myself across my identities and communities. Although positive, the paragraph written about the series amounted to ‘These photographs show sachse just living life!’

Since that time, I have been given several platforms to speak from. And yet I still long for the missing care in my work’s curation. Disability art has in many ways revealed itself to exist to legitimize the very whitewashed disability studies academy. The disability studies academy will engage with disabled artists insofar as they prove of value to scholarship.

This problem is further perpetuated by organizational funding structures like the Ontario Art Council’s project grant specific disability art, which insists on a full disability roster (of almost circus-like variety) in order to be considered. If the entire slew of the projects participants are not disabled, the project does not qualify, which is a forced segregation having nothing to do with craft or medium.

Sadly, disability art is not inherently healing justice, as the spaces it takes up do not centre care or healing, but commodification. I have at times made bad art that speaks to non-disabled feminists before because it meant getting heard from at all; the ache for intimate artistic engagement is real and fuels the work of survival of artists working from the margins.

Thursday, March 24th, 2016. It’s late. I just left Lynx, horizontal on one of black pleather couches in the lobby of OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), spoons2 low and on the phone with their Vancouver sweetie.

We’d gone shopping for art materials. We were both running creative writing workshops around that time and were looking for ways to stretch our modest budgets into the nicest supplies. One hour in a stair filled supply store later and all 2 canes 2 crips 6 legs of us were TIRED. Like, need to sit down somewhere on a ticking clock kind of tired. Initially, I had offered that we go to The Rex after, due to its close crip proximity. I know the area like the back of my claw hand. Filed under: ‘A place to sit and jazz.’

Wheeltrans had messed up and wouldn’t be arriving till 10:30pm. But when we reached the bottom of the ramp Lynx, in their Capricorn rising steadfast charm, stopped and announced ‘Nope.’ Which is how we found ourselves camped in the university’s lobby instead.

‘Do you have a [phone]charger?’ they ask, a chuckling metaphor of our current energy levels.

Surprisingly I did. We find a nearby bench and corner with an outlet.

With hours to go before their ride, we seize the opportunity to hang out. Scatter their new supplies on the well-lit concrete floor for a future social media post to promote #BlackSpoonieSpeak, a workshop by Lynx Sainte-Marie, trying to sculpt the aesthetic jusssst right for Insta.

The hustle.

(It feels like this great secret that when two or more spoonies who centre care with each other come together, access needs don’t actually double but decrease, because bodies inform each other. A deep balance of limits & desired outcomes.) 

At 9:30pm, after twenty different conversations & a relocation to the black pleather couch, Lynx insists that I start home. My body has begun its nightly shut down. I’ve taken to referring to it as ‘kitten hour.’ If I don’t get on transit within kitten hour I will be too sleepy. Falling asleep in public is an unsafe thing in the world.

At the stop, it starts to rain. Streetcars crawl toward me in the great damp distance of Queen Street, their green-lit antennae making a Gatsby out of me. It aches of unfulfilled promise. As access wages, the same ancient stress on my bones so begins again the calculation of steps to home. The wince of what happens when home was other people. The funerals step onto the streetcar with you, sidle into front seat to rest; blue, sideways, a marker of loss incomplete. Pain, but also Love.


jes sachse
jes sachse is a Toronto-based poet, artist & curator obsessed with disability culture. Living across the blurred lines of whiteness, poverty, lifelong disability, genderfluidity and madness, they are currently working on their first illustrated novel, Gutter, which will portray these dilemmas through a multi-modal narrative form, reflecting at once on both a crip navigation of contemporary culture, and the permeation of traumas in spaces of invisibilized violence.

The Damages of Microagressions: How to Prevent and Heal

by Tina Zafreen Alam

While most of the literature on microaggressions discusses how to manage them in the moment, and what kinds of responses might communicate the inappropriateness of the behavior, few are devoted to the question of reversing the damage from stress that results from them. Chronic (ongoing) stress devastates wellness. It’s also cumulative in that the damage worsens with every microaggressive blow. Constant put downs, ridicule and denigrations, intended or not, have measurable adverse effects on your body, mind and self-definition.

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions1 as the “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Microaggressions can be racial, gender-based, hetero-patriarchal, religious, fat phobic, ageist, ableist or any other dynamic that marginalizes.

Microaggressions can invoke the stress reaction for those of us on the butt end of them. Hence I approach the question of healing and preventing them as primarily a matter of building resiliency. That is what this short article will focus on as I share some key ideas from my self-healing workshops.

In my framework of knowing, social justice and equity struggles benefit when every one of us is well, although not in the sense of some static state of perfect health where you can live forever. Healing is about the capacity to adjust, learn and grow in response to the ebb and flow of your dynamic relationships with the world. Your body, for example, is never static. If it were you’d be dead. In a healthy (or even unhealthy) body there are ongoing activities of self-regulation and self-repair in a process called homeostasis, which is the body’s tendency to maintain optimal functioning. Healing and wellness in this article are essentially about self-love, self-compassion, and cultivating meaningful, fulfilling relationships rather than obtaining perfection in any form. From this perspective acceptance, inner peace, fulfillment and a sense of purpose are intrinsic to wellbeing.

Most folks know from high school science or popular culture that stress is at the root of many illnesses. Instead of glossing over the impact of microaggressive stress, here are some facts you might like to be aware of:

  • When you are upset by a microaggression, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline flood your bloodstream, increasing your respiration and blood pressure.
  • Oxygen and blood are directed to your large muscles and physical senses (sight, hearing, etc.).
  • Digestive organs slow down their activities. Nutrients don’t get into the bloodstream and toxins don’t get out of the body at optimum speeds.
  • The immune reaction is put on hold.
  • Your cells and the DNA within them contract, making them less able to absorb nutrients and perform all their functions.
  • Your blood flow is diverted to the limbic/instinctive brain. The brain areas responsible for higher thinking get less blood, oxygen and nutrients. Your body does this as part of a stress reaction because you don’t need to be philosophizing or contemplating your next art project when you’re in a crisis or life-threatening situation.

This fight or flight state is exactly what you need if you’re in a situation where your life or the wellbeing of a loved one is at risk. You don’t, however, want to live in this state. Here are some other effects of chronic (long term) stress, which repeated exposure to microaggressions provokes:

  • Your body doesn’t care whether the experience is life-threatening or mildly annoying. Whether you have a gun pointed at you or your coworker uttered a careless remark, your body reacts the same way.
  • Furthermore, your body doesn’t care whether your stress is life-threatening at that moment, you are remembering stressful events from the past or imagining them in the future.
  • The more often or more prolonged the microaggression, the more your brain will physically restructure itself to accommodate the biochemistry and neural activity of chronic stress. For example, blood vessels, cellular growth and synaptic (communication) pathways in the brain will develop in ways that help you shift into the stress reaction quicker and allow you to stay there longer.
  • High levels of cortisol will dissolve connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons and cartilage. Cortisol will also contribute to the accumulation of belly fat.
  • The adrenal gland will get tired of pumping adrenaline into your system. Adrenal exhaustion will set in and you will likely feel a sense of numbness and resignation to stressful events because you won’t have enough adrenaline in your system to generate useful responses. So when you’re faced with a real crisis you won’t have the juice to react appropriately.
  • Over the long term, stress makes you more sensitive to physical pain.
  • Your mental capacities will be compromised – particularly memory, learning, creativity and problem solving. Anyone who spends a lot of time in a context where microaggressions are rampant will have a brain that is very good at directing the biochemistry of stress; your thoughts become distrustful, self-involved, fearful, anxious and intolerant.
  • Your brain changes even further to accommodate what you think, say and do. If your attention remains on the multitude of microaggressions to which you are daily exposed your brain will accommodate and heighten the stress they cause.

The long-term effects of chronic and cumulative stress are not pretty. The Institute of HeartMath finds that a mere five minutes of being in a stressful state catalyzes six hours of depressed immunity, impaired healing and constrained mental capacity.

Microaggressions are potentially life-threatening because they produce the stress that causes illness and shortens lifespans.This is why educational and awareness-raising strategies are important to prevent them. However, these are not the only strategies that contribute to prevention.

The literature on countering or preventing harmful stress often focuses on how individuals can build resiliency to offset the negative health effects. Most of this is aimed at helping you transform your behaviours and thinking patterns; modifying your reaction to stressful events in a process of building resiliency. This works because it reshapes your body into a more expansive state (literally).

While social justice emphasizes working collectively to promote social change, there is still a role for building individual (and group) resilience. In fact, they are interdependent. Building resiliency is personally empowering, is the most effective method for transforming the impact of stress on your body, and enhances your capacity to sustain your participation in social change activities.

Resilient people are less likely to experience burnout, compassion fatigue or chronic stress symptoms. Obviously, social justice movements can benefit from resilient activists. That’s why I emphasize building resiliency in my work.

Briefly, here’s what happens to your body when you’re resilient; when you’re enjoying expansive states of love, compassion, generosity, gratitude and optimism.

  • The higher thinking parts of your brain get an optimal amount of blood supply, oxygen and nutrients. There are more cell growth and synaptic activity. Consequently, your memory, learning, problem-solving and creative abilities expand.
  • Biochemicals like DHEA, serotonin, oxytocin and nitrous oxide pour into your bloodstream. Combined these biochemicals promote feelings of connection, joy, openness, optimism, empathy, compassion, gratitude, generosity and a sense of peace. At their height, you experience wonder and awe.
  • These expansive states promote pro-social behaviours like cooperation, sharing, kindness, volunteering, giving and uplifting others. They fuel a thirst for social justice and equity.
  • The longer you’re in an expansive state, the more you produce biochemicals that heighten the effect and you can go into an upward spiral.
  • As an added bonus, some of the biochemicals produced in expansive states lower cortisol levels, reversing the stress reaction.
  • Your immune response becomes more efficient and tissue repair is accelerated. You also experience less physical pain.
  • Organs, cells and DNA expand and become optimized for their functions, including taking in and metabolizing nutrients.

The HeartMath on expansive states? Five minutes buys you five hours of all these positive mental and physical benefits. When you cultivate expansive feelings you take advantage of your body’s ability to restructure itself in the direction of building resiliency. This means you are less likely to be impacted by stressful events like microaggressions and, when you are, you can bounce back quicker.

Building resilience involves developing a daily practice of cultivating expansive mind, body and emotional states. This involves deliberately allocating time to focus on whatever puts you into an expansive mindset. Fortunately, as noted before your body doesn’t care whether you’re actually lying on that beach, remembering or fantasizing about it. The benefits are the same.

The most effective way to build resilience is to strengthen your internal resources. While there’s nothing wrong with experiencing pleasure from external sources, and these activities can definitely be fun, research increasingly shows they are not the most effective forms of building resiliency. Activities that help us feel connected, or provide opportunities to nurture life have deeper more lasting benefits than spa days, shopping sprees or getting that promotion. Do you want your happiness to depend on weather conditions, other people’s moods or stuff you can’t control? For Tips on Building Resiliency check out my website.

A note of caution on building resiliency to heal and prevent the stress of microaggressions: expecting to remain in a blissful state 24/7 is neither possible nor desirable. Anger, fear and grief, for instance, are appropriate responses to some life events. Ignoring, denying or suppressing them is as stressful as the event itself. Feel your feelings, explore and let them go. It’s a refusal to process uncomfortable emotions that contribute to illness and mental contractiveness. When you notice, accept and explore your feelings they eventually fade and you can shift your attention to something more expansive. Yes, contractive feelings will return because you’re interacting with life and challenge is part of the deal. However, resiliency will allow you to manage life’s challenges in a way that doesn’t compromise your wellness.

Since community wellness and social justice depend on the contributions of resilient individuals, it’s really about time that our movements, organizations and communities recognized resiliency-building as socially significant work. You might start out building resiliency for the sake of your own wellbeing but it will be the collective “us” that benefits.


Zainab Amadahy
Based in peri-apocalyptic Toronto, Zainab Amadahy is an author, screenwriter, self-empowerment facilitator, professional development consultant, researcher and educator. Her background in medical and photovoltaic technologies, as well as community service in the areas of Indigenous knowledge reclamation, curanderismo, non-profit housing, women’s services, migrant settlement and community arts, inform her work. Links to Zainab’s articles, essays and other literary work can be found on her website: www.swallowsongs.com.

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.

Divine Liberation

illustration of a moon with floral inside

by Sharrae Lyon

The night was cold and Tamara Wilson walked through the rough terrain of the forest with fear and relief. It had been three days since she left the Wilson Estate. She had not yet heard any dogs barking after her, no dogs had yet been trained to track her scent, or so that is what she chose to think. Leading up to Tamara’s escape, she feared greatly the consequences of being captured. It had taken Tamara two years to muster up the courage to leave the plantation of Massa Wilson. No one from her memory had escaped or even attempted, though there were stories of other folk finding liberation in the mountains from neighbouring plantations.

Jamaica was a small island, but moving from the center towards the mountains was

no simple feat.

Tamara had to pass by many plantations before reaching the river that separated the

mainland from the mountains. If it weren’t for this circumstance and needing to travel by night,

she probably could have made it to her destination in a day’s time. But alas, she was searching for refuge. And it wasn’t her first time doing so. Tamara Wilson was a new name that this woman of slender-build, brown skin, and piercing eyes was given. She had become somewhat of an expert of escape. Her first attempt was when she was enslaved in New Orleans, but she was found and sold to a slaver from the Caribbean who had connections with Massa Wilson in Jamaica. Tamara could not tolerate being owned by another person, no matter how well they

treated her, or how scary it was to walk into the dark abyss of uncertainty, Tamara had a core sense of true liberation, that she experientially was not of aware of, but sat in the structures of her DNA. She could not muster the ability to conform to the brutality that she and her people have had to endure for the past 300 years. But it had also been so long since she heard her original name, the name that her mother gave her, that she succumbed to the name Tamara Wilson. She hated herself for it, but after being whipped numerous times when she demanded

that she be called her true name, the humiliation created a blockage in her memory.

In fact, Tamara Wilson forgot so much of who she used to be. She forgot who she loved, who her family was, what their names were, what their faces looked like. All brown she was certain, but that was the only thing she held. It felt like nothing. She felt empty, but despite this, she still felt like she had a purpose much stronger than being a slave girl, who laid for her master each night. Tamara felt nauseous each morning, she knew that she was now carrying the child of her Master, her abuser’s seed. It was then that she decided that she would not bring any child into a world of enslavement. Before she left, she had tried to convince her closest friend Winnie to join her. Despite Winnie’s terrible temper, she was the closest thing to family for Tamara and she could understand after witnessing some of the trauma that she had to endure, why she was the way she was.

Although fear had dissipated from Tamara’s consciousness and submerged into the depths of the oceans of her being, Tamara felt utterly alone. She looked up at the star-lit sky. She wondered to herself how it could be so beautiful up in night sky, but be so wretched on the ground that her feet didn’t allow her to lift up towards the sky and join the stars. She had the tendency to speak to one star in particular. It wasn’t necessarily the brightest star in the sky, but it had often called on her in times of loneliness. It was as if the star had wished to join her and keep her company, but because there were other laws and forces preventing the night sky and the Earth below to merge, it wasn’t physically possible to comfort her.

She often imagined what it would be like to be enwrapped in the embrace of her favourite star. Hot perhaps, but she often dreamed herself in the middle core of the star and what seemed like angel dust encircling her. Colours of red and gold surrounding her, dropping lightly on her golden brown skin. She deeply took in the fresh air and let out a moan. She had forgotten what it was also like to have her skin gently touched, caressed. Tamara was lost in her vision traveling in the star-filled sky, until she realized she heard footsteps in the bushes only meters away. Tamara’s heart started to panic and race as she quickly jumped off on the side of the road and hid behind a bush until the person appeared.

Look through the lush leaves, she could make out a figure that was round, and a bit taller than her. The figure was a woman, she almost screamed at the girl, but then the thought came to mind that it would be kinder to approach Winnie without scaring her. As she began to emerge from the bush the dreadful thought that Winnie could have been instructed by Massa Wilson to find her came to mind. ‘No,’ she thought, ‘I will not allow him to make me fear my friend.’ Tamara then slowly emerged from outside the bushes and walked gently behind Winnie and playfully pounce.

“Don’t you dare!”

“Huh?” Winnie turned around and playfully winked at Tamara.

“How did you know?” Tamara said playfully

“It’s only been three days, did you think we’d already forget to read each other’s mind?”

It was true, ever since Tamara arrived on Massa Wilson’s plantation, Winnie and Tamara seemed to have this uncanny and unspoken ability to understand each other on this deep psychic level. It was as if they could read each other’s minds. Tamara could not believe it was only three days since she left the plantation, it had seemed like three years.

“Thought I wouldn’t come, didn’t you?”

“Well yeah, you seemed to not budge.”

“I wanted to keep you surprised.” Tamara knew Winnie was hiding behind the humour, Winnie knew it too, but neither felt it was necessary.

“I needed to leave. You were right.” Tamara walked to Winnie and hugged her tightly.

“We have to keep moving. Was there anyone tracking us?”

“Not that I could see…”

“Wait what was that?” The bush nearby began to shake and Tamara’s heart began to rattle, but then a young boy, no older than the age of five poked out.

“Child! What are you doing here!?”

“That’s Bullah’s kid. Bullah was killed by Massa Wilson the night after you left. Blamed him for

not keeping proper watch” Winnie explained.

“Bullah…he…he’s dead?”

Tamara dropped to the ground in front of the young boy. Tears began to form in her eyes as she placed her hands on the little boy’s shoulders. He looked much like his father: round face, light skin, and light brown eyes. The young child wore a white cotton shirt and shorts with his father’s brown hat. The hat was too big for the child, but it was the only memory he had of his father. If she had known that her escape was going to cost Bullah his life, she would not have asked him to help her escape.

“Bullah would have been held responsible either way, don’t worry your head with such foolish thoughts.” Winnie mindfully comforted Tamara.

“My child you are with me and Winnie now. You are safe. We will protect you.” The young boy sombrely walked into Tamara’s arms and began to softly cry.

“Yes child, shed the tears for your father. Tears are the pathways to healing and remembering.”

“We better keep moving. Three of Massa Wilson’s slaves are missing, there is no count he’ll have a team after us by morning come.”

“Let’s go. We ain’t no slaves. The stars will guide us.”

Without notice Tamara, Winnie and the young boy were surrounded by three black dogs. Dogs who were trained to individually track each of their scents, dogs who too were broken and enslaved. It was clear that Massa Wilson’s men were not too far away. Tamara had experienced a similar situation back in Louisiana, but she was more fearful of what would happen to Winnie and the young child. With the boy still clutched around her, Tamara had the impulse to crouch down to the ground. As she did, she emptied her mind and began to chant what was an old language that she had not spoken it what seemed like lifetimes.

“Sha ro lay, ma et

tomah shengo,

shengo, shengo

tuet lohm meh.

Mahsa shemeoneh,

Shango

Shang”

As her voice raised from a whisper into a strong bellowing call, the wind began to pick up, a fierce wind that circled around them, leaving the three of them unaffected, as the wind that was being conjured began to push the dogs against their will. A heavy set of clouds began to cross the sky, making the stars that were just visible moments ago, disappear. A heavy grumbling bellowed in the depths of the Earth. The ground beneath them began to shake.

“Gaiath mahyo,

shango, destsa.”

Tamara’s eyes had gone blank, and when she awoke from her trance she had found that all three dogs had been struck dead. Winnie grabbed Tamara, and they began to run, but Tamara had become too weak. Winnie quietly hauled her over her shoulders, with the young child running quickly by her side.

“Guide me, which way do we go?”

Tamara had lost most of her strength, and all she could muster was raising her hand to the sky and she pointed towards the moon.

“Wait, this must be it.” As Winnie looked up towards the moon, she realized she was in standing at the bottom of a large mountain. Without any hesitation, she began to climb up the path that was created.

She then began to see other people who looked like them; seekers of freedom. Dark, brown, and red skin; people that had features she had never seen. They did not try to stop them, they were on watch for any others who had escaped the brutal plantations.

They finally reached what looked like the opening of a cave. A man stood strong and tall at it’s opening. He looked to be about seven feet tall, muscular, his chest showed his status, he was a leader of the people. He skin was a mixture of reddish and chocolate brown, and the fire torches held by those around them, shone a yellow glow. His face was serious, yet calmly he had his gaze on Tamara. His eyes were dark brown, almost black and it appeared like two pearls were sitting in the middle of his eyes; the reflection of the moon. He motioned to his companions sitting around Tamara, Winnie and the young boy. One of the companions approached Winnie who was wearing a brown cotton dress, and he extended his arms to carry Tamara.

“Where will you take her?”

The companion looked at her with an understanding look and gently took Tamara from her grip. He then carried her, over to the chief of the community.

Tamara now lay at the feet of the tall man. He then began to extend his arms in front of him, his eyes were now closed and his breathing became very heavy. Tamara, although still alive, appeared lifeless. His hands were extended over her body and he began to speak a language that sounded very similar to the language that Tamara spoke while she had conjured up the storm. His eyes then opened and the two pearls began to float from the centres of his eyes, they drifted over Tamara’s body, leaving his eyes now completely black. Winnie lifted the young child, and felt the urge to run away, but a young woman approached her and calumny eased her fears by simply holding her hand. The two orbs began to cross and dance over Tamara’s body, as the man continued to mutter words from his lips. Tamara’s breathing began to become deeper and more full and she finally got up, walked towards the man and placed her hands on his, her eyes became white once again, and the caves now became lit by the torches along the walls of the cave.

The two began to levitate and the companions began to sing, drum and dance as they whirled upwards in the cave. Tamara’s face began to brighten with a smile.

“Welcome home, my love, my Tamraha we have been separated for too long. I left you a star to remember my love, our love. You had been so alone. You’ve endured so much. I can never forgive myself for not protecting you how I should have, so long ago.”

“No Onek, my love, there was nothing that you could have done to change the circumstances that led me to this point. We are now here together, reunited. I have taken care of myself, the ancient ones shared with me our teachings. I did not forget. Your star had become my companion. Now it is time that we change what has been done to our people.”

“Our time is returning. We shall free our people from the bondages that have been placed around them.” Time seemed to slow, the wind that had been roaring transformed into a light breeze, and Tamraha and Onek began to descend to the ground. Winnie was stunned at what she just witnessed, but there was a memory that lived deep in her bones; a memory that alluded to the normalcy of what she witnessed.

Tamraha, her true name, as reminded by her long lost love Onek walked towards Winnie, grabbed her hand. This time Winnie could not read Tamraha’s mind, she was blocking her out. She had become more powerful.

“My sister, We suffer no longer. We are free. We must now free this island.” Tamraha placed her two thumbs in between Winnie’s brow, and Winnie began to see visions of her people being placed on ships, of vast oceans, she began to smell the decaying scent of flesh and feces, and was transferred back to the lush forests, the red soil of her ancestor’s village. She began to remember her true nature, a free woman.

“Whatever it takes, Tamraha. I am with you.”


Sharrae Lyon
Sharrae Lyon is a transdisciplinary artist, writer and facilitator. She believes in the powerful role of science fiction and futurism to answer the spiritual and internal questions around “Otherness,” with the curiosity to redefine what it means to be human. Through the engagement in ancestral healing, Sharrae is driven by unleashing personal and collective power in order to create futures that are sustaining, life-giving and affirming.