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See It, Harvest It, Own It!

It is a minus -40 day. I’m driving to the Elder and am amazed that my old Ford Focus managed to start. I have asked for some time with her. I need answers to questions that have stayed with me for far too long. A snow squall swirls up. I feel like I am driving in a whiteout in the city I have lived in for thirty years. 

I think about how my mother’s people travelled with a sled and a team of dogs. They would have stopped, pulled over and built shelter instead of continuing. The women would have melted snow and used the water as insulation inside the igloo. Running the water along the inner walls to prevent further winds from entering. Snow would have been melted for tea while the kudlik would bring warmth into the tiny house. Many people would call this resilience a word that I tire of. 

I hit the buzzer to the Elder’s apartment and ride the elevator up two floors. She is standing in the hallway, and I smile because my mom used to do the same thing. Every time I visited my mom, I would buzz her apartment number, and she would open the main door and then stand in the hallway waiting for me. For a moment, I think about how much I miss my mom, and this small reminder of her brings a sense of pain and consolation all at once. 

The Elder has tea ready and some store-bought cookies. I know the cookies are a luxury for her on her small budget. I see a big ball of yarn on the couch with knitting needles showing work in progress. I think again of my mom and the beautiful handwork she created winter after winter. We never had store-bought mitts, toques, scarves, sweaters, or socks. Why would anyone buy those items from a store when they could be made with her clever hands that contained love and care? 

Like the Elder, my mom raised many children and would sew most of our clothes. Every Saturday was a bread-making day. I would take sandwiches of homemade bread and buns to school. I would sit in a pool of jealousy every lunch hour, watching my classmates remove Wonder Bread sandwiches from their paper bags. I spent far too much time wondering about Wonder Bread and how rich their families must be. Store-bought bread or cookies were an extravagance. Like my mom, the Elder has lived through a time of making what was needed from scratch. 

I wait for the Elder to sit down first, and I sit across from her. There is a protocol to be adhered to in this meeting. I can not ask a question until the Elder allows me to. I have to wait for her to green-light our conversation. I pour the tea into her cup first but only drink my own once she has taken her first sip. I only take a cookie once she has one in her hand and has taken a bite. I know these small things, but most non-Inuit do not. I am waiting to ask my question but must keep my patience. The Elder is talking about our horrible cold weather. I am listening while wondering if my car will ever start again or if I will leave it in the parking lot until spring. I feel an urgency to get on with what I want, but I can’t jump in and ask. The Elder has not indicated that I can. I remind myself to keep my tongue still. 

The Elder begins a trip down her very long memory lane. She tells me of a winter’s day like this one, a day of travel with her brother and dad. She is on the sled when the wind starts spitting hard pellets of snow into her eyes. She tries to tell her dad they should stop, but her words are carried away into the storm without anyone hearing them. She is speaking of her terror. She is speaking of how she thought they wouldn’t survive. Their journey did take longer than expected, but they arrived safe and sound. She chuckles now and says, “Why did I have fear? My dad knew the land better than the back of his hand. That trip taught me about trust.” I grin at her. She contains some sort of magic. A tiny magnet must be attached to her heart and mine. I am drawn to her whenever I am near her and can not figure out what is happening. I am suspended in time. The outer world stops. I only see and hear her. 

One of the hardest questions I had to deal with when writing my Ph.D. thesis was, “How do I know what I know?” It was a question given to me by Dr. Eber Hampton. Spending time with Eber was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. He had me read books by Karl Polanyi. I spent hours trying to figure out how to answer that very hard question. Eber and Dr. Cora Weber-Pillwax also introduced me to the concept of blood memory. It is something that I still reflect on because I know the protocol involved with an Inuit Elder, but no one has ever taught it to me. 

I teach many young Indigenous students. They are often shame-filled for not being fluent in their language, not knowing tradition, or practicing ceremonies. I have told them that who you are lies in your blood and transcends through time into your veins and spirit. What you have to do is go and find it. It is something that is waiting for you. It is something that you must search out. Bonita Lawrence writes (2004), “In deep ways, our bodies have a knowledge that is all their own,” we must encourage ourselves to harvest our Indigeneity. In the words of Dr. Cora Weber-Pillwax (2009), “…blood memory is tied to your own people. The theory is if you have the blood of Cree ancestors, you have the Cree memories connected to those ancestors. But it’s really your choice as to whether you use that or let it go” (p. 339). 

I have taken the time to read many old books speaking of Inuit and first contact. I have spent time learning the bit of Inuktitut that I do know. I make a point of using the Padlei dialect in my writing, and when I do, it all feels very natural. When I go out for a walk, I throat sing to the world around me. I do that badly, but I keep doing that. I never apologize for my lack of fluency in the Padlei dialect. I own my Inuitness, and nobody’s words or questions can take away what my mother gave me. To all young Inuit, First Nations, and Métis seek it, harvest it, and own it proudly. 

I look at the Elder and smile. She is helping me to reap the rewards of my ancestors. She leans towards me and asks, “Now, what’s your big question?” 


CITATIONS 

Lawrence, B. (2004). “Real Indians” and others mixed-blood and urban Native peoples and Indigenous nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska. 

Weber-Pillwax, C., Kelly, J., & Schultz, L. (2009). The location of knowledge: a conversation with the editors on knowledge, experience, and place. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 55(3), 335-349. 

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