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NISHGA is a genre-defying new book by Jordan Abel. Drawing on elements of memoir, poetry, found documents, and collages juxtaposing artwork created by his father with the writer’s own words, the book is a meditation on intergenerational trauma, contemporary Indigenous existence, and what Abel calls the afterlife of residential schools. This excerpt, featuring short passages and artwork from the book, draws on various parts of the text to capture one of the book’s many through lines.

An Open Letter to All My Relations

It’s taken me a long while to gather up the courage to share this book with you.

This book has been difficult for me to write and for me to return to. This is also a book with painful subject matter.

This book is about intergenerational trauma, Indigenous dispossession, and the afterlife of Residential Schools.

It is also a book that is about sexual and physical violence, lateral violence, depression, suicide, and self-harm.

While I ultimately hope that this will be a book that helps people, I also want you to take care of yourself first.

If now is not the time, there will be another time.

I remember sitting across a table from a poet I’d never met before. We were in a café somewhere in Prince George. I can’t honestly remember the circumstances surrounding my visit to PG or why I ended up getting coffee with this poet. But I was there, and he was there, and we were both writers. So why not get some coffee together? My recollection of most of the conversation is hazy at best, but what I do remember with great clarity is the moment he said, “There aren’t really any Nisga’a people. Not any real Nisga’a people. They don’t exist.” I can’t honestly remember how I responded to that. I may have said absolutely nothing. But I remember thinking, “Of course there are real Nisga’a people. I’m sitting right in front of you.” But I didn’t say that. I just sat there wondering if maybe I wasn’t Nisga’a enough to say anything. Maybe I didn’t know what he meant. Maybe there was some kind of Nisga’a-ness that was unattainable. That I wasn’t a part of. That I could never be a part of. So how could I possibly say anything if I wasn’t a real Nisga’a person myself?

I remember being outside of a Broadway restaurant on a slushy night in Vancouver for a staff Christmas party. I wasn’t really invited to the party, but my friend had insisted. So my friend and I were outside smoking, and some of his friends from work were there, and some of their friends too. We were talking and laughing. The food had been excellent and there was more than enough booze to go around. At some point, one of the friends of friends turned tome. She said, “Where are you from?” I told her that I was from the mountains. I had been living in the interior for a few months now, and since I no longer felt like a Vancouver resident, it made sense to me as an answer. “No, no,” she said, “Where are you from?” I told her that I was from Vancouver. “No, I mean, you’re Indigenous, right?” I told her yes. “So where are you from?” I can’t remember if I had known what she was getting at, or if I was just waiting for her to clarify what she meant. But now I knew the answer she wanted to hear. “I’m Nisga’a,” I said. “My grand- parents were from Kincolith.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to give that answer, but every time I do I can’t help but feel like it’s the only right answer, even though I’m not so sure that it is.

I remember being asked, so, where are you from? or where are you really from? or don’t all you Indians get free university? or where are you from? or why don’t you go back to your reserve? or why don’t you speak your language? or so what are you? or where are you from? or aren’t you people good with cell phones? or are you adopted? or shouldn’t you be out in a teepee somewhere? or where are you from? or don’t you think you’re being too hard on the Washington Redskins? or can’t we just stop being political for just one minute? or where are you from? or don’t all lives matter, though? or why don’t you go back to China? or where are you from?

I remember talking to my aunt Bonnie on the phone. At some point, she must have told me which Residential School my grandparents had gone to. But I had forgotten. That conversation just got harder and harder. I wanted to remember, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t know what to do with those details. So I ended up forgetting. When I asked her again years later, she told me it was the Coqualeetza school. After that, I looked up all the records that were available through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. I remember searching through hundreds of photos with no way of knowing which anonymous child was my grandmother, which anonymous child was my grandfather.

I remember standing in front of a group of professors and students during a job interview. I had just finished telling them about my life, about my father, about the ways that I’ve experienced Indigeneity. At this point, I had done a few of these kinds of presentations, but they hadn’t gotten any easier. They never got more comfortable. At the end of each one I often experienced a moment of regret. I shouldn’t have said anything. I shouldn’t have put myself out there. I’m an idiot for making myself this vulnerable. I don’t want to talk about any of this. Sometimes this moment passes quickly and sometimes it doesn’t. During the question period, a professor raised his hand, and spoke for several minutes before coming to his question: “What’s new about this?” He didn’t really care about how I might respond. He just wanted me to know that he didn’t think my work had any value. I should have shrugged this off. But this question has stuck with me. If he asked me that now, I would say: “Nothing. This is an old, sad, painful story that hurts just as much yesterday as it does today. There’s nothing new about it but it’s still not going anywhere.”

I remember renting a car so that I could drive out to the Coqualeetza Residential School. So that I could finally stand in the place where my grandparents had stood. So I could finally be in the place that changed all our lives forever. But when I pulled up, I realized that I had been here before. A year ago. For a conference. I had stood here on the grounds where the Residential School used to be and not known it. I had been in this place before and not understood the role that it played in my life. I had even been here to talk about Indigenous literature and I hadn’t felt it. I felt it now, though. I felt breathless and heartbroken to be here again. I felt like an idiot for not knowing last year. I remember I had gone to the first day of that conference but felt overwhelmed and burnt out. So I skipped out on the rest of the conference and drove in to Vancouver to live by the beach in a stranger’s house for a few days.

I remember walking around the grounds where the Coqualeetza school used to be and reading the small informational kiosks spread throughout. According to one of the kiosks, some of the children had carved their names and numbers into the wood underneath the porch of the big house. I wondered if my grandparents had carved their names into that wood. I wondered if they had carved their numbers.

“Over the course of the Commission’s work, many Aboriginal people spoke to us about the children who never came home from Residential School. The question of what happened to their loved ones and where they were laid to rest has haunted families and communities. Throughout the history of Canada’s Residential School system, there was no effort to record across the entire system the number of students who died while attending the schools each year. The National Residential School Student Death Register, established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, represents the first national effort to record the names of the students who died at school. The register is far from complete: there are, for example, many relevant documents that have yet to be received, collected, and reviewed.”

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

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