Jesse Thistle is Métis-Cree, from Prince Albert, Sask. He is an assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto. He won a Governor-General’s Academic Medal in 2016, and is a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a Vanier Scholar. He recently published his debut memoir, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way.
Helen Knott is a Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw and mixed Euro-descent woman living in northeastern British Columbia. In 2016, she was one of 16 global change makers featured by the Nobel Women’s Initiative for her commitment to ending gender-based violence. She was named an RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer in 2018. She recently published her first book, In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience.
They held their discussion over e-mail in August.
My work in Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Observatory of Homelessness has described First Nation, Métis and Inuit houselessness as a kind of diasporic mobile community whereby the state has failed to spend on housing, infrastructure, education, work opportunities for home communities on par with the rest of Canadians – which is sad because these rights were enshrined in treaty. Indigenous people have to travel vast distances to access services the rest of Canadians take for granted. Some don’t even have proper houses or safe drinking water.
Another aspect of this is the deep feeling of rootlessness that goes along with it, and that Indigenous peoples have felt within Canadian society, where they see their lands usurped by settlement and development and simply have nowhere to be within the nation-state. The anthropological term “out of place” describes that perfectly.
The final aspect is the misrecognition of territory after continual development, whereby large scale manipulation, climatic shifts, and human destruction has changed environments so much that they alter the very composition of the land and animals and make it unrecognizable to Indigenous peoples whose lives traditionally have centred on connection to land. There is a deep sadness that comes from witnessing the loss of land as it transforms into something that is unrecognizable. Australian environmental philosophers have termed it ecological grief, and the topic is most thoroughly explored by Canadian scholar Ashlee Cunsolo in her work in Labrador around Inuit mental-health experiences of watching their lands transform as they live upon them.
I think the first step in healing, then, is understanding that colonial and capitalist processes are under way to profit from the land’s exploitation and that it continues to displace Indigenous people into various dimensions of homelessness. We need to start here; we need to admit that as a nation and move forward building policies from this jump-off point. And when I say homeless, I clearly do not just mean without having a structure of habitation, it’s more like having no place to be within the nation-state.
I agree with that definition. I am grateful to be connected to the territory of my maternal bloodline. I once had a conversation with my Auntie and talked about what it is that I do as a writer and a social worker. She called me back the next day with the phrase “yetchay kay nusgee” which roughly translates to: “I remember things from long ago.” We are living memory keepers, as writers and as Indigenous people, but the land itself is the oldest memory keeper. The mountains, prairies, lakes, islands, oceans are access to memory, to story and, ultimately, to healing.
I have a specific memory that I pulled on in my early years of sobriety. It was in the summer of 2012 and I stood at the confluence of the Peace River and the Halfway River in northeastern British Columbia. I stood in the water and let my toes settle into the round and flat pebbles and stones. I looked across the river at the valley hillside that was rich with green pine trees and spruce. I closed my eyes. I wiggled my toes further into the floor of the river. I felt the sunshine on my face. I told myself, “Remember what this feels like. Remember what it is like to be so deeply rooted in the territory of your people and watched over.” When I was away for school and work for the following years, it was that memory that I summoned in order to carry me through the hard waves of depression.
There is what you called “ecological grief,” which I’ve come to know as “land trauma” as defined by the Native Youth Sexual Health Network through a case study report involving Indigenous women across North America. That very place I described above will soon be underwater in a reservoir for the mega hydroelectric project, the Site C dam. I find my grief in regards to the pending loss of the stretch of valley and land that I know – and which knows me – is ongoing.
Are there any specific memories you pulled on through your early years of healing?
I used to run when I first got out of jail. The minutes were like eons at first, holding on for dear life as a lifetime of addictions and trauma gnashed its teeth, calling me to let go and use. Only long-distance running on my rebuilt foot helped stave off the cravings long enough to give me a chance against the psychological and spiritual warfare of first coming clean off crack and alcohol.
You see, my foot is held together by wires, and the scar I had on the side was still wide open when I first dared to run. I used to be able to stick my index finger into it, right down to the bone. But anything was better than focusing on the inner pain I carried. Each step was like running on glass, early on. The pain of bone and metal scraping my ankle was with me on every run. Eventually, the pain turned to a numbing kind of euphoria – it must be like that for those out on thirst dances or fasting with the land or Sun Dances with piercings.
One day, in a state of total bliss while running, I saw an old tree. It stood decrepit, but it was still noble in its own way. I swear I saw it wink at me as I passed the first time, its lead branch extended out toward the finish line. The next run, in a similar state, I felt the same presence and got the same courage to follow where the tree pointed, to finish the race. It was like that every time – the old tree was there, at the end of my run, assuring me I was on the right track. It kept me sober, kept me grounded.
Years later, when I returned to rehab to thank the people who saved my life, I drove with my wife, Lucie, to see my tree. There it was, crooked and cranky just like before. I remembered it, and it remembered me. As we went to leave, Lucie noted a road sign beside the tree. It read “Carlsbad.” I never noticed it back when I was training.
Lucie said, “Carlsbad is the German way to say where I was born in the Czech Republic. That’s how you say Karlovy Vary.” Then I looked at the tree again. For the first time, I noticed its long branch, the one that I believed pointed to the end of my daily course, was actually pointing to the sign, and not the end of the running course. The tree had been telling me the whole time to keep going – not to the end of the race – but toward my wife. The woman who’d change everything for me; the woman who’d help me back onto my feet and out of homelessness finally.
I learned then that’s how ceremony really is: It comes to us in our daily lives just in different forms, and in ways we might not recognize at first.
I guess I remember that tree as you remember the water.
You talked about the early waves of depression in sobriety. Do you have any suggestions on how to fight the later waves? Things you do? People you see?
The waves are inescapable but I have learned to carry myself through them in better ways.
Last year, my mom was diagnosed with two types of Stage 5 cancer. I felt like a little girl building sand castles on the beach with her back toward the ocean where a tsunami wave loomed in the distance. If I didn’t look, then perhaps it didn’t exist.
During that period, my mind started to wander to using cocaine again after six years of sobriety. The thoughts invaded the simple moments – waiting at a stoplight, or when I was out picking up school-project materials with my son. It was then I knew I couldn’t walk through my grief and sadness alone. I took the steps to find a counsellor and she helped me walk through those feelings. I entered into this space where I learned how to let myself fall apart relying solely on the faith that Creator would put me back together again afterward.
I find maintaining sobriety is never just a single choice but it is a series of small choices one makes over and over again. There is a humility in keeping your wellness, and I suppose the tip would be is that you have to be aware of your journey and when you need to ask for help.
I can recall sitting in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting during my fourth rehab stint with styrofoam cup in hand, sludge coffee in cup and butt on a hard plastic seat. A young guy, around 20 years old, who had two years of sobriety, said something like, “I’m here because even though I know I’ve been sober for some time, there are things in my thinking that still aren’t right. I need other people to fix that, 'cause a broken mind can’t fix a broken mind.”
Those are words I carry with me to this day. It is okay to need help and it is brave to ask for it.
It’s been 11 years sober for me.
I always think of how close I came to death – from suicide to people trying to kill me out on the street. Such is the life of a small-time hustler. That fear and desperation keep me sober. Plus, my foot is always in pain. The pain reminds me, without fail, to fly straight or else. I was also an old duck, 33 years old, when I found Lucie, so when she picked me, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Every morning, I’ve woken up, from that day to this, wondering how an old skid mark like me ended up with such a goddess like her. Those are what held me for 11 years. Simple, I know. And I say this knowing I don’t know much. I am a simple man.
I wouldn’t even say I am well or that I have wellness or I am healed. I just deal. Do you feel this way, too?
I would say that I am more answer than I am question mark these days. Healing is a continuous and ongoing journey, so I have accepted that it is never really over with, especially as an Indigenous person living within a settler state. On that note, I discussed self-care today with my class of aspiring social workers and I am wondering, what is one quirky self-care thing you do?
I go to the spa or play with my cat. I kick this stuffed frog we got at IKEA down the hall and the cat chases it. So fun.
Cuddles with my son, and babies in general, are medicine for me. He is reaching the age – he’s 11 – where cuddles may soon be a thing of the past so I really try to take in these moments. I am curious, did you find that maintaining sobriety while excelling as an academic was challenging?
Yes, always. I daydream of smoking cigarettes and drinking a stiff whisky when I am happy. Sometimes I fantasize about smoking crack and I always have to remember to do my gratitude list because that reminds me of what I’ll lose if I slip.
I know you recommend reconnecting with the land to help healing, but how would you help Indigenous urban people do that in the city?
I have never lived in a large city but I would think that one would have to pay a little more attention to find the pockets of sacred spaces around them, because they most definitely exist. When the land has been reconfigured and shifted, it doesn’t mean that you can’t practice small acts of ceremony and have those moments between you and Creator/spirit. Take the Peace River here in our territory. She has two hydro dams on her. Does the interference of men make her any less sacred? Nah. She has had to work harder to show up, but she is still there.