Tradition Like a Secret Love
Redefining our traditional sense of self so it doesn’t imprison us.
TEXT Marie-Andrée Gill
PHOTOS Quentin Orain
This past winter I published my third collection of poems, Chauffer le dehors. In a nutshell, the book is about healing from heartbreak with the help of nature.
It says on the cover that I’m from Mashteuiatsh, that I am Ilnu andQuébécoise. In the interviews I’ve done since it was published, people will often say to me, “There isn’t a lot that’s typically Native in your book.”
I can’t help but wonder: What exactly do readers expect from Nativepeople? Should I write about my ancestors? About traditional ways of life? And about the meaning of dream catchers, while we’re at it? (I’m exaggerating).
If you only knew how much I want to write about all this: the deep spiritual relationship nomadic people had with nature, and shashish nelhueun—this completely unique and ancient language, with words to name the smallest phenomena of the natural world.
I would so love to write about, to know about, all of this.
But these are things I don’t know enough about. They were passed down to me only in scraps, in lashes.
I decided at a certain point that my writing practice would be based on what I have lived. I haven’t travelled through Nutshimit (the backcountry) from end to end, nor canoed down rivers my whole life, nor encountered caribou in my sleep. My reality is that I was born on the reserve and then one day, I left. I don’t want people to expect me to only talk about my cultural identity. I just want to write about things that touch me, that touch any human on this earth—experiences of love, of reclaiming one’s relationship with nature—and to do it with what I know, with the knowledge that passes through my body in this life. I touched on this uncertainty around my identity in my previous collections in an attempt to make peace with it and accept myself as I am.
What I’ve slowly learned is that, as modern human beings, we all have the ability to weave new traditions, out of scraps, knowledge, and symbols added to our own experiences, and in this way create a benevolent place for ourselves.
For me, the important thing is to hold onto the spirit of the encounter with other humans. With other living beings. And with oneself. This could mean going to live alone in a shack in the North for a couple of weeks; it could mean going out to cross-country ski at the end of the day. I do what I can with what I’m able to squeeze into the schedule of a single mama with three kids.
When I write, I focus on what I have learned to observe: the majesty of the outdoors, the beauty of the cold, the strength of the body, and its resilience in crossing the land. And I’ve learned to not be hard on myself for what I cannot do. So even if I don’t walk a thousand kilometres in snowshoes in the winter, I give myself the right to speak about what I am steeped in, what the forest provides me—this strength that reminds me I am capable of anything; that I both walk upon a Mother Earth and am a Mother Earth; that I can get out of my head and its destructive ideas simply by going to breathe on a mountain and letting the tips of my hair freeze. When I’m outside, I tap into this incredible power to be everything and nothing at once.
And I believe this feeling is a legacy of the First Peoples, a legacy that I seek in all the tiny details of the forest. But the burning question remains: How can we find our place within it today? How do we manage to define ourselves, even if we no longer live in harmony with the living world?
I think simply having the desire to create a dialogue with the great outdoors is a step forward. And the quest for contact with nature is a responsibility that belongs to all human beings.
In that moment, I understood my connection to Ntshuk, the otter. It was simple and sweet: what was happening between us was clearly the forming of a relationship.
Here, I’d like to talk about a precious and delicate thing: a kind of silent transference, one might say. One day while I was canoeing in Pehkupessekau, between the mouths of the Mistassini and Peribonka Rivers, an otter popped up several times beside me. I felt through my whole body that something was happening between me and this animal. The feeling transcended logic: we simply recognized each other in our similitude, two beings.
I glided so smoothly along the water that I was one with the sky, watching my children in the distance as they ran barefoot on the cool sands of May. This relationship has remained in my heart, in my body. Our dialogue with the living is always there; all we have to do is listen, become receptive. When we do this, we open ourselves up little by little to our true nature—where we know ourselves to be equal amongst all beings. We will have made a big step when we have understood this collectively.
I don’t often tell the story of the otter in Pehkupessekau—because it’s private, and my link with her could seem to have come from another time. And yet, it is simple and real, full of gratitude— a spirituality like a secret love. Deep within myself, I know that what is happening in such a moment is a kind of unspoken tradition.
Another reason I don’t talk about it is that sometimes I’m afraid I will become trapped inside the story—like with dream catchers: trapped on a horizon of expectations. It’s easy to fall into clichés when people ask me about my origins. If I start talking about animals and spirituality, I’m afraid they’ll say something dismissive: “You’re making things up that don’t exist anymore.” Or else something completely off the mark: “Wow, your spirit must be totally connected with the ancestors!” No. That’s not it. I have a real problem with the idea that we have to check boxes, to “prove” our First Nations identity in terms of taxes (Indian card, blah blah, all these banalities) or spirituality. By choosing to keep all this as an inner experience, I am, in a sense, protecting myself.
In Ilnu culture, we preserve traditions by observing people’s actions, by listening when nature speaks to us, by repeating age-old gestures. By opening ourselves up to the other, whatever name it might take: Spruce, River, Otter, or Barbara. Tradition also contains within it the idea of movement—each time a further gesture, a personal touch, a different observation. This is what makes it at once both ritualized and intimate.
So, what’s Native about my book? It’s the relationship I am trying to rebuild with nature from disparate fragments, the legacy of seeing, the symbolism of everything that surrounds us and my way of revisiting it, through the eyes of a girl who left the reserve. It’s the primary relationship that defies all categorization, and that I try to reclaim for myself: that of a living being with her immediate environment.
For the future of the globe, we will need it. ■
How do we sustain our traditions?
This manifesto was initially published in Issue 06 of BESIDE Magazine.GET YOUR COPY NOW