Let me preface this post by acknowledging that families are complicated. Even more so if you are Indigenous and have a history of intergenerational trauma from residential schools. Every day, Indigenous peoples grapple with this trauma and we watch these histories unfold before our eyes. Sometimes in visceral and violent ways. But also sometimes in ways that are smaller and appear ‘less’ aggressive. Let me give you an example.
I have a personal practice of interrupting the legacy of residential schools every single day. A part of this is through my research on residential schools in the North and colonialism. But mostly I seek to make the personal political and enact practices that actively seek to dismantle colonial legacies that sought to eliminate our cultures. This has become even more important to me since shitshì’ (my daughter) entered my life nearly eighteen months ago. I call these acts “every day acts of micro resistance.”
As I see it, language is key in cultural restoration. I have an ambitious goal of becoming fluent in Gwich’in. There are less than 400 fluent speakers left. We are in crisis, but we are also at a crossroads. Things need to change. Now. And the best way for me to interrupt colonial legacies (at this particular point in time) is to teach shitshì’ our language. We are learning together. Once mispronounced word at a time. One moment when we madly flip through the Gwich’in dictionary to find the word we are looking for. One second every morning when I retrieve her from her crib and say “vahn gwinzii, shitshì’. Today is a beautiful day.”
An easy way to incorporate Gwich’in was to have her call my mother “jijuu” – Gwich’in for grandmother. This tradition stopped only a generation or two ago. I called my great grandmother, Julienne Andre, “diduu.” I called my grandmother simply “grandmother.” Some Gwich’in continue to refer to their grandparents as jijuu and jijii. We can fix this. Not all is lost.
Unexpectedly, however, I encountered my own mother’s resistance to being called “jijuu” by her only granddaughter. Don’t get me wrong: my mother was thrilled at the idea. At first. Since then, it’s been an on-going challenge to get her to refer to herself as “jijuu” instead of “grandma.” This is particularly important as my daughter increasingly becomes verbal. I do correct my mother. I constantly tell shitshì’ that her “jijuu” loves her. I am attempting to normalize one simple word. This has turned out to be not so simple.
My mother is Gwich’in. She values our culture. She is committed to upholding Indigenous women on their path to cultural revitalization.
But the lessons from residential school are not easy to forget or overcome. There is ongoing trauma around language as a result of colonial Indian schooling policies. My mother grappled with the trauma that her own mother held onto as a result of colonialism. My mother attended Grollier Hall, a state-owned, Catholic-operated institution that actively sought to eliminate our culture and dismantle our kin networks. My mother is not fluent in Gwich’in. She remembers being punished for not only “looking” Indigenous, but also coming from a strong Gwich’in culture.
How does one approach these important and delicate issues? With love. Big love. Kindess. We need to be gentle to each other. And as we do that, we need to embrace our choices, our histories, and the legacy that we are passing onto our children. Being only English-speaking does not make us less Gwich’in. Learning the Gwich’in language does not make us ‘more’ Gwich’in. But it does give us insight into how our ancestors understood their worlds. And that in itself is worthy and important. Mahsi.