Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Landry
My mother was a revolutionary. She lived her life absolutely authentically, expressing exactly who she was and exactly how she felt—even in moments that society deemed “inappropriate.” And that meant she felt everything as powerfully as the fire that burned inside of her, and she loved as fearlessly as the words that fell from her tongue every day.
She was a revolution of her mother, and her mother’s mother—a living, breathing example of all the mothers and grandmothers who have upheld Indigenous insurgence, claiming and making a place for themselves in systems that were seeking to terminate them.
Because of this, my mother knew struggle as deep as the land. She inherited it from her father, my mishomis. For he had learned how to be a parent from the “teachers” who mistreated him at residential school, which created a colonial version of the Indigenous kinship system, one that was filled with dysfunction, addictions and abuse.
My mother struggled as a parent, as her father had, and raised me from this place of colonial pain. But underneath all those layers of trauma, loss, sadness and violence, she was the uprising of authentic Indigenous love.
I knew, before I became a mother, it was important—vital, even—for me to find that place of Indigenous love within myself. I made the commitment to heal my relationship with my mother so that we could end this cycle of discord and abuse. I needed to ensure that my future children would have the opportunity to grow in a space of this Indigenous love, and to know that Indigenous kinship practices are the answer to healing our families. That meant that I had to dig through generations of colonial pain that had become ingrained within my genetic makeup.
It wasn’t easy—at times, the pain, anger and frustration were unbearable. But all that I went through and all the work I have done means that my daughter would know the truth of Indigenous love.
My mother’s anger imprisoned me as a child. I realize now her shaming tactics were the same tactics my mishomis experienced at residential school. One time, when I was a teen, I dared to talk back to her. I ran upstairs, my heart racing, my body vibrating with fear. She barged into my room and started ripping the posters off my walls. In her hand was the garbage bin from downstairs, her device for punishment. “This is what you get for talking back.” I remember the smell, the bits of food and damp refuse plastering my hair to my head. My heart broke. She yelled and yelled and yelled some more. And I sobbed.
This wasn’t a one-time occurrence. There were many fights with name-calling, threats and physical violence. Sometimes, if I showed emotion, she’d spit on me. Other days, she’d shame me. Each time, she blamed her father. “I am so sorry,” she’d say afterwards. “He did the same to me,” or, “He did worse to me.”
The abuse escalated until I got away at the age of 18. University was my saviour, though a superficial one. I loved my mama wholeheartedly, but the pain that seeped through my upbringing was too much, and ultimately, it followed me to school. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs helped me cope, and so did being in a relationship. Yet because violent love was the only love I knew, I fell into an abusive relationship.
For three years, I endured name-calling, threats and physical violence from the boy I thought loved me. At the time, I had a practicum placement at a community centre, working with young people. While I was preaching sobriety, healthy relationships and self-love, I was living the exact opposite. I had to make changes. It was time to dissolve every ounce of toxicity in my life.
Little did I know, things would get worse before they could get better.
I left him and changed my phone number, yet one night, he found me. He came into my home and raped me. For hours afterwards, I scrubbed myself in the shower and cried. Then I made a decision: I was not going to be a victim any longer.
I sobered up. I sought out traditional Indigenous ceremony. I listened to Anishinaabemowin, my mother tongue, and decided to abandon my role as victim in my relationship with my mother. After one particularly abusive phone call, I told her I was done. Ultimately, I divorced my mother and all and any societal expectations and ideals of what a mother-daughter relationship should be, and notions of what a mother is.
Over the next year, our relations fell silent. We both sought help. We both prayed hard to our ancestors, the ones who left before us, to Gitchi Manitou, the Great Creator. We both healed. And the most powerful thing about it was, we didn’t know that we were both doing it at the same time.
I was 22 when I really saw my mother. I called her one evening, after not hearing her voice for such a long time. “Hi, Mama,” I said. We sobbed uncontrollably, talked for a long time and made plans to see each other. The mother I was talking to was brand-new, so full of life and love—she had healed from her past, which had been marred by the generational effects of decades of attempted genocide and her father’s residential school experiences. And my mother ultimately saw her daughter, who had also healed from years of colonial pain.
Forgiveness was difficult—forgiving my mother also meant I had to forgive the generations of abuse that colonialism had inflicted upon my family. It meant forgiving ourselves for holding on to our rage and developing toxic behaviours to deal with it. It meant forgiving my mishomis for harming my mother. It meant forgiving myself for accepting toxicity and abuse from others.
But it was within that forgiveness that I birthed my own revolution. Once I forgave my mother, our lives became a series of memories that will be spoken about long after we go, from the time our tent was stolen at the Mount McKay powwow in Thunder Bay to when we were the only two people who stood up against the Nuclear Waste Management Organization on our reserve. The road trips, ceremonies, the smell of smudge every morning when I stayed with her and always holding her hand whenever we travelled—we tried to make up for lost time.
Five years later, when I told her she was going to be a nokomis, a grandmother, she cried with joy. When she heard the heartbeat during a prenatal visit, she cried so loud the whole clinic heard her. “Oh! Chi-miigwech!” she said over and over again—“Thank you very much.” She kept sharing all kinds of information on how to be a mother. Her excitement was infectious. It was almost as though she was shedding more layers of pain. She would speak to the baby, her head at my belly when I wasn’t even showing. I’d laugh, embarrassed, and she’d laugh, sing and speak Anishinaabemowin to the baby growing within me. My mother’s presence in my child’s life was going to be a gift.
Then everything shifted. One evening when I called her, she told me she had a really bad migraine and needed help. I knew it was something more. My anxiety peaked; I called my uncle. He rushed her to the small local hospital, and they airlifted her to Thunder Bay.
The last words I heard my mother say were “I’ll call you back; I’m going to be sick.”
She had an aneurysm that erupted. She was brain dead and on life support by the time we arrived.
This is when I realized how much my mother had taught me about the strength of Indigenous kinship. She taught me to be strong in times of crisis, and that strength meant honouring and welcoming every emotion that came with it. So, I made the difficult decision to take her off life support, following through with her wish that she not be on it for longer than 24 hours. My mother taught me to celebrate life and to love, even in times of deep, deep pain. So, that is what we did, with a four-day celebration of life with fireworks, food, friends, fun and tears.
She taught me that to grieve is to love. So I grieved, and I loved. There I was, 19 weeks pregnant, with my first child, without my own mother. I cried. I yelled. I howled. I prayed. I smudged. I sang all the Anishinaabe songs she taught me. I let all my pain out so my child wouldn’t feel it. My heart was broken, but I mustered all the energy I could and envisioned love completely surrounding my baby. And I made the grieving process a part of my daily ritual for the sake of the well-being of my baby—grief had to come out in order to let the love in. To this day, my daughter recognizes the songs from my homelands, the songs my mother sang to me—a powerful example of Indigenous kinship continuing on after death.
I remembered my mama’s biggest life lessons. She showed me the repercussions that can happen if you don’t work on your issues. She showed me that, even though we lived in poverty, you could still make a day of fun for your children. She showed me that sobriety is the first step in knowing who you are. She showed me that it is a privilege to practice ancestral teachings, traditions and protocols with our children as an Indigenous woman and mother.
My mother raised me from a place of her colonial pain. But ultimately, my mother gave me the tools for how to be a mother from a place of Indigenous love, the ultimate weapon in destroying colonialism. Healing my relationship with my mother, freeing myself from the confines of generations of colonially created pain, was the key to raising my daughter the best way I knew how. Indigenous kinship practices, like disengaging from authoritarian parenting patterns, and acknowledging my daughter’s voice and love of learning on the land, is now our family’s life force. It is everything.
The cycle of dysfunctional parenting practices has ultimately been broken. One small example of this is how my partner and I follow our daughter’s emotional expression. Under colonialism, we were taught that children should not cry. But now we show our daughter the power in expressing all emotions. Sometimes I still grieve my mother, and I cry in front of my daughter. At the age of two, River-Jaxsen will stare at me, quizzically, and I will explain to her, “I miss my mama,” and, “Sometimes Mamas have to cry too.” She will pat my shoulder and go on her way. Whenever my daughter feels afraid, or upset, we also remind her that she can feel whatever she needs to feel, and to express and release any emotion she feels. She is already learning behaviours of emotional expression—and that honours her autonomy, and also unties generations of colonially influenced parenting.
I am showing my daughter through songs from her homelands, through words in both Nehiyaw (Cree) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway), and ultimately through the fearless expression of human emotion, that to be herself, in every expression of her being, is absolutely amazing. Because by emotionally letting go, we as Indigenous peoples will fundamentally rise.
Andrea Landry is a mother, professor, therapist and Indigenous rights defender who prioritizes Indigenous ways of living.
This article was originally published online in June 2018.