Portals by maclaren1




Joyce Dene
Portals: passports, protocol, and memories.
        I hold no passport for any country.                       But I have a
sense   of   protocol.           I   have   a   sense    of   a   life    full    of
        “Where is you destination? How long are you staying?
Have a good trip.”          He says all this important information
in his disinterested monotone voice.                    He looks deceptively
neutral in his tan, starched government-issued uniform and
tidy matching brim hat, reminding me, finally, of Yogi the
Bear.      The reflection in his navy-blue mirrored glasses
suffices as a passport.                 After all, Indians are in the
national gray zone–-wards of the government, like claimed
baggage.     How many other Canadians can say that?
        Of course, this is an issue that opens a stream of
other questions.          How Canadian am I?             Am I Canadian?          How
assimilated am I?          Am I assimilated?             How is assimilation
measured?        Who measures assimilation?              If I speak English,
does that make me an assimilated Canadian of good moral
        Indians are good dancers who can shape the world with
their hoops.        These hoops are continually tossed at them.
I’ve caught a few that almost destroyed me.                       Sadly, I’m not
a very good dancer, but I’m learning.                   I still don’t have a
passport, but I have a serious sense of protocol, which
firmly connects me to my ancestors, and so not to any empty
gestures.         They    are    alive,     vibrant     and   a    part   of     the
environment.        I embrace them still, just as they embraced
me long ago.
        Driving the highways reckless was once a way of my
life.      I’d    watch    the       speedometer,   as    though     gauging     me
life: pumping the gas pedal, but going nowhere.                           I would
accelerate to breathe, accelerate for exhilaration, mostly
accelerate for assimilation.
        Then something happened.                It began slowly, clumsily,
on my part.         The tires screech to a halt.                     I cut the
engine, and get out of the car.                     The pavement crunches
under foot as I make my way over to the grassy field.                              I
face the wind.                   I challenge its force, to reaffirm its
beautiful force.                    The whistling strands of my hair wildly
dance.          I    close       my     eyes,       and     accept       the       gentle         caress
against my wearied brow, calming.                                Now the wind circulates
through my fingers as I release a tobacco offering.                                               I open
my eyes to watch these tiny messengers disperse across the
open    field;           some        rise    and     float       to   the      sky.           My    mind
scrambles for ancient words, words most of my readers would
never know.               I open my mouth in response, but the sound
constricts at the back of my throat.                                  Tears of frustration
stream down my face.                         Choking on the bitter realization
that    I   cannot             utter        all    those       sacred    words.               A    sound
escapes from deep within, reminiscent of a voice from long
ago, almost echoing my grandfather’s wind song.                                              The wind
wails, as my body becomes a barrier to the fast-moving warm
flow of air.              I close my eyes and imagine being cradled.                                     I
raise      my       arms       and    stretch        away       the   years        of    all       those
tensions; the stress of living on government time, on alien
time, dissipates, released now, finally to the wind.                                                   How
did I know to do that?                      I didn’t.
         With        a     sense      of     freedom,       I     return       to       my    car      and
restart the engine.                    I hear its roar under the pressure of
my foot.            I refute assimilation, no matter what a Federal
“white paper” says.                         I know my past, regardless of any
claim made upon me.                    I control my destiny in the way I now
drive      my       car:       safely,       knowingly,          confidently            and       easily
crossing the border.
         Memory           is    a     teacher,        sometimes          kind,          but       mostly
cruel.      Life has a way of determining survivors.                                          Culture
is even more ruthless.                        I have endured some of this pain,
and I’m still here.                    I want to live and yet sometimes death
shines its enticing star at me.                                I see it reflecting back
in   the    mirrors            of     my     soul.        It     would    be       easy       to    lose
control of the wheel on a lonely highway at soaring speeds,
or fall into an undying abyss after ingesting a lethal dose
of   antidepressants                  and    painkillers.             But      I    won’t.             I’m
curious         by       nature;       therefore,           I    live.             Memory         is    my
passport between past, present and future.                       The senses are
ingredients for my memories.                Add a pinch of sound, stir in
some smells, and a dash of sensation, oops!                       Almost forgot
about emotions, mix some in, kneading it with the present,
and by tomorrow it might all be a memory.
        The   assimilation         process      is    a   Canadian     government
institution        and     a     countermeasure           for    their       “Indian
Problem.”        This, however, is not my problem.                Yet I did not
escape, entirely.          Scathed and nursing wounds from cultural
genocide, I stand perpetually against the flow of society
as it gushes by, and like my ancestors, I harvest what I
can, taking the good and leaving the rest behind.                        Often, I
used to cry for a child who had her innocence stolen in the
Holy Angels’ Residential School.                   Today, I rescue myself in
memory of that lost child.              My life is my best tribute.
        Discovery.        Columbus claimed discovery even though he
was lost while searching for India.                        Columbus drove his
stake deep into the universe of many cultures, and it took
centuries before I found an authentic voice to resist that
presumption.         I am Nehiyaw.            A person who embodies four
components: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.                           If
any of these parts are unbalanced, then that person becomes
a   dying         star,     or     a    self-destructing           black       hole,
obliterating everything in its path.                      I used to be like a
sponge with the inability to balance my world, until now.
And though it’s been said that a child’s life is the most
critical from birth to age five.                   The last couple of years
have been equally crucial.                If anything, I can assess and
value   the      childhood       memories     in     contrast    to    the   middle
period of my life that I call my personal discovery.
        The childhood memories I remember well are all about
senses.       I    wake   to     mornings       filled    with    sounds:      bacon
sizzling,     the    soft      thrust    of     coffee    percolating,        aromas
permeating permanently into my young brain.                           I hear wood
snapping as it burns away in the stove, my father softly
singing     to     himself,      his    voice      gravely,     low-pitched      and
comforting, and the wooden floor planks groaning under his
weight as he makes his way from table to stove.                               I silently
tiptoe to sit on the floor in the spot of the morning sun
and wait for breakfast.                Through yawns and sleepy eyes, I
watch as he whips up pancakes.                        After minutes, he finally
notices me.            He smiles and makes funny faces to get me
giggling.        I anticipate seeing my sisters.                           They will be
returning home after months away, but little do I know that
I will be joining them when they return to that place.
         The Holy Angels’ Residential School was the beginning
of the end of the life, my life that I would never know
again.       Everything        is     now       spaciously       sterile,      huge      and
invitingly       dangerous.           My    heart       pounds:        excitement         and
fear,    and     the    excitement         is    misplaced.           The    smells      are
foreign yet familiar, a mixture of the woodsy, some cooking
and new cleaning agents.                Every sound echos through hallow
halls,    but     for    me,    the    swishing         of     long    skirts       is   the
loudest.        The strange, distant beings that wear them appear
to   float      rather    than      walk.         Their       only    similarities        to
humans are faces and hands; the rest is covered with black
and dark brown cloth.                 I hide behind my older sister to
peek at them through fascinated eyes.                           In hindsight, they
were an apparition and an enigma to my young mind.
         The assimilators. For              years,        I    thought        that       they
could not possibly be human. It’s funny; they thought the
same of me.        “Savage!”        I had no idea of the meaning of the
word at the time.              I never knew one of these assimilators
to so much as spit, fart or cry, let alone smile.                                    And I
would     not    have     discovered            that    they         had    these    human
abilities, had I not been placed on kitchen duty.                                    I was
amazed that they were capable of eating, and my god!, they
were     actually        smiling       at       one    another         between       their
gibberish       words,    but    they       behaved       this       way    only    in   the
confines of their dining room.                         I think I remember one
actually laughing once, but it was their dark side that I
was most familiar with, that most structures my memory of
this time.
         I never did acquire a taste for soup.                             I became more
accustomed to having my ears pulled, or being knuckled on
the head.          I often stood with my nose to a corner.                       This
treatment was the childhood physical implementation of the
assimilation process: a relentlessness to dispossess me of
my tongue.
        In    the      meanwhile,         their       own     language     remained
securely encoded.           They were French nuns enforcing English
to Cree and Dene children.                  Anyway, at the time, it all
sounded      the    same    for    me.      They       spoke     their   graceless
gibberish, which I tried never to learn; it is just as
well, as I had enough trouble with the other gibberish,
English.      Now that it is embedded emotionally in my brain,
I   still    have     yet    to    master       the    English     language.        I
painfully learned about the challenges to and rewards of
humanity from this language.
        My childhood escape became the residential library,
where   I     spent       hours   travelling          to     foreign    lands,    and
learning about another way of life from various books, but
for other young mission kids that place became the cause of
their end.
        I once knew bright brown-eyed Martha Rose before her
light began to dim.               She was adamant about conforming to
the rigid structure that was squeezing the breath out of
her.    They discovered her body, hanging lifelessly from the
rafters of a house she could no longer call home.                                 She
hopelessly executed her own escape at the tender age of
thirteen.           She     became    just        another       bland    but      also
mysterious statistic.
        Years later, I created a quilt of my life, patching
it here and there with remnants of meaning.                        I avoided eye
contact, and shut out anything that would tear at me.                               I
was an individual without a country.                        I did not know who I
was.    I wore social and emotional masks to conceal my past:
masks   that        moved    easily      through       the     white    enamel    and
concrete world where emotions are shrouded with pretense
and controlled by state and law. The shoes I wore clicked
through      long,     empty      halls    of     despair       sounding    off    an
S.O.S.,         and       somewhere,             somehow,       they      were     listening,
watching,        those          Ancients         whose     echoes      resonate,       persist
through         time,          space       and     logic,        their     ageless      voices
bellowing with the winds.                         They cried for their children’s
children.         They foresaw what was to come.                          They knew of the
disparity,           the       shame,       the    challenges          that   the     original
people of the land would face.                            They prayed and fasted, so
that      some       of    their          children       would    find     the     gifts      and
offerings required to journey through troubled times.                                        With
pride and dignity restored, I no longer wear masks, but I
still click my heels.
          Seven          years       ago,     something          significant        began      to
reshape my world.                    I relearned my language.                 When I dream
of   my    grandparents,                  they     speak    to    me     in   Cree,     and     I
understand.              I always understood, but speaking was another
thing.          I spoke fluent Cree as a five-year old, but my
tongue was so often lathered with soap that I now have
problems with pronunciation.                         My transformation began with
a dream.             Like most dreams, there never seems to be a
beginning.           You just find yourself doing something familiar
like walking, just as I experienced in this dream.
          The    dream.              My    senses    immediately          awake.       I     feel
weightless as if floating following a path, but my feet
softly pad on small noisy pebbles as I walk.                                  On the right,
there     is     a       line       of    willow    trees       gently    swaying      to     the
rhythm     of        a    soft       breeze.         I    hear    the     restless      leaves
rustling.            On the left, the air whistles through grass,
making it seem to be speeding away, racing over a small
hill bordering my path.                     The heat of the sun warms the back
of my head, as I survey the blue shimmering endless sky for
clouds.         Instead I am met with a bountiful blue that causes
me   to    squint.              I    hear    sharp       mating     shrills      of    insects
oblivious         to       preying          birds        that    answer       their     calls.
Suddenly,        I       see    this       little    round       cub     running      over    the
grassy hill toward me.                      My breath catches in my throat.                    My
knees weaken.              I gasp for air as my heart loudly beats in
my ear; feeling betrayed by my emotions, terror grips me
for somewhere behind that cub is a mother bear.                        I turn to
bolt, but just then I hear this gentle voice speaking to
me.     “Âhaw nôsim kâya tapasî.”                 He says more, but all that
registers is “She will not hurt you.”
I don’t recognize him.            His black hair is braided to his
waist.     He is a tall man with a richly seasoned and kindly
face.     His soft voice reassures me, yet I cannot control
the quiver that engulfs my body.
         Instinctively, I obey.              I quickly stand aside.             The
brown cub confidently runs by without taking notice of my
bewildered state.       He is close enough to touch, but my arms
will not budge even if I wanted to.                      There is still his
mother: I dread our perilous encounter.                      With trepidation,
I slowly turn my eyes in the direction that the little bear
came from.     The pungent smell of her musky sweat causes my
nose to flare.       I hear raspy, hoarse breathing, rhythmic
with her thundering weight, as it pounds the earth, now
reverberating     under       foot.         Her    massive    head    comes    into
view: ominous.      She gracefully lopes over the rise, her
enormous black nose lifting as she sniffs at the air.                          Her
frothing mouth is slightly open, and a blood red tongue
hangs to the side revealing broad, formidable, sharp teeth.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I faintly recall bear
safety    tips,   especially          for     grizzlies;       keep   your     eyes
submissively      down.          Too        late,      her     eyes     grip     me
penetratingly,    and     I    stare    transfixed.            Her    mesmerizing
bulky chest sways back and forth; the movement ripples her
glimmering fur.     She immensely towers over me even still on
all her fours, and I am insignificant.                         Her nose lifts,
sniffing, and with a ferocious snort, sticky saliva oozes
off my forehead.     A movement catches my eye as mighty claws
reach out to rip my face.               I wince in expected pain and
feel the impact only as a rush of wind.                      She snarls and the
sound rattles my eardrums as she runs on.                       I stand frozen
until she is out of sight.
         In one piece and still alive, I turn to thank the
man, but I only see his back transforming into an elk.
Drenched      in   sweat,    heart        still    racing,    I   awake    to    a
darkened room and realize my dream is over.
One morning, this past summer, I awoke to find myself in
exactly the same place and the wind, insects, and birds
were there to greet me.             The bears were nowhere in sight.
My night journey south had led me home.
My grandmother’s people were displaced by the doctrine of
discovery      and    pushed       into        foreign   territory.        Their
autonomies infringed upon.                Still, her people continued to
practice      their    traditions         in    secret   while    they    sought
refuge in the north.           Travelling by dark, thousands soon
reduced to hundreds until there was only a few left.                            It
was   these    few    who   kept    the    fires     burning,     securing      the
freedom that I now enjoy whenever I partake in ceremonies.
Today, I return to my grandmother’s homeland through the
portal of memory to my “power place.”                      This place is my
refuge where I go when things become too chaotic.                     I return
there many times though thin wisps of smouldering sage.                          I
relive my experience as if it were my first.                             In this
place, my emotions erupt through my pores, sweat mingling
with tears, where the red hot rocks converge with water to
re-energize my spirit.             I sit cradled in sweltering black
arms, my being merging with my ancestors through ancient
ways that continue on to this day.
Later, refreshed, I stare intensely into the dying fire.
There is a sense of hope; tomorrow another fire will be re-
ignited for yet another purification.
                                                   Word Count: 2720

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