I’ve dreamed of my mom’s territory more times than I’ve visited it. Dreams are where early memories are preserved and grow into stories filled with teachings and possibilities.
I live on the west coast in ʔayʔaǰuθəm (pronounced Ayajuthem) speaking territory — my children are connected to this land.
And still, I wonder. As we drive across Minitegozibe (“Spanish River”) into Sagamok, my mom shifts from diverting my questions to spontaneous shares.
“When I was driving through Fort Frances, it’s all birch, I felt like I was at home,” she says.
It was a distinct feeling, enough that she shared with her uncle, she recalls. He told her it’s because that’s where some of our line are originally from, several generations back.
“Well, that’s so long ago — but still, there was this deep feeling,” she says.
I smile. She’s just given me a gift.
I’ve also always had a deep connection with birch. Driving to the interior, glimpses of birch gets me little-kid excited. From sunsets in the peeling layers of bark, clear yellow fall leaves, to the gentle energy of walking through a birch grove.
We’re going to Sagamok Anishnawbek. I want to see my great grandma’s place.
On the road into Sagamok there’s an “Indian Head” rock that gazes across the road toward the river. I remember exactly the first time I’d seen this rock face: I was three.
Too young to remember, my mom says, but fades off when I describe it perfectly.
Seeing it again, I take in the details, from eyelids to expression. I think of a painting I abandoned working on a couple years ago, still turned around facing my wall at home. It’s a combination of this rock face, this bend in the road and the red stones of “Manitoulin.” I hadn’t recognized what the painting was offering me; the red persisted and I thought it was flawed. Now I see where the painting was leading me — home.
We walk along the dirt road between the farms of my mom’s grandparents: Alex and Elizabeth (McLeod) Assinabe, and her great grandparents George Hayes and Mary Trudeau. The houses I remember are gone, but the trees planted by great grandma Elizabeth when each baby was born remain.
We’re going to the place where my mom bathed as a child, before residential school. The road into the Hayes farm is overgrown and covered in medicine. Eyebright, red osier, all-heal, violet, wild strawberry, asters — all the medicines I know are a carpet covering the long road in. It’s like entering a Christi Belcourt painting. A whiff of sweetgrass comes now and then to reinforce the knowing.
I want that moment to last forever. I leave with a handful of plant cuttings and a strong sense of something unresolved. There’s much more to learn.
We return to Mnidoo Mnising, “Manitoulin Island,” where my mom lives now. We head to the M’chigeeng Jiingtamok, a traditional powwow, where the soundscape of drums, singing and jingle dresses is heartening.
I look at my son, who is watching the dancing carefully, with excited eyes. I talk with firekeepers who are tending the fire during the four days of gathering.
The fire is a starting point and an opening, shares Eli Fox.
There are bundles of four medicines: cedar, sage, tobacco and sweetgrass. Young men are learning how to keep the fire. Fox shares ideas of letting go, of freeing thoughts or feelings, and of connection and visiting.
“When we put those medicines into the fire we’re passing those on to Creator, the ones that have passed on, our ancestors,” he says. “The fire is a doorway for that to happen.”
Then I find three sisters who are sweetgrass braiders.
“Looking at the medicines given to us by the Creator, utilizing them to bring about wellness, not only within ourselves, but within our children and our families,” Elaine Migwans shares with me.
Being at the traditional jiingtamok, is in itself wellness, she says. To be celebrating, dancing, listening, singing, drumming, and enjoying each other’s company.
“That’s what wellness is: reaching out to one another,” she says.
Dakota Mishibinijima taught herself to dance beginning at the start of this past summer. She explains dancing has contributed to her personal wellness and healing from intergenerational trauma.
“It has reconnected me to my culture,” she shares. Being separated from her family at a young age and placed in foster care, that connection was broken.
“Now I dance to heal, and give back to my family and community,” says Mishibinijima.
“Wellness is not only one person striving for it. It’s community driven. You have to do it together as a unified group. In unity, you have strength. And I think that’s what everybody is striving for right now, is strength,” says Migwans.
“Strength is the medicines that have been presented to us. Strength is picking up those medicines, walking with them, embracing them and holding them,” she shares. “But also learning all the teachings that go with the medicines and the traditional knowledge that has been dormant for so long.”
This was deemed inappropriate — for people to carry our regalia and our feathers.
“But now we are picking those up and I think that’s what’s going to lead us to the future,” Migwans says.
The next morning my mom and I wake early to drive to the airport. I see Dreamer’s Rock on the way, a sacred ceremonial place since before memory. It’s a place for fasting, vision and sweat lodge ceremonies — but I know that’s for another time.
Watching the sunrise over Lake Huron, my mom murmurs, “The sacred fire is out now, they’ll be cleansing the grounds right now.”
There are no words for goodbye in our language, it’s baamaapii, until later, see you again.