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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Reflecting On Losing a Matriarch

For those of you that follow my podcast, you will be aware that last month my family suffered the devastating loss of one of our clan Matriarchs: my Grandma. Losing a grandparent, or any family member is painful in any culture. What adds even more pain to our loss coincides with an anxiety that many Indigenous Peoples are all too familiar with. The loss of an Elder or Knowledge Keeper, especially a Matriarch in a Matriarchal culture, is a loss of Knowledge and culture that we might not get back. It's an instant severance, akin to the cultural severance we faced through "Canada's" assimilationist/genocidal residential school system that sought to cut off each generation more and more from each other, while also from the ability to understand our cultures. The panic we feel as Peoples, and as families, to connect with our Elders and learn as much as we can in the short time we have available is overwhelming. Of course, the anxiety appears to compound upon their passing as the reality sets in that what little Knowledge you gleaned from their vast experience is what you've been left with.

Today, I wanted to explore my anxieties and my guilts because I know I’m not the only one feeling this way. My hope is that, in being vulnerable with you, you can find comfort and maybe even hope instead of anxiety.

Growing up, I spoke English and Kaska. I have proud memories of going up to my Grandma and speaking to her about snaring Rabbit or tracking Moose. I can still remember the way she lit up when she heard her language spoken to her. Kaska is a very complex language that requires finesse and good ears. It trains good listeners and people who speak with intention. I have to admit, I was never strong in glottal stops and nasal sounds, but the lessons that speaking my native language taught me are something I carry in my heart long after I lost my ability to speak the language itself.

Yes, you read that correctly. Like many Indigenous youth facing cultural pressure and mental health struggles from "Canada's" erasure of Indigenous Peoples in society and media, I opted to hide my Indigeneity for years in a painful attempt to fit in. No more braids. No more "Native accent." No more Kaska. I thought I was protecting myself from the pain of rejection, but I had no idea that I was actually cutting myself off from everything that held me together.

The decade that followed was riddled with the pain of severance that many, if not most, Indigenous Peoples know too well. And when I finally wised up and returned to the Land, my family, and my people, then the pain of reconnection began. By then, my loss of language had well set in, making knowledge rebuilding slow and subject to misinterpretation. But I also had an even bigger issue, my Grandma was unwell and losing her memory.

I carry so much guilt and shame over this. I really do. Not only did I choose to stop speaking my Grandma’s language to her, but I actively hid my ties to my Indigeneity because it made me feel safer and more likeable. It wasn't until the years that her body began to give up on her and her memory began to erase that I woke up with courage and chose my family, my People and the Land. By then, she had forgotten who I was.

Of course, we all feel dread and anxiety that our Elders and Knowledge Keepers are growing older. Stories like my own aren’t uncommon, and the loss of Knowledge is occurring in many Nations as we rush to record stories, Law, Traditional Ecological Knowledge and more. Unfortunately, even in instances where Elders and Knowledge Keepers may have their memory intact, sharing their story or speaking their language may be too traumatic for them at this time. In those instances, they may choose to stay silent and keep their Knowledge to themselves.

At this point in writing, I can feel the ball of anxiety in my stomach tightening up and my jaw clenching. My guilt and shame have skyrocketed and I wonder to myself, "how could I do this to my family and to my People? How could I give up my culture or my duty to the Land, Water, Plants and Animals?" So, before I spiral, I need to tell you something.

Knowledge is reciprocal, relational and contextual.

What does any of that have to do with my shame and guilt about the circumstances of how I lost my Grandma? Everything.

What does any of that have to do with the anxiety and dread of losing Elders and Knowledge Keepers before learning their lessons? Also, everything.

The Western worldview promotes the concept that Knowledge is linear, hierarchical and universal. They've brainwashed us into thinking that only one person can teach or know the answer, and that person has to be a person.

There's no doubt that we should be collecting what Knowledge we already have within our Nations, but Indigenous worldviews teach us that Knowledge requires co-creation and reciprocity. That means that everyone can teach, and I mean everyone. After all, where do you think our ancestors got their Knowledge? From each other, of course, neighbouring Nations, but also our non-human Relations. Plants, Animals, Land and Water will teach you about themselves if you listen and learn. We have the capability to use our ethics (respect, reciprocity and relationality) to go out onto the Land and Water and rebuild our Knowledge systems.

I'd also like to harken back to a sentence I said earlier, and I want to see how many of you caught my intentional word choice the first time around. “The loss of an Elder or Knowledge Keeper, especially a Matriarch in a Matriarchal culture, is a loss of Knowledge and culture that we might not get back." I've already explained Observational Knowledge and how Indigenous Peoples have amassed thousands of years’ worth of Knowledge just by co-existing with the Land, Water and non-human Beings. I also wanted to tell you about something near and dear to my heart: Revealed or Received Knowledge. This is Knowledge that is passed to you from the Spirit world and may be given through dreams, meditation, sweats, etc. Sometimes you might just have a gut instinct that tells you to call your mum, and you find out she's having a bad day.

This form of Knowledge means a lot to me because on the night my Grandma passed, I was meditating and praying for her. She appeared to me and told me her plans, that she knew who she was again and that she was happy. I knew I had to call my Dad the next day, and sure enough, she had passed. I hold this close to my heart because, despite giving up my language and turning my back on my culture for years, my Grandma's Spirit knew what I needed to hear to keep fighting for my People, just like she had her whole life. She reminded me that she's there still, she remembers me again and that I don't have to be anxious.

As I've reflected upon losing one of our clan Matriarchs, I would be lying if I said I wasn't scared. We haven't had a steady path in over 150 years. But what my Grandma's visit taught me is that no matter what colonization took away from us, we can get it back. Our Ancestors left us with every tool we need to rebuild; it’s just a matter of relearning how to use them.




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