The 1 Year Anniversary of Grandma Greenway’s Passing
October 6th, 2022 marks the one year anniversary of my Grandma’s passing, and it’s been a long, confusing year. Prior to the day she left this side, my understanding of who I thought I was felt pretty unshakeable. I’d already weathered so many identity crises by the time I turned 30 that I felt pretty solid in who I was. Now, I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t understand the fluidity of identity because I did and I do. What I didn’t expect was for that fluidity to be as fast-acting as it can be. My expectation of who I am and who I become was based upon a slower model of inner growth. I assumed that the pace I could expect would be similar to changes you see in a riverbank each year—that slow erosion as Land gives space to Water. Years pass without notice, but when you look back on earlier years the accumulation of change is stark. And while the majority of my life provided slow, painful lessons that carved me into the person I knew myself to be, this last year has taken all that I knew of myself and turned it upside down.
Where I knew how to introduce myself, trepidation set in. Even the “Who am I? What’s on My Heart” exercise that I’ve done countless times became a breeding ground for anxiety. As I’ve stated before, it’s not so much that I don’t know who I am because I do. I can name the Nations I belong to — Kaska Dena and Tahltan. I can say my heart’s work — decolonizing education and Cultivating Safe Spaces. I can also identify my roles in this world — being a Knowledge Keeper and a fierce Matriarch. What I struggled to say was what all those things meant, especially in the face of losing a powerful Matriarch. Over the last year, I’ve been meditating over many questions but two keep circling back for deeper reflection. Who am I in this world in relation to those who came before me, those who are here now, and those who are coming? And what is my legacy?
It’s normal to question what you’re doing with your life when confronted with death and passing. I would think that if you didn’t stop to think about these things, that might be cause for worry. My Grandma’s passing marked the end of an era in my life. As we gathered in the home I spent years of my childhood playing in, sleeping in and learning in, I had to confront the grey and white hair of my Aunties and Uncles, all of which are now Grandmas and Grandpas in their own branches of our family lineage. And while they fussed about how I don’t eat enough and urged me to put more moose roast on my plate (and to drink more fish bone broth), I had a sense of disorientation. How did these amazing women and men have the space within them to be so concerned about me when their mother, their sister, their Auntie and their friend had went Spirit side only a few days prior? Being away from my family and community for so long had changed my perception of who I am in this family — I hadn’t been fussed over in years. Still, there I was, surrounded by smiles, food and hugs.
All at once, I no longer felt like an adult but was also acutely aware that my own role as an Auntie had become my chief identity in the years I’d been away from my family. My age, role and responsibilities sat in flux for a weekend as I played “Auntie" comforting my cousin’s babies, then sat comforted by my own Aunties and Uncles. I struggled to hold Jen “the Auntie” and Jen “the Niece” or “the Granddaughter” in my mind at the same time. I felt so out of place being in my Grandparent’s house as an adult and only just seeing how many grey hairs my own Dad had grown since the last time I really looked. I felt even more disoriented during the Potlatch when I realized he was coming up to the decade where he would be an Elder. Despite joking that he would soon be getting one of the first plates, I sat disturbed at the thought of how much time had already passed since our last Potlatch…My Grandma’s own dad, Great Grandpa Archie Nehass.
The loss of our Elders is always painful, and I understand the cycles of life we have on Earth. I’ve also spoken about some of the lessons I’ve learned while retroactively getting to know my Grandma this past year. What I haven’t spoken about is the identity crisis I developed when I went home for her funeral service, and how it worsened as I came to learn who she was as a person rather than just as my Grandma. I’ve struggled to put words to the feeling of loss and anger I feel towards myself in the times when I realize I didn’t know her the way she deserved. I didn’t know anything about the time she spent at Catholic Day School or how much advocacy work she did for Indigenous students. I didn’t know about her work with the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians or her time on the Yukon Human Rights Commission. My Grandma was a titan and a true Matriarch in a way that I fear I’ll never understand because when she was with me, she knew her role as Grandma and Knowledge Keeper was more important than any of those titles. So much so, that I never knew about her role in the Indigenous Rights movement in the Yukon. She made her role as a Grandma her shining role in my life as we spent summers in Tahltan Country catching and smoking Salmon. She squealed with happiness as I learned to speak Kaska to her and she made me my first pair of moccasins to wear as I learned the Kaska Dena jigs.
My Grandma’s life outside of teaching me to be Kaska and Tahltan was a mystery I didn’t realize existed because I felt my time spent with her told me everything I needed to know. Since her passing, though, I’ve learned that she was so much more than I could have imagined and so much more than I’ll ever understand or come to know. That void in my Knowledge of who she was and is crushes me in a way that I can’t articulate. It also fuels a selfish fear in me that I’ve severely neglected my roles and responsibilities to all my Relations. Is how I’m living what they fought for? Is the work that they did disrespected by me and my lack of Knowledge? There is a saying that goes, “You are your ancestor’s wildest dreams,” but how can I be what they dreamt of and fought for if I don’t even know the extent of their work? How many other juggernauts in my family have I let pass without knowing how we relate to each other? And how am I supposed to understand who I am when I know those Relations I draw my identity from are incomplete to the point where I’ve been able to bypass their intricacies and wholeness as people?
What it all comes down to is this: when my Grandma passed, I came face-to-face with the reality that my role in this family and in our Nation has truly grown to a real role of Auntie. Of course, I’ve been an Auntie for 10 years, but the gravity of that role only hit me deeply this past year. I’m at the age that my parents, Aunties and Uncles were when I was running barefoot in Tahltan or playing in the woods in Upper Liard. I’m the age that they were when they taught me what it meant to be Tahltan and Kaska. Spending those days during the funeral surrounded by my Aunties and Uncles, drinking Red Rose tea and eating Salmon put a mirror in front of me. The reality is that anyone can become an auntie or an uncle, but being an Auntie or an Uncle as a role or responsibility carries a great weight in Indigenous cultures. We have duties to maintain and teachings to pass on. My fear that I don’t have Knowledge to pass on, or that I won’t have an impact in making this place better for my Relations to come, has fought to take over my life this year. I’ve struggled to reconcile my place in my community, my Nation and my family with the person I was prior to my Grandma’s passing. Because of that, my entire notion of who I am has come to be a major focus of my healing and dreaming.
I’ve spent the last 12 months levelling up who I thought I would be. I’ve come to see that I carry immense responsibility, while simultaneously understanding very little with how to carry it out. I’m learning how to be an Auntie in the fullest sense because the generations have officially shifted. However, a deeper part of me is suddenly understanding why my Grandma never brought me into the life of her political movements and, instead, chose to focus on Traditional teachings and family life. I came into the understandings of politics at the time I was meant to, but she took the time to ensure that I had access to whatever Tahltan and Kaska teachings she could gift me. Despite feeling like I know nothing and that I’m so far behind in decolonizing myself, I’m consistently awed by the lessons that come to me throughout the day. The teachings are there, waiting to be woken up and applied. My Grandma may not have directly taught me about the Umbrella Final Agreement or the Treaty process, but she taught me how to be Tahltan and Kaska to the best of her ability in the short time we had together. I think she trusted that I would figure it out as long as I had the foundation, and that shakes me to my core.
Feeling simultaneously grounded and lost has been a theme in my life, as it is with so many Indigenous individuals throughout Turtle Island. I’m scared and I’m brave at the same time as I navigate the world my Grandma fought to make better for me and my Relations. Though it does frighten me to have to pick up where she left off, there’s a sense of coming home that I’ve come to find in what I do now. It’s deeper than it felt before her passing, and I truly believe it’s because her funeral and Potlatch opened my eyes to see who my Relations really are. It gave me the chance to cultivate strength in the work that I do because I finally understand the gravity of my Relations. I finally understand where I sit in this web, even if I don’t fully understand the size and depth of the web just yet.
The past year has been hard, and it doesn't feel like it’s really getting easier yet. Still, I feel more ready than ever to use what my Grandma packed into my Ways of Thinking, Seeing and Being. My hope is that if anyone else is feeling lost or underprepared, you come to know that you have everything you need inside of you. We all do. What we need more than anything else is to learn trust in ourselves and in our ancestors. They walk with us everywhere we go.