“Kak nón:we ken tsi niionhwéntses aó:nakte ne nahòten io’táksen? Íhsehre ken ahsa’wéntho akwé:kon nahò:ten tesa’nikónhrhare’? Nahò:ten nòn:wa ka’nikonhrí:io entkáhawe?”
— nè:’e thotí:iens wakiesenhón:we tahontá:ti.
“Where then is the place for balance for the evil things in this world? Do you wish to do away with everything that bothers you? What then will bring peace of mind?”
— simply said the elders…
Below follows a series of short creative writing pieces that have seen themselves come to light in my heart over the years, turning the queer, ndn* experience over and over again in my mind. Here in these words are how I have learned to live navigating Indigenous and non-Indigenous spaces alike, trying to find poetry in the mundane musings of one’s home, and glorious metaphors in the frighteningly ugly corners of this world.
*ndn, also NDN, is a communally reclaimed phonetic spelling of the slur Indian for Native peoples; on the internet, it has also been said to mean Non Dead Native.
Coyote was the first queer
mother of all these bastard children
what else would you call a shapeshifting trickster
living in two worlds and no worlds at all
belonging somewhere between nowhere and everywhere
what else would you call this skin that finds home
between satin sheets and your grandmother’s cutting board
Where were you lost?
Where were you lost?
I hear it whisper my name in the land where the partridge beats her wings and the mosquitos lie flat against your skin. Swimming in the waters that swallow the setting sun has pulled back the curtains on these double-wide memories, leaving my flesh as bare as the sky on cloudless days— I have no place to hide when I’m caught between home’s fingers.
We sit singing along to the static of the radio in your uncle’s truck, the smell of his old cigarettes staining the seat of our jeans. Our butane-high laughter sands down the rust on the undercarriage, skips over the potholes in the road, shakes the needles from the evergreens.
“Are you happy to be back home?” You ask me between the catching of our breath.
Home is the place where the Earth calls back in sweet sighs of remembrance over early morning smokes, bare feet pulsating on the sleeping ground, hair tied to the change in the winds, my momma’s blanket falling from my shoulders.
I embrace this revival that caresses my cheeks. This is the place my blood has been shed over and over again with no sirens in the front yard; where my tears have salted the Earth yet She refused to go barren. This is the place that has coated my suffering in honey and chastised my joy when it is far too often misplaced. Justice and survival live in the stones that line the edges of the road. A road that winds and curves, twists and bends—a road that leads to a trailer with no address but where the front door is always unlocked and the memory of my mother stands waiting.
I feel the catching bite of a wordless wanting rise in my throat.
“It feels good,” I say. “It feels good to be home.”
I have always abhorred churches, with their rigid pews calling the soul to attention before the mighty word of God— and cursing your ass to an hour’s worth of insurmountable damnation.
Long before I had learned to name the pieces of my body that the bible left empty, how hallowed halls filled with divine salvation left my hands feeling hollowed of righteousness, I knew not to trust a place where my aunties never laughed. There was no laughter there that crept under the ribs and nestled itself into the tops of your cheeks. There were no squinted eyes and pursed lips that told enough jokes to fill a bible four times over in their silence alone. There were no arm-slapping cries of tortured amusement, no clicking of the tongue in knowing disappointment.
There was hellfire, burning bright in the perpetual torture carved into the face of a white, cardio-loving Jesus.
“Jesus may not be your personal savior, but he sure as hell can be your personal trainer.”
If the ndns were laughing, Jesus surely wasn’t. If Jesus was laughing, the priest surely wasn’t. If the priest was laughing, then the devil surely wins.
They say the devil was the first heathen to walk among the goodness of creation, the deep temptation that called from the shadow of God— and this followed the white mind until it found the devil everywhere their eyes had never touched. The devil who took on the shape of sprawling woods and un-mined mountains; the field that had not been ploughed and the river that had not been dammed; the buffalo that had not been slaughtered and the salmon that had not been gutted; the spirits that had not been baptized and the graves that had not been crossed; the unashamed nakedness of true justice and the pools of blood that beget peace; the prayers whispered between trails of tobacco and—
the aunties who hold their bellies as they spill over in laughter.
I have always abhorred churches.
I’d rather just skip to bingo.
I keep fumbling my way through my mother’s old shirts; I know I shouldn’t be surprised that her scent has long since faded from their fabric, but it still seems unfair that no trace of her fragrance remains.
What only counts as a lifetime later, they still swallow me in waves of remembrance, wrapping themselves around me in loose memories of you. I would have thought that by now, these shirts would hang tightly against my skin, but with every slack movement and rustle of the sleeves, your laughter is hidden in their folds. I know nothing will ever feel full again without the brightness of your smile and the curiosity that laid behind your eyes.
So I’ll tuck in the ghost of your name, button up the sweet harmony of your voice, roll up the bitter truth of your absence and keep carrying the world you gave me. Closer still than my own skin, I will carry the warmth of you, against this chill that keeps blowing and shifting, calling my name on this long walk home.
She loves her tóta more than she loved herself, so she buried her hands deep in the lining of her ribbon skirt until her fists made their own pockets there in the darkness.
The men in the Longhouse resented her in all her glory, shooting poison with their passive words and aggressive glares. Didn’t she know, the stupid girl, that prying her way into this sacred medicine society could rot the whole damn thing?
The hollow in the back of her throat would have screamed for justice if only it hadn’t already been filled with gravel and dust and the words “you need to act more like a real lady.” Sit down and cross your legs, bury your head in the shifting sand, don’t reach for the ripe fruit that hangs too low from the trees.
In the city, they won’t even say her name. It’s all tied up in ndn tongues. The parts of her that are ready to kick dirt in their faces and pull at their white guilt were all left on the reservation. So she stands still, more in love with the idea of non-being than she is with herself. More in love with the dread of the downpouring of blood and fire than she is with that ndn girl she sees in mirrors and rain puddles, the one with the cheeks as round as the full moon and laughter caught behind her eyes.
She has heard that, long ago, people like her were sacred. What is sacred in this pounding emptiness in her rib cage or the fear of taking that beautiful ndn girl’s hand between her thighs or the look in her tóta’s eyes when she screamed “I don’t want to live here anymore”?
If only her tóta knew that if the Earth were truly flat, her granddaughter wouldn’t hesitate in rolling right off its fucking edge.
So for now, she’d just keep her hands tucked away in her imaginary pockets and hope that in their emptiness, she might just find the cure for this loneliness that didn’t quite hurt her as much here as it did in the city.
Muffled words falling from the trees, waves of sunlight writing sagas on our skin, I sit waiting in silence.
“I don’t know why I expected this to work…” he mumbled to the ground.
My eyes followed the rapids rolling beneath the river’s face, searching their shifting colors for strings of conversations and memories maybe I had forgotten.
Why did it burn, deep in the pit of the stomach, to remember? Thick, black smoke filling the lungs and climbing up the throat until the tongue sits suffocated and limp.
Is this what it means to be Strange Hearted? Living on borrowed memory, unburying the words you could use to love and hurt? Learning to love with unclenched fists, to let yourself be touched without crumbling into pillars of salt and remorse?
I could feel his eyes reading the lines of my skin, trying to decipher the words tucked away just below the surface. I kept myself wrapped tightly in what I pretended was solitude, my fingers hidden between blades of grass and clods of mud to keep my hands from shaking.
“There’s nothing left for me here.” This time he was confident his words were for me.
There’s nothing left here, I wanted to say, because this is all that had been left to us.
I laid myself down against the rising and falling of the dirt, brushing away empty soda cans and unwrapped condoms. We both knew what it meant to be Strange. We didn’t have to admit that we were born between the rose and the thorn, born with the hunger to know and be known, to be shaped and reshaped by the touch of our own hands and the mouths of strangers. We knew that we didn’t belong thrust into church pews or encircled on reservations. We weren’t made to whisper instead of shouting, to clasp our hands in silence instead of opening our hands in ecstasy.
I wanted to pull him down next to me in the dirt, among the rocks, the grass and water, to pull him down from the tree tops and empty skies. I wanted to tell him that everything was beating, singing, throbbing, weeping, laughing, calling to be seen and remembered in the same places he had buried in his mind.
I wanted to tell him there was nowhere left to hide. There was nothing left to forget.
But I laid still, listening to the words I thought I could say, listening to our two Strange hearts shifting through the wounds of centuries of silence.
I laid there listening, long after the birds had left the sky and the boats crawled out of the river. Long after the sun had dropped off the horizon and the stars erupted in the sky.
I laid there listening, long after he had said goodbye.
“Asiumanniqi naniinniqi? (Where were you lost?)” is a lyric from the song “Don’t Make Me Blue” from the Inuk singer-songwriter Elisapie.