labrador, canada: august 2009

In August 2009 I went on a site visit to a project OSI had funded on an Innu reserve on the tundra, in northern Canada.  More info on the project is here and here.  It wound up feeling like a very significant trip, both personally and professionally.

click on any image to start the slideshow.  scroll down below images for writing.

September 1, 2009

I am writing this from the sky over Canada, trying to make sense of it.

In Labrador I could sense that my dreams were vivid, yet I slept so deeply and awoke heavy without memory.

Except for one.  When I dreamed of coming home.

And then I woke up.

No longer on my stoop in the orange pre-dawn Brooklyn night, silent with that urban hum of distant traffic.  Awake in a real, true, wildlife silent – blue lake out my window, stripe of deep green trees, wide gray sky.  A tiny town where not much happens.  A place I could never live in.

A place that is experiencing such a profound, traumatic sadness there are no words to make sense of it.

In the sweat tent, the Innu welcomed the spirits of their grandfathers.  I smelled the juniper branches and searched for my grandmothers who passed.  I wanted so badly to feel them.  I imagined them arriving in that pitch black tent, pulled away from some heavenly mah-jongg game, wondering what in god’s name I was doing on the tundra – summoned to their own unexpected multicultural experience, making catty remarks to each other.  I loved the idea of these beloved ladies in their Florida summer outfits, flipping back the granny shades to examine: oh, our strange little granddaughter.  What has she gone and done this time?

In the break between two rounds of sweating, I asked the locals about my grandmothers.  I said, “I am searching for their spirits, and I’m not sure they can find their way up here.”  A woman told me, “your grandmother is already here.  You bring her with you wherever you go.”

In my head, when they re-sealed the tent and again I sweat in complete darkness, I made plans for my own healing ceremony, closer to home.  A hybrid Innu/Jewish version I could lead for a small group of friends.  Afterwards I asked Maccus, the leader, for wisdom or an object that I could bring with me from Sheshashiu for this ceremony.  He thought for a moment then spoke to me of fire:

The fire that exists in each one of us.

It’s in the trees,

it’s in the flames,

it’s in the air.

We cannot let our fire burn out.

We must feed it – feed ourselves.

Keep it alive.

We are landing soon in Ottawa for my layover.  Looking down, I’m not ready for this landscape: paved, settled, still with vast patches of green but none of Labrador’s wild roads and endless miles of fir and spruce and juniper, purple hills, blind river slices reflecting sunlight like sharp edges of glass.  Driving my rental car back to the Goose Bay airport, my insides started churning – I sensed it was my grandmothers wailing their goodbyes.  Once they’d been called to that northern land they were allowed to roam free, given room to breathe fresh air again.  I don’t think they were ready to get packed back up into their genie lamps.

I wonder if I will ever make it back to Sheshatshiu, to have a fuller experience than the one I just tasted.  If I will go goose hunting with Giant and gather fish from Zak’s dad’s nets.  If I will have more conversations with Jodie when she returns from her last year of school to become the first Innu archaeologist. If I’ll see Amy, sweet little Baby Bear with her hilarious nonsensical knock-knock jokes, when her baby teeth have all been replaced by grown-up ones.  Whether I’ll work with Mina to mount an exhibition of the next round of images collected for the picture archive, or if we’ll decide to project them in Elizabeth’s tent instead.  If I can help Alex develop his scripts and produce them into actual movies.  If next time I’ll get to meet Dakotah Free Snow after she’s outgrown her perilous teenage wanderings, or actually become friends with Florence and help her stay strong in her recovery.  If I’ll learn to make red berry jam and fry bread and get fat on poutine.  If Maccus will teach me to breathe fire and heal.  If I’ll learn more about being Jewish and reconnect to our ancient culture and wisdom.  If I will help train the next generation of photographers and archivists and pass on those skills so that the Innu can be the guardians of their own history in the upcoming, more assimilated generations.

It’s a privilege and a gift to have spent time among all these individuals, to learn even these few stories, to have the perspective gained from peeking into their world.

It was also a privilege to spend time with Wendy Ewald and Eric Gottesman, the grantees I had gone to visit – and to observe what it means to work in a community with integrity and depth.  Wendy first came to Sheshatshiu in 1969 – her first project at age 18 – right after the Innu stopped migrating and were still making sense of it all.  Eric is my age and is sort of like her protégé, who has already done very cool work of his own in Ethiopia and elsewhere.  He’s made seven trips to Labrador in the past two years, teaching photography to a few students and working with them to collect the interviews and text used in this project.  Eric’s girlfriend Jamille was also on team support and it was wonderful to get to know her as well.  I definitely gained critical professional perspective from spending time with these folks, and I’m grateful for my job for sending me on this trip.

I’m grateful for the time spent with the Innu, and for the chance to experience their view of the world.

Alex says, “The dreams you have in the community are very different than the dreams you have in the country.  You see the dead people out in the country in your dreams.  My father died in 77.  I don’t dream of him here in the community, never.  Once I’m in the country, I have dreams about him.”

And so it was for my grandmothers – yet my country is Alex’s community, and Alex’s country is something I can barely imagine or survive in.

Yet I wonder… I wonder if it all makes sense, somehow.

If my lack of regard for capitalism and money somehow leads to a life living off the land.  Where the handles of every knife are carved and partridge skins become delicate mobiles.  If the part of me that is so satisfied by baking cakes becomes a matriarch, making tarts out of fresh-picked berries and stews from freshly-killed meat.  Whether making costumes to go out dancing becomes tanning hides and sewing skins.

Herein lies the sadness, the void: this way of life no longer exists.  It can be experienced in pieces but it’s over – one of the world’s oldest peoples, with a continuous history of 10,000 years, is unraveling.  Changed.  Now, in Wendy’s lifetime, and now Eric’s and Jamille’s and mine.

What does it mean to pass through worlds like this?  There is always pain for me in doing so.  I can’t ever quite equate the different realities – the rural Bangladeshi villages, the Hmong soul ceremony in Laos, the Mexican funeral, the urban American poverty.  Beirut, Dhaka, Jerusalem, Labrador, small-town Minnesota all in one year?  It’s too much to fully make sense of.  It’s safer for me to cloister myself, to cloak myself in my queer utopia in Brooklyn, surrounded by my tribe who are variations of myself – who I can come home to.

We’re landing now in New York.  I’m home.

I can’t tell if my grandmothers are still with me, but I’d like to think they are close.  I suppose they are as near as I want them to be.

Maybe that is the lesson learned from all of this.

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