Essays

Walking in the Wound

JUDY LEBLANC

The blurred outline of a lone fisherman emerges out of the morning fog along the shore. It’s October 2021, and we’re well into the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. I sit at my desk and through the window I watch the fisherman cast and cast again. I’ve spent the morning digging on the web, which has led me to the report now open on my computer screen. From the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, it’s titled Dada Nentsen Gha Yatastɨg; in English this means I am going to tell you about a very bad disease.

***

English ivy creeps from the neighbour’s yard and embeds its tiny rootlets into the fence, concealing the boards behind a leafy curtain. We tear at it, but it persists. It’s the same with the field bindweed that spreads even faster, draping the bank along the shore and twining around the barbed leaves of the native mahonia and the Nootka rose. A lover of disturbed sites, it occupies the space beneath and around the stairs to the beach below our house. Its leaves are the shape of arrowheads, and its vine—skinny as thread—is easy enough to snap with a flick of the thumbnail, but the roots crawl underground where they trace great networks impossible to dislodge. In this way, they record a history on the land.

***

Disease, too, writes a history. My great-aunt Stella was one of many children—roughly one in five at the time—who returned home from a Native American boarding school with tuberculosis, or TB, only to die shortly afterwards. TB, a bacterial infection primarily affecting the lungs, spread in Native American boarding schools during the last half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The situation in Canada wasn’t any better. Dr. Peter Bryce’s report from 197 states that tuberculosis was rampant in Indigenous residential schools, with twenty-four percent of students dying either at school or soon after leaving. David Dejong refers to TB as the scourge of Indian country.

I can trace my Coast Salish ancestors on my mother’s side back to 1853 when a woman named ZICOT of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation married a Scot named Peter Bartleman. Their daughter Rosalie married William Houston whose mother came from either the Suquamish tribe in Washington or the Tsleil-Waututh Nation from Burrard Inlet in British Columbia. Rosalie and William were my great-grandparents. Their oldest of eight children was my great-aunt Stella, and their youngest was my grandmother, who had six children including my mother. When I attempt to sketch a family tree, names and dates multiply, burgeon outward and lengthen into branches that cross over one another leaving gaps and blank spaces. This family tree, as if it were a live thing, fans into a filigree in which patterns repeat, then abruptly end, then start up again. A creeping rootstock.

***

The Tŝilhqot’in Nation report, dated March 221, is about a twenty-first century scourge. A pull quote in the introduction reads: This report is specific to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the message that emerges is that the emergency is not simply the pandemic. Rather, the underlying and ongoing emergency is the persistence of colonialism in Canada.

***

Some days all I see are invasive species. I walk the dog at the base of the mountain on old logging roads overgrown with Himalayan blackberry, bracken, various thistles, and columns of Scotch broom. In 185, Captain Walter Grant, a Scottish settler, brought Scotch broom back from Hawaii and planted it on his Sooke farm. Perhaps he was attracted by the prospect of hillsides lit up in springtime with the shrub’s bright yellow flowers. As it turns out, these flowers are toxic to humans and animals, and broom displaces native and beneficial plants. The problem is so bad on Vancouver Island that a volunteer group named Broombusters sets out every spring to clear roadsides, parks and properties of the infestation.

***

Up until the 1950s, “virgin soil” theory, which held that Indigenous people hadn’t been exposed to the diseases of the white man, and therefore were more susceptible to illness, was the most widely accepted explanation for the higher rates of TB amongst the Indigenous population. This belief persisted despite mounting research implicating socio-economic conditions and evidence confirming the presence of TB antibodies and long-healed lesions in Indigenous people. In an article on the CBC website titled “Why have Indigenous communities been hit harder by the pandemic than the population at large?” Ainsley Hawthorn claims that the virgin soil theory absolved European settlers of “any moral responsibility for depopulation.”

What responsibility do we have toward one another? According to Indigenous Services, as of December 221 there were twice as many active cases of COVID-19 on First Nations’ reserves than in the general Canadian population. The Tŝilhqot’in report outlines disparities in access to clean drinking water and health services between Indigenous and settler communities. Food insecurity, underemployment, poverty and insufficient data tracking the numbers and locations of infections increase the risk of contracting COVID-19.  These conditions exist in First Nations’ communities across Canada as well as across Native American communities, making them vulnerable, not susceptible to higher incidence of disease.

***

In 187, a doctor who worked with the Winnebagoes said, “The prevailing disease is tuberculosis, which is slowly, but surely, solving the Indian problem.”

***

The dog and I walk on the deserted logging road, and above us clear-cuts dot the mountainside like raw sores and the power line snakes upward until it disappears. Its transmission towers and cables link one to another, scoring an avenue through the forest and across the mountainsides in all directions. In the distance, the Island Highway hums with traffic heading north and south or to one of three ferry terminals where cars cross the water to meet the network of roads that trace an entire continent.

***

Great-Aunt Stella was of mixed race, and her Indigenous ancestors had lived amongst white settlers and been exposed to their diseases for over a century. She contracted TB at age fourteen in 1950 while attending Chemawa Indian Boarding School near Salem, Oregon, with around six hundred other students. A document from the Seattle Archives lists 148 children in the school hospital when Great-Aunt Stella was admitted in January 195, roughly 25 percent of the school’s population. The Meriam Report released in 1928 delivered a scathing assessment of the conditions in Native American Boarding Schools. Poor nutrition, overcrowded dormitories, and unsanitary living conditions were ideal conditions for the spread of disease.

***

The 221 Tŝilhqot’in report states it is “racism, not race, that is a risk factor for dying of COVID-19.”

***

Near the gravel pit off the logging road, a handful of bullet shells are scattered on the ground along with squished beer cans. A pie plate nailed to a tree shows evidence of target practice. I’m grateful there’s no one around today. Gun blast puts me on edge, so too the thought of a cougar somewhere in the trees, waiting. But this is my familiar, the body never quite relaxed. I’m at home with the scruff and scramble, the struggle between old mountains, cedar and shifting sky—and a rude and invasive species. My ear attuned for guns and cougars, for signs of ruin.

***

My great-grandparents were not told that their daughter Stella was ill until just before Chemawa Indian Boarding School sent her home to die. After Stella returned home, her parents wrote to the school many times to ask that they send her brother Fred so he could be with his sister in her last days. These letters were met with silence.

***

When my dog and I walk alone on the mountain, I carry a stick carved from a laurel branch, another invasive that we’ve been unable to eradicate from our yard but do keep under control. The stick is of a dense, heavy wood that might one day protect me from a cougar. I don’t know if there’s a cougar nearby, but there’s always the possibility: Vancouver Island has the highest concentration of them in North America.

Hypervigilance is considered a symptom of trauma. I think of family stories not told, my mother’s mistrust of others, how my father said she was “slow to warm.” I recall her quick intake of breath, widened eyes, the tension in her jaw at the first sign of trouble: an overlooked bill, a busy highway, a sick grandchild.

***

At the beginning of the first wave of the COVID pandemic, a Yellowhead Institute researcher, Courtney Skye from the Six Nations, said on CBC that withholding data about specific whereabouts of COVID-19 cases undermines Indigenous autonomy and puts Indigenous lives at risk. Knowing there exists a threat in one’s environment without having any specific information or agency to act on it engenders what Skye calls a “vigilante mentality.”

***

Sometimes I long for a freckle-less skin, my mother’s smooth brown limbs. I feel—what is it? — shame that I pass so much more easily than she did, that she and I knew so little about our Coast Salish ancestry, that we knew nothing about Auntie Stella. I have a house on the beach on the traditional territory of the Pentlatch-speaking people whose numbers were significantly reduced by two smallpox epidemics, war with the Lekwiltok people from the north, and encroachment from settlers. Their children would have been sent to residential schools. This I’ve only learned recently, and the more I learn, the more it’s as if the past merges with the present. I live in this high-ceilinged waterfront house on this land that thrums with history. My privilege is like a sentence, the cost of my grandmother’s betrayal of her ancestry, my family’s denial.

***

I write a brief article for the Fanny Bay flyer, an appeal to organize the community to rid the beach of its bindweed. I describe the proliferation of this invasive species on the bank and the potential destruction to the coastal vegetation above the shore. No one contacts me.

***

Knowledge doesn’t lead to change though wisdom may. A strong sense of equity forms the foundation of wisdom and at its basis a recognition of the interconnectedness of all living things, or interbeing, a phrase coined by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. This echoes the expression “all my relations” used amongst many Indigenous communities to reflect a worldview that acknowledges an interdependence between all that exists in the universe. The shore is me and you are me. I am you. So, too, the native kinnikinnick and mahonia. We keep one another in balance: you, me and the mahonia, and therefore we are responsible for one another.

***

I want to know, but not in the way one knows after reading books on racism and attending talks on cultural sensitivity. I want to walk through a clear-cut and let the distant squeal of a saw and the echoing scream of a cougar fracture the silence; I want to yank and twist the Scotch broom away from the kinnikinnick so hard I get blisters on my hands, maybe even blood, to feel hopelessness, but I won’t stop. I think what I mean is I want to know it in the body, to sit for uncomfortable hours and meditate on loss.

***

Although the term soul wound has been expropriated by pop culture, according to Eduardo Duran, Native American psychologist, it has long been an integral part of Indigenous knowledge used to describe the multigenerational debilitating distress that is the result of colonization. In the International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, Duran et al. describe the symptoms of acculturative stress as “anxiety, depression, feelings of marginality and alienation, heightened psychosomatic symptoms, and identity confusion.”

My mother telling me months before she died that she didn’t know where she belonged. And years before when my father called to say she’d fallen, that it was hardly a fall, but she wouldn’t get up and she wouldn’t let him near. He put her on the phone.

“He says there’s no pain, it’s all in my imagination.”

There was pain.

***

A clear-cut is a wound on the landscape. From the highway, these logged patches make the mountain appear scraped raw, and as you drive north on Vancouver Island past smaller and increasingly remote communities, the clear-cuts spread wider and are more frequent. The heavily populated south Island was logged, subdivided, and developed nearly two centuries ago. At its tip in Victoria, where I lived for most of my life, it was easy to forget. Unlike the Comox Valley, I wasn’t confronted daily with the remains of a greener day, an immense forest from a time that is slipping away. I guess I was insulated from the past, but now I think I was missing something. When I walk in the wound on the mountain, I’m surrounded by life struggling to carry on.  Awareness of this struggle comes more from a deep knowing than from seeing, a result of seeking.

The dog and I know places on the mountain: long-abandoned roads, animal trails beneath tall maples that dwarf the colonies of Scotch broom. Against a blue autumn sky, the maples’ and the alders’ brittle yellow leaves glitter. The air is woven with cedar-scent, and deeper in the third or fourth-growth forest, thick beds of moss are speckled with mushrooms. Sometimes the dog and I sit by the river, the rolling water murmuring like voices from the past.

***

Duran et al. delineate six phases in historical trauma specific to Indigenous communities. Under the “Boarding School Period” they say that “children were forced into a colonial lifeworld where the Native lifeworld was despised and thought of as inferior and evil.” Is this the echo that passed from Great-Grandmother Rosalie to my grandmother Pearl who married altogether three white men, to my mother who married my white father, to freckled pale-skinned me raised as a white woman who sees her Indigenous ancestry dissolving into an elusive past?

***

In 1958 at a British conference on tuberculosis, South Africa’s top TB expert, B.A. Dormer, said, “…if any nation with limited resources at its disposal, be they financial or human, were to put its money into good food for every citizen, proper housing for every citizen, clean safe water for all, proper disposal for sewage and waste for the whole community—it could safely ignore the ever increasing demand for the provision of expensive hospitals, clinics, physicians, chemicals, antibiotics and vaccines in the campaign against tuberculosis.” More than sixty years later, TB persists in the poorer communities of the world, including Indigenous communities in Canada. In 218, Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam presented a report titled “The Time is Now,” a twenty-page appeal to finally eliminate tuberculosis in Canada where she noted that rates of TB were forty times higher in First Nations’ communities and almost three hundred times higher amongst the Inuit.

***

COVID-19 enters the lungs in the same way as TB, though the former is viral, and the latter bacterial. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, which isn’t contagious unless manifesting as certain types of pneumonia, is a group of progressive lung diseases, most commonly emphysema and bronchitis. My mother, who was a grand smoker, ultimately died of COPD. Researchers are currently investigating a genetic disposition toward this disease. A number of years ago, I was diagnosed with mild “exercise-induced” asthma. I’ve never been a smoker, though I lived with smokers for the better part of my life. When the dog and I go up along the old roads toward the mountain’s higher peaks, sometimes a spectral hand clasps my lungs and causes me to stop to catch my breath. My limbs grow leaden, and I’m as numb as a clear-cut; I name it grief. I wish my mother were here. I think now we could talk. I’d tell her sometimes I feel as if I am the invasive species.

***

Colonialism spreads its tendrils into everything, from how we teach our children to how we care for the sick. But its tenacity is surface spread only, its substratum an illusion. There is no upending cultures whose roots have grown deep into this land for thousands of years. The Tŝilhqot’in are one of many First Nations who’ve taken actions to protect their communities from COVID-19. These nations have sent petitions to the government in which they’ve asked for jurisdiction over their own data; they’ve erected roadblocks to limit their communities to residents only; they’ve arranged vaccinations for their members and isolation for those infected with the virus. They’re managing the pandemic in their territories despite barriers at the bottom of which are persistent racist attitudes. These are not the actions of victims, but the enactment of resistance, of survivance.

***

By the afternoon the fog has lifted, and the fisherman gone from the shore. The sun slants through the tall firs and washes the open part of the yard beyond the window. It’s one of those fine fall days I love. I’ve been too long at my desk, and sometimes this house is a trap. I need to get outside. On my way down the stairs to the shore my eyes scan for bindweed, looking past the dune grass, the wild roses, the thimbleberry bushes and mahonia as if they’re not there. Satisfied that my husband and I got most of it in August when we staged our last assault, I drop to the beach and stretch my legs out on the gravel.

That day we’d torn at the flimsy weeds through the hot morning, our arms scratched from rose thorns and our foreheads slimed with sweat. Our neighbor with his old dog at his side had stopped on his walk. Sinewy and tough, he was a former logger like my father.

“You’ll never be rid of it,” he said. He shook his head, and we agreed. He gestured toward the spade in my hand. “You don’t need to dig it out. Soon as it appears above the soil, pluck the leaves. That’ll weaken its roots and slow it down. Just don’t give it the light.”

The sea is still, a brilliant blue, and the sun warms my back. I’m wondering what it is I give the light to. We’ve been talking about cutting down a fir to make room for an oak that has grown from a seedling to a twenty-foot tree in the ten years we’ve lived here. This would remove the oak from the fir’s shadow, allowing it more sun. The oak grows slowly, but its trunk and its limbs are muscular and gracious at the same time. Ever-lengthening branches span outwards to trace leafy patterns. It’s a native tree that quietly insists on its presence, as do the histories of this land, as does the future which we can’t possibly know. We can lie in wait, steel ourselves for what may come: disease, climate disaster, deprivation—or we can grow what we have, strengthen our good roots. I close my eyes and lift my face to the sun. A breeze strokes my face, and I get to my feet.

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JUDY LEBLANC

Judy LeBlanc is a writer from Fanny Bay, located on the unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation. Several of her stories and essays have been published in Canadian literary journals, and her collection of short stories, The Promise of Water, was published by Oolichan Books in 2017.

Her work has been published in filling Station, Malahat Review, Prism, Antigonish Review and Grain. She has won the Island Fiction contest (2015) and the Antigonish Review Sheldon Currie Fiction contest (2012).

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