Interview with Author Kim Anderson on her inspiring story-collecting journey towards the health and well-being of Aboriginal women and their communities.
The process of “digging up medicines”—of rediscovering the stories of the past—serves as a powerful healing force in the decolonization and recovery of Aboriginal communities. In Life Stages and Native Women, Kim Anderson shares the teachings of fourteen elders from the Canadian prairies and Ontario to illustrate how different life stages were experienced by Métis, Cree, and Anishinaabe girls and women during the mid-twentieth century. These elders relate stories about their own lives, the experiences of girls and women of their childhood communities, and customs related to pregnancy, birth, post-natal care, infant and child care, puberty rites, gender and age-specific work roles, the distinct roles of post-menopausal women, and women’s roles in managing death. Through these teachings, we learn how evolving responsibilities from infancy to adulthood shaped women’s identities and place within Indigenous society, and were integral to the health and well-being of their communities. By understanding how healthy communities were created in the past, Anderson explains how this traditional knowledge can be applied toward rebuilding healthy Indigenous communities today (University of Manitoba Press).
MM: What was the catalyst for writing ‘Life Stages’?
KA: I have long had an interest in Indigenous life stage teachings, coming out of the work I have done as a community based educator in the healing movement. In listening to Elders and traditional teachers talk about life stage teachings in workshops over the years, it always struck me as beautiful that there was value for everyone along the life stage continuum, and that the way in which people worked together intergenerationally is really important in terms of the overall health of the community. For example, there is a close relationship between Elders and children, and especially infants — in Cree the name used for great grandparent and great grandchild is the same: capan. Both are close to the spirit world, and so it’s important to foster that connection in terms of the overall life movement, intergenerational cycles and connections to “all our relations.”
In listening to these theories and teachings, I wanted to know what they would look like in the daily lives of people living in land based communities — so I went out and interviewed Elders about what they remembered of roles and responsiblities of girls and women along the life stage continuum in their childhood communities. As a parent, I also wanted to know how children and youth were raised, honoured and celebrated, as this helps me with the raising of my own children, and how to play out my roles and responsibilities as an auntie and older woman in the community.
MM: How long did it take to collect the stories in the book?
KA: I did the first set of interviews in 2003 and finished the last ones in 2009! But most of the work was done over a two year span from 2007-2009. The interviews were collected in Ontario and Saskatchewan, so for the SK part, I spent three summers staying there, and did seasonal visits (fall, winter spring) in between. It was important for me to do seasonal visits to see what would happen in terms of story at different times of the year – but I spent longer periods in Saskatchewan in the summer as I could bring my children with me.
MM:. How has the response in the community been?
KA: I have been really honoured by the response. I went on a book tour and did 13 events. The first launch was at Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health – a dear place to my heart because of the tremendous work they do. And, indeed, they outdid themselves for the book launch, with 112 people there and a full meal for one and all! It was a very festive community environment, with lots of books sold and people really enthusiastic about learning more about our teachings and women. See Mallory Whiteduck’s blog — gives a good description and response.
I also had great events in Thunder Bay – packed the Northern Women’s Bookstore — again with mostly community people and also a bunch of women from George Brown in Toronto who where up there on training for counselling in violence against women– they put the book on their class list!
In Regina, it was great as they had a panel of speakers… see Carrie Bourassa’s blog about what the material means in terms of her role as a mother. I spoke and then Carrie and two other panelists offered their response, and we had a great discussion.
MM: What do you hope is the outcome from this collection? Do you see a resurgence in traditional life stages and the assigned roles and responsibilities?
KA: I hope the outcome is that it will inspire people to feel good about the possibilities for their own lives and the use of tradition in rebuilding family and community. The book is not intended to be prescriptive — but to give people information that will allow them to seek out their own ways of finding health and wellness… be that building ceremony back into their lives, reflecting on their parenting and integrating traditional Aboriginal ways that might apply, etc. As a young parent, I had wanted to know more about protocols and ceremonies for pregnancy, birth, lives of newborns, toddlers, puberty, etc. — and so I tried to seek out this information for the book so that other parents might have some things to consider. I think it’s important that we get information where we can, as not all of us has the benefit of close relationships with Elders who can share this information. We are in a process of rebuilding — like Maria Campbell says, putting the pieces of the puzzle back together, so we need to gather pieces wherever possible.
You can listen to an interview I did with Rick Harp for a Radio station in Winnipeg to get more of a sense if you like! This interview was directed to a young audience.
MM: Can you share a moment during the work that took place on this book where you really felt that the book was going beyond your expectations; where it was moving from stories about medicine and story and becoming medicine in and of itself.
KA: I guess the most profound experience for me in working on the book was having the opportunity to work closely with Maria Campbell over the ten years since I first had the idea — to learn about the process of oral history and storytelling as a result. We spent a lot of time together on this project as I stayed with her for all the Saskatchewan research trips. The book really belongs to both of us, and was originally a book we were going to co-write. It was in the late nights or early winter mornings – frozen into her little house in Saskatoon that week when it was minus 50! – that we found some of the story medicine coming out — sitting over a tea and diving into memory with Maria about her childhood community. In interviewing Danny Musqua, I also uncovered something about the process of working hard to be a listener — to unlock the space so story medicine can enter. I had heard a Maori Elder describe the word bundle for “listen” in their language, which means to be peaceful. He had told me that you need to find a peaceful place to truly listen to someone, and as simple as that sounds, it is hard to get to the place. But I saw glimpses of it in myself as I worked with these oral historians over the years, and when I got to that place, the stories came in — you realize it has nothing to do with the teller or listener, but with making sure the space is right for it to happen. Those are the stories that speak to us as Aboriginal peoples in terms of the healing we are seeking — and different people will find different medicine from different stories in the book. Some will find things that I didn’t hear, which is how story works. So I always encourage readers to take from it what comes to them, and to keep digging for more medicines on their own.