To my left, the sky is red, burning across the horizon in a hazy scene of smoke that eats away what should be a glorious morning. On my right, it is a pleasant cobalt blue stretching for miles without a cloud in sight.
It’s strange how one window can portray one image and the second, a completely different portrait.
It is like night and day from where I sit, each provoking a different emotion, and it’s only 7:00 am. The one on my right captures an image of hope. That today will be nice. Perfect for my sons to play outside and dance under the sprinkler as they drink gallons of Gatorade and slurp on popsicles. But the one on my left…
Worry sits on my mind like a squatting duck, disturbing the silty rivers of thought with webbed feet. It’s unseasonably hot this year. The fires have come early, and evacuations have already begun. I could turn from the sight. Ignore it, pretend everything’s okay, and trust that someone else will take care of it. But I know deep down that seed of worry will sprout and grow like a creeping bellflower as the day wears on, and if I don’t stop and address it now, I’ll be wrapped from head to toe till I, too, implode.
Reconciliation. We often hear that word, but what does it mean? What are its roots? Reconciliation, by definition, is the restoration of friendly relations—the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.
I look again at the window on my right. Then left. At its most basic form, reconciliation means to restore friendly relations, but how can we achieve this when there’s still so much anger simmering just beyond the horizon? How can we reconcile when the fires of rage burn through neglected forests like gasoline?
I sigh and collapse back in my seat. The task is daunting but not impossible. But where do we begin?
The simplest answer: at the beginning. Within our homes.
Between Two Windows:
Society sees the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in foster care, the unfathomable percentages of Indigenous men that occupy jails, and the MMIWG2S+ pandemic. Our people are sick, but no one truly understands why. Colonization is part of it, yes. Residential schools. The 60’s scoop. But why? Why does intergenerational trauma continue to this day? Why have we not healed?
Because, like the dried-up spruce and tangled forests just outside my window, our homes have become neglected, along with the teachings that help us maintain healthy families and thus have provided the kindling for the embers deep within our tattered hearts.
The women were the healers, my granny and kohkom included. They were the ones people sought to cure ailments—the medicine carriers who worked in tandem with Mother Earth. But something happened along the way, and those women–the earth, and all her medicines, were suppressed. And the cause of that suppression was patriarchy.
In the old days, most tribes and villages followed matrilineal lines. In Mohawk society, for example, the women chose the chiefs. Clan mothers, to be precise. They would set themselves up in long houses and select their next leader because who better knows the sons of a community than their own mothers? Colonization took these and many other practices away. They suppressed our women’s voices. They trampled and tormented–took advantage. And beat us down till our power was stripped.
“A woman’s place is in the home,” they said, but I’d argue our women are the home. And our homes have been neglected for quite some time.
For tens of thousands of years, Indigenous people were active agents in shaping the land to produce prolific abundance. According to Lyla June, an Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) descent, Indigenous peoples expanded and designed grasslands and forests to benefit all life. We are known as a keystone species, she argues, upon which entire ecosystems depend. Indigenous farmers in southwest deserts leveraged pre-existing land topography and placed their fields at the base of watersheds to catch every drop of the monsoon rains, including the nutrients that flow down with it from the soils above. No outside fertilizers or irrigation are required, according to June, because all of it comes with the rain. In doing this, Indigenous farmers have cultivated the same plots of land for centuries without ever depleting the soil. “Why try to control the earth,” June asks, “when you can work with her?”
The Home Fire:
In my culture, the tipi represents a woman’s skirt, and each pole represents something specific. They are our morals and teach every one of us—from the eldest crone to the smallest babe—the foundations that make our communities. And within each of these communities are our families. And within these families is our first home. It is more than a physical dwelling. It is something much more precious–our mothers. And within the very center is the fire–her heart.
Break a mother’s heart, and you will most certainly break the home. For without the fire, we have no warmth. No way to cook our meals or warm our water. No light to eat or read by. Without the fire, we simply have a dwelling consumed in the dark.
Many of us are broken because colonization and patriarchy have torn us apart. It taught us, through institutions like the church and residential schools, that women are property. That they should be seen and not heard. That they are not equal to a man but beneath him, which breaks my heart because most of our creation stories begin with a woman–each of them teaching us the importance of reciprocity with the land and each other. Whether it be through Sky Woman who’d fallen on the great turtles back and planted the first wild grasses, flowers and medicines she’d pulled from the heavens before tumbling down from the sky. Or the chief’s daughter who drank a pine needle and gave birth to the trickster crow who stole the box of stars the chief coveted for himself and released it out into the world. Each of our creation stories holds the power of a woman and her sacrifice. Like the earth, she is the one who nurtures and cares for us. She is the one who carries the emotional burdens of every generation before and every generation after. She is the heart of our community.
I glance out the window one last time at the forests that act like kerosene.
Lyla June states that Indigenous peoples have followed the grass-burning moon of our lunar calendars for millennia and intentionally augmented grasslands for the buffalo by bringing gentle fire to the great plains. In doing this, they transformed dead plant tissue into nutrient-dense ash, ultimately nourishing the soil and unlocking the seeds of pyro-adapted grasses and medicines like Echinacea. Over time the fires would prevent trees and shrubs from taking over the grasslands and nourish the soil to generate top soils up to four feet deep. “Many people think we followed the buffalo,” she says, “when in fact, the buffalo followed our fire.”
Our teachings are not linear. They are cyclical. They follow the oceans’ ebb and flow—the sun’s rise and fall. Everything is interconnected like a web. Our women, along with our Two-Spirited brothers and sisters, have been beaten down repeatedly. It’s time for us to become a keystone species once again, to remember our teachings and reconcile with one another so that we may give them space to burn. So like the wise buffalo, we can follow the fires of our women’s hearts. Only then can we help our communities. Only then will we thrive. And only then will we be able to move forward with reconciliation.
About the author
Dene Plews is an agented Indigenous storyteller. She writes everything from contemporary romance to horror stories inspired by folklore specific to her Cree heritage.
In 2022, Dene’s article ‘Heart Medicine’ was published in Your McMurray Magazine. She was later asked to adapt one of her short stories to film for the Connection to the Land series. THE WIDOWMAKER premiered at the Buffy’s Award Show in October 2022.
Dene draws inspiration from her life experience as an Indigenous woman, her studies at the University of Alberta and pieces of her Norwegian-English ancestry. Dene is obsessed with music, and when she’s not writing, she can be found gallivanting about the woods with a camera in hand, mind-mapping her next big fantasy adventure.
Her debut novel, Queen of Thieves, is currently on submission. She is a member of the Fort McMurray No. 468 First Nation though she currently resides with her husband and their two children in Janvier on the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation.