Monthly Archives: November 2014

All These Imperfect Emotions Vol 2. Part 1. I’m no Pocahontas (the accidental neocolonialists)

2014-10-Disney-Pocahontas-38If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t spoken much about the environmental or cultural implications of my trip, it’s because I don’t completely understand what they are yet. I was not an environmental warrior before I paddled the Peel. I was in denial. In the introduction to her latest book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein outlines the different cognitive strategies used by those of us who have been ignoring climate change. She nailed my approach, for sure. Maybe yours, too.

“Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving–but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much “bad energy” and will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”

PREACH. And although I saw incredible things and endured some hardship on the trip, I’m not suddenly an expert on the Peel or the people who make the Peel their home. I was a tourist, albeit a well-intentioned one, and that was obvious every single day of the trip. I’ve done this ass-backwards, dragged myself through a part of the world I was ambivalent about beforehand, hoping to connect with a culture I knew very little about, though perhaps more than my travel-mates. So now, as I write down memories, I’m adding the layers required to tell this story properly. And that can only be achieved by shutting up my opinion hole and doing some reading. I should also add that the environmental and cultural implications of my trip are inextricably linked, since the Nacho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Tetlit Gwich’in people are connected to the Peel. The people and the river are not two separate entities.

So, in my latest research, I’ve been surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to learn how the FIrst Nations’ connection to their environment has been exploited by the neocolonialist narrative–that is, the social narrative that claims “hey, colonialism happened and really guys, it was for the best.” For this discovery, I can thank my travel-mates, and an unintentional gaffe that was made on the trip. It has to do with Disney, which should be no surprise to anyone. So read on, and keep in mind that this post is meant more as a sorting of ideas and impressions than a definitive voice. I am much obliged to Derek T. Buescher and Ken A. Ono for their article Civilized Colonialism: Pocahontas as Neocolonial Rhetoric. And I suggest you read it, since I am paraphrasing their work in this post.

Hoping to find myself in the landscape was naive. I realized that quickly, and now I feel like an idiot. Looking for myself in the canyon walls, emaciated black spruce, pock-marked beach stones–that was stupid. I’ve been here the whole time, inside my body. My poor broken body, with toes I can no longer feel, fingers that threaten to break off every time I stuff that fucking sleeping bag into its sack. I haven’t taken a shit in seven days, I just dig a hole and cry a little every morning. Twist and turn, stand up, walk around a little with three layers of pants around my ankles. Squat again. My body can’t even do the things it’s built for out here. “Squatting is the most natural way to go,” people keep telling me, solemn faced. God, I want to punch them when they say that. If you’ve grown up taking a shit on a porcelain throne in a Windexed, climate controlled room, then that’s the most natural way to go, right? Nature < Nurture.

So then, maybe I’m here not find myself, but to further define some fuzzy parts. Specifically, my Métis self, since that had been my original intention. But as the days pass it’s obvious that isn’t happening either, not the defining part. Doubt is happening though. Lots of doubt, mostly about whether I have the right to be here, using this trip for creative fuel, whether my puny voice will really convince anyone that they should save the Peel, and whether I have the right to consider my voice a Métis voice at all. Whether I’m mining the aboriginal niche market to try and convince anyone who might read the story that my blood line somehow makes me more of an authority on Canadian identity. I suspect Calder is counting on that–with the best of intentions of course–as my Métis-ness got brought up a lot in the film promo. Look at me, with my long, braided black hair and my tanned skin! And part Icelandic, too, truly a wild woman looking for a place to happen. What a joke. Forget finding a connection to the northern landscape. I can’t even relieve myself on it.

But doubt is useless–harmful really–and a trip like this doesn’t allow me much time or energy for useless pursuits. So when I finally catch my stride about ten days into the trip, I try to re-shape my anxieties into questions. Questions about concrete concerns, like, if I’m not aboriginal enough to call myself Métis, why does it make me so angry when my travel-mates sing songs from Disney’s Pocahontas over and over and over again? I’m sure they’re not riffing off the colonial implications of the film, not intentionally, anyway. But hang on a second here, do I understand the colonial implications of the film? Not really. Not enough to make an intelligent argument to my travel-mates about why I wished they would shut the fuck up. This is fine, me being out here, beating myself up for the cause, but without a proper education, I’m just some earnest schmuck using physical hardship and a tenuous blood link to position myself as a voice of authority on First Nations culture. What I needed… was the internet.

But I didn’t have the internet, and wouldn’t for another ten days, so I held my tongue on the whole “just around the riverbend” debacle. Wrote “Google colonial implications of Disney’s Pocahontas” in my journal.

What I love most about rivers is:
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the riverbend
Waiting just around the riverbend

So I guess we know what was actually waiting just around the riverbend for North American indigenous people. War. Assimilation. Genocide. It does make these words seem hideously insensitive, whether or not the Disney version of this (already hopelessly unreliable) story was meant to be historically accurate. As Buescher and Ono point out, Pocahontas was the first time Disney had adapted a historical narrative into a movie.

Call it artistic licence or effective marketing, but Disney turned the 10- to 15-year-old Native American girl … Pocahontas, into a woman; turned the middle-aged man, John Smith, into a young man and their “supposed” meeting into a romance.

A romance between who, exactly? The buxom and forward-thinking Pocahontas, oppressed by her traditional father’s ideas about arranged marriage, chooses Smith–the kinder, gentler and even heroic version of colonial domination by the Europeans. The evil, selfish, destructive colonial was of course played by Governor Ratcliffe. This is kind of like Don Draper giving two advertising options options to a client, one shitty, and one better than shitty, but still not great.

Part 2 next week!

All These Imperfect Emotions. Thoughts and feels about the Peel, vol. 1

Photo: Aurora Darwin

Photo: Aurora Darwin

A little context here: The working title for the memoir is All These Imperfect Emotions. The visceral experience of being on the Peel defined this trip for me. I felt my way though, stomped and swore, and sometimes wept my way through this journey, and sometimes I laughed and sang, too. And that’s a big part of what I want to write about. One thing I find about admitting to someone that I had a less than pristine response to a situation, is that they tend to want to council me out of these feelings, or make sure I’m not beating myself up for having them. But mindfulness, real mindfulness, means accepting all the feels. And in order to write this book properly, I need to do just that. Come clean about when I was angry, and selfish, and petty. I forgive myself! You’re damn right I forgive myself, the Buddha himself would have had some choice words to describe this trip. It was hard. 
So in these blog posts, I’m going to explore the feels, for better or for worse, since talking with people about them seems to make me frustrated, but bottling them up is harmful. If a post is angry, then yes, I’m reliving some anger, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way I will ever view a memory. If the post is melodramatic and self-indulgent, then yeah. There was no shortage of self-pity on this trip. I need to relive it as well. And if it’s happy, well, enjoy. I hope you enjoy all the posts, because they all make up who I am. All these imperfect emotions.

Turns out it’s hard to come back from twenty days on the river, away from everything except eleven near strangers who became my friends. Family even, since, like family, we were stuck with each other and had to find ways around conflict. There was no avoiding text messages or using facebook statuses as a substitute for face to face contact, as I have been doing since I got home. After my friends had come around to have a look at me, to see if my journey had changed anything, many of them dropped out of the picture all together. As unlikely as it sounds, I have changed. I’ve lost some weight, built up strong arms and shoulders and a six pack, and I can’t feel my toes. Inside, I’m different, too. I still feel the difference, a potent cocktail of clarity and confidence, though the fog of city bullshit is seeping in, numbing me a little. Urban life is ridiculous. The number of things we do every day that don’t contribute in any way to our survival is staggering. And it’s pissing me off.

Two days after my return, I passed a woman on the street and I could smell her makeup. It wasn’t that she had a lot on, just your usual urban spackle. That’s how sharp my senses were, how unused to chemical smells I had become. As days passed on the river with minimal hygiene, people joked about how bad we smelled. On the contrary, I was amazed at how positively neutral we smelled, how that deep, skunky armpit stench just wasn’t present in my merino long johns, and my socks never got to that Gorgonzola stank. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. My hair achieved a certain level of oily-ness, and then seemed to recover. I’ve never been a germaphobe, but besides wishing I could have kept my hands (dirt mittens) a little cleaner, and maybe indulged in an occasional leg exfoliation, I didn’t mind being grubby. And then there was clothing, the concept of how I looked in it utterly removed, now used only for warmth. Its original intention!

And then there was food, only one item on the menu every meal, that I was so ravenously hungry for, it tasted crazy good. Sugar was an explosively delicious treat, not an addiction I sated at intervals, because I happened to be passing a Starbucks. Water gave life, directly. Drink water, keep functioning. The beautiful simplicity of this transaction I observed several times a day. I probably formed an emotional connection to my water bottle long before I could perceive any kind of oneness with the Peel. The Peel scared me, it was too big, too powerful, too indifferent. Drinking water was manageable, and the rewards were immediate.

And how about having a finite amount of stuff to worry about, every day. One pack’s worth. Yes, it encourages a kind of obsessive attachment to the stuff you do have, that a Buddhist monk might caution you against. But a person can only be so enlightened at times like that. One day early on, when the weather was still crisp and clear and very sunny, I shoved my awesome, mirrored cop sunglasses in my bag and broke them. Oh the horror. The thought of fifteen more days spent squinting into the sun, the additional drain on my comfort levels, already so very, very low. I joke now, but at the time, only exhaustion kept me from bursting into tears. There was this unwritten law that you didn’t lean on any of your travel-mates emotionally if you could avoid it, but I showed my sad sunglasses to everyone around me, hungry for empathy. Look at them! Broken!

“I can fix those,” Jordon said. “Let me get my tools.”

“Really?” I said. “REALLY?”

And just like that, he took my sunglasses away while I went to do an interview with Calder, which early in the trip felt basically like me saying stupid things with a serious face, and laughing sometimes. When the interview was done, Jordon returned my glasses, good as new except for a little rubber sleeve around one of the arms, and with one of those neck straps so they don’t fall off.

“I had an extra one,” he said.

Can I even express how happy I was? No. If you ever get so happy that you try to push your emotions through your body into another person because words are breathless and inadequate and frankly, a little tacky in a situation so sacred, that is how happy I was. I hugged him, and tried to push the happiness into him. I hope he felt it. It was a moment, a wonderful moment, centred around a thing, but beautiful because of an action. Jordon’s action.

And if I’d broken my glasses in the city? I’d have bought a new pair. There’s simplicity there, for sure. No beauty.

Beautiful simplicity is a concept I buy into. I aim for beautiful simplicity in my writing, and I live pretty simply, partly because I choose to, and partly because I’m broke. But the simplicity of being on the river brought me so many beautiful moments: drinking cold water, putting on dry socks, the feeling of sun on my flaky, flaky arms. And now that I’m back, every day is filled with so many distractions, I get further and further away from that happiness. I’m lucky that I get to write about the trip, that I get to relive these moments, that is a small consolation. But honestly, the constant shit storm we’re subjected to via urban living, so many things we can’t change but are encouraged to spend hours and hours thinking and worrying about, and then, because we’re stressed, so many ways to escape the worry. Things like pedicures, and facebook statuses, and alcohol. Fuck these things. I’m angry at them right now. I’m angry at the whole stupid cycle.