Everyday Cry: Feeling Through Ogitchidaakwe’s Hunger Strike
by waaseyaa'sin Christine Sy
Every day since Mushkego Ogitchidaakwe, Ogimaa Theresa Spence has been on her hunger strike, I have cried.
I don’t think the in tandem-ness of my flowing tears and Ogitchidaakwe’s hunger strike is a coincidence. However, I can’t make sense of it. And I want to. While I’m typically accepting of emotional expression in others, and myself, the bouts of crying on a daily basis also have me perplexed. I spend time wondering what other people are going through in their quiet moments. There is the very public engagement with Ogitchidaakwe’s journey and #idlenomore but I wonder how people are dealing with it in the quiet, private moments not because I want to know those private details but because I want to not feel alone; I want to feel that my response is understandable.
I think about these consistent tears and wonder first if it has anything to do with Ogitchidaakwe’s actions at all. Isn’t an increase in crying a sign of depression? Aren’t we in the season of S.A.D. (seasonal affect disorder) and vitamin deficiency due to loss of light? Maybe I’m not eating enough greens or getting enough exercise. Maybe I am depressed over Chief Spence’s actions, over the conditions that have led to her to this action.
But I don’t feel depressed.
I feel awake. I feel alive. More than able to function. Akooshin – in awe to be here amongst creation; in this physical world; awake.
Maybe I am being too emotional? Is there such a thing or is that some sexist idea about gender, impinging on my thinking? Or, is the idea of too much emotion an abhorrent manifestation of capitalism where social capital and money are the objectives and emotion only slows the whole culture of “getting money” down? Alternatively, maybe I am not resolute enough, disciplined enough, the way I imagine Anishinaabeg would be, are, when taking on such matters; the way Mushkego are. Are my tears just me, being indulgent? Am I a suck? Would my great grandmothers and grandfathers have cried like this? If yes, what would make them cry everyday? If not, what would they cry over?
The tears come at least once a day. They come without exception, spontaneously, intensely, wherever I may be: at my desk, reading Facebook, showering, driving, shopping at stupid Walmart or stupid shopping anywhere, cooking, looking out the window. They come whenever I take a moment to be present with Her and what She is doing for her People; for all Indigenous Nations in Canada; and, as a collateral benefit, for all Canadians (and Americans who will also be impacted by omnibus bill c-45 by virtue of our shared watersheds).
My heart beats faster, my chest gets tight, my throat constricts, my face flusters, my eyes well up.
I cry everyday and I don’t know why. I can’t understand it and I want to because I’ve learned that my body is a genius. It knows things about the world that I, thinking in my head, cannot discern. I am crying every day and I can’t make sense of it. What is my body trying to tell me?
I wonder if my tears are about guilt for not also going on a hunger strike like Elder Emile Bell (Canoe Lake, Saskatchewan) has done (more than once now). Or, Raymond Robinson (Cross Lake, Manitoba) or Wilson Hardy from Nisichiawayasihk Cree Nation. Or, even doing daily fasts like Sheila North Wilson (Manitoba). But then I turn to logic and I realize as soon as I found out Ogitchidaakwe was going on a hunger strike, I cried and well, I wasn’t feeling any guilt then.
Then I wonder if my tears are born of the weird feeling I have for not giving up some self-indulgent privilege (that is not even good for me) like Tim Horton’s coffee? Is cutting down on food intake enough? Should I give up more? Should this extend to my daughter? Other family members? Friends? Weird feeling but not the kind that brings on tears; it’s not self-pity I am feeling. My tears are not the “I-feel-bad-and-should-do-something-but-oh-well-I-am-not-going-to” kind.
I wonder though if they are desperate. Tears born of desperation for which the only words I have to express it would be an emphatic “NOOOO! Don’t do this!” But then in my belly I know that desperation is not the source of my daily crying because above all else, as Anishinaabe I recognize the autonomy of Ogitchidaakwe’s decision. I revere the sacredness of that autonomy and her decision. I am humbled by the great kind mystery, gizhewe manidoo, and manidooyag (the spirits) who are working with her and for her in her sacred autonomous action. Action that is autonomous from human interference but bound tightly to her spiritual world, her path, her journey. I am awed. All of these sentiments are far away from the kind that makes up desperation. So why am I crying?
Are my tears an expression of anger at Canada? At Stephen Harper?
At times a hot head, I surprise even myself to realize that I am not even angry at Canada or Harper. (Well I was angry about the “mmmm bacon” and Homer Simpson tweet, angry enough to name him in an FB status update, but that was one flash of anger). I am not angry because how can I be angry at something I know and understand? Canada was born on the deceit and abuse of Indigenous Nations and individuals to gain access to the resources resting with our Mother. Four hundred years of this in my bones and a Prime Minister whose behaviors are predictable makes it hard for me to be angry. I think my grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides of my family, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, would shake their head at me if I were to waste my energy being ‘hot-head’ angry with this government. I think they might look away and let me be but wonder why I was being angry at something I already know and understand; something they know and understand; something their great grandparents know and understand.
No, my tears are not an expression of anger. I have no emotion for this round of occupier government. Windigo is predictable.
Now this is not to say that anger is a negative emotion. It is not to deny the anger—beautiful, life-changing, life-protecting anger—that is likely fuelling much of this movement. Indeed, a therapist I was seeing in my early twenties taught me that the anger I had then was healthy anger; anger that preserves the self; anger that gets a person out of life-diminishing situations. Anger protects. Allows the person to escape. Move. Make change. The reason I delve a bit here into the discussion of anger is because it is given such a bad rap. We, as Peoples and as individuals, are often made to feel like criminals or savage or out of control when we name, claim, and show our anger. Or, we are treated as such. The world seems to say, “You shouldn’t be angry. You should be positive, happy. Yes. That’s it. Smile. Let’s move forward shall we?”
Constantly being positive, being happy, being in the mindset of ‘moving forward’ is ridiculous, hugely privileged, and unhealthy. It’s grounded in what I think is a delusional view of reality.
Be angry. It’s an emotional, often life-saving, response to a life-diminishing situation. It is not aggression.
Anyways, my tears are not out of anger for Canada or Stephen Harper. I know this thing that is Canada and colonialism. I am “getting to know” it. I am detached, in a healthy way, not apathetic way, from the thing, from Windigo. Detached in the sense that I am standing back watching it, in all its forms, trying to figure it out. Behaviour modification is the strategy #idlenomore is engaged in. We are trying to shape stephen harper’s behaviour through a variety of ways. We are trying to stop greed, ego, blind power, lack of feeling, and over-consumption of life. I hope it works.
I hope it works.
I hope it works.
I wonder what psychologists or social workers would say about how to treat a conduct disordered, anti-social, apparently psychopathic government? I wonder how we, as Anishinaabeg and Cree, would deal with the Windigo, the Windigo spirit? I wonder what intellectual traditions inform other Indigenous Nations about how to deal with the greedy, the uncaring, the un-empathetic, the dishonourable.
I wonder why I cry everyday.
I go back to the minute I read about Ogitchidaakwe’s plans. I re-visit every crying session I’ve had since then. I think I’m getting close to understanding.
I don’t know how my Elders would describe this in our language but it’s times like this I long to have my Anishinaabemowin language in my body so I could sound the thing out geget debwe (real close to the truth). In english, the thing I think I’m crying about is loss, unimaginable loss and grief. I have nothing else to elaborate on this. I can’t even explain it definitively. I just sense an overwhelming loss and grief. Maybe those aren’t even the words. See what I mean about having our language? My Elders would have a word for this, or words.
Maybe I am afraid as well. Afraid at what this hunger strike might mean in the future.
But there is something else here too. I cry hard, suddenly, forcefully. Upon reflection, I think it may have something to do with being overwhelmed by what I see as an ultimate act of truth, sharing, strength, and kindness. Overwhelmed by Ogitchidaakwe’s ultimate act of truth, sharing, strength, and kindness. In my Anishinaabe culture these are four foundational values that are symbolized by four material beings: truth being the tree because the tree is straight, knows her intention, grow up; sharing being the deer because she is the ultimate giver, giving up her life so we can live; strength being the rock that is unmoved-able for millions of years; and, kindness being sweetgrass, a symbol of our mothers’ beautiful, sweet smelling, flowing hair. Ogitchidaakwe Theresa Spence, her purposeful act of starvation, is the tree, is the deer, is the rock, and is the sweetgrass all in one. Her act is wholly truth, sharing, strength, and kindness. What a gift.
I cry because I have never been given all of these gifts in my life through one person, a stranger. I cry because she is giving this to us all.
I have zaagide (love) for this woman. My heart is open to her and her action. I think of her family often. I imagine the quiet intimate moments between her and those she loves most and who love her most. I imagine the whispers, the tears, the silence, the eye-contact, the touch, the smiles, the chuckles, the rhythmic sound of breathe between people. I think of Ogitchidaakwe’s ancestors and how they must be vibrating, nodding, dancing, shaking, singing, sounding out, for her and for all of our future children. I think of the manidooyag (spirits) looking out for her and I am comforted.
These are all the elements that make for caring life. The life we are after having alongside Canada and Canadians; and, with each other, again. I am overwhelmed to tears by the sacrifice she and her family are giving me, my family, my community, my Nation, my future.
Maybe this is why I cry every day.
I cry because whatever it means, at some level in my body, when the words came to life, “I am going on a hunger strike…” I somehow knew then and know now, this: Ogitchidaakwe’s continued physical life or her eventual physical death will mean something that will irrevocably change life for all of us in Turtle Island. Her spirit is already changing us, me.
This is overwhelming and so I cry.
Chi-miigwech Ogitchidaakwe. Aapidjii nendam gaa miizhyaang.
Big thanks Ogitchidaakwe. I am very grateful for all you give us.
Chi-miigwech to your family.
Chi-miigwech to those who support you and support life by also being on a hunger strike.
Chi-miigwech to all your helpers—those who are tending the fires and carrying the water where you are; and, chi-miigwech to their families.
Chi-miigwech to your community, Attawapiskat First Nation; your entire Muskego Nation; and, the beautiful lands, waters, animals, birds, insects, sky, seasons, and spirits that have grown you all up to be awesomely perfect human beings.
Ogitchidaakwe, you are taking us as individuals, as families, as communities, as Nations on a collective journey and you are compelling our transformation. Chi-miigwech.
*Ogitchidaakwe is a woman who steps out ahead of her community to protect her community.
*Ogimaa is a leader.
Note: Chi-miigwech to Lauralee Proudfoot for helping me find the names of the others who are on hunger strike and fasting; and, to my sister Colleen Cardinal, for editing feedback.)