Aging Indigenous & Black: Fitting Into My Self

I will be 48 in September. I am grateful to reach this age. I’ve shifted in the last couple of months with COVID-19 in addition to a few cancer worries over the years, the latest being breast cancer. I thought I was cleared, but now they are calling me back for a third time. I haven’t gone yet. The universe was tugging at my spirit once again when I was waiting for the results of that second test. I swear I am part Bizhiw dodaim with the amount of lives I have been gifted.

In 2017, I joined the late Josephine-Ba Mandamin on the For the Earth and Water Walk. I had a dream where Nibi told me she would help me, so when Jo-ba called and asked if I would go on the Walk, I immediately said yes.

Our Head Water Walker Coordinator Joanne Robertson designed our 2017 Logo: from L to R Edward George aka Waasekom (who was canoeing in the Great Lakes alongside us), the late Josephine-ba, her husband Andrew Mandamin, myself and a young boy and girl representing all the youth.

One particularly tough day, I began to experience this weird sensation in my chest that quickly caused concern. Sprawled out on the hotel bed in severe pain by the evening, I was reluctant to go to the hospital because we were State side and I was worried about the expense. One of my co-Water-Walkers, Sharon with blunt love finally said to me: ” Tasha, do you want to pay for your funeral or an emergency bill”? Lol. I promptly went to a hospital in Baraga, Michigan.

When you pay for medical care, doctors take a very different approach no matter what your colour is. I ended up having full coverage through work, so they ran every test possible. After the heart tests were normal, they gave me an MRI because it was clear from my blood pressure that I was still experiencing pain. The Doctor came back in the room and told me I had something called a “thymic carcinoma.” I think I was in shock. I just refused the diagnosis and stayed on the walk until I could no more.

Myself and my little Water Brother, Warren Sturgeon, the other canoeist

When we walked through Chi Genebek Ziibing Anishinabek, I had my friends Christi and Isaac ceremonially hand poke tattoos of water lines on each side of my eye, so I could see the reflection of life Nibi gifted me.

Water Lines overlaid on my self portrait by Tannis Neilson & one of Isaac Murdoch’s doodle inspired by my story of how I became a Water Walker

I also wanted to be reminded daily because I have lost many loved ones to cancer. So many. I think the last count was 14 in my Mama’s family. It has appeared in multiple forms: lung, ovarian, kidney, throat, thyroid, skin, colorectal. I am sure it is environmental. My father, too, lost his life to colon cancer. I visited my loved ones, sitting with some of them through chemo, massaging their backs and feet, listening to stories, laughing with them at memories, consoling them, and wiping tears away. I watched as they faded away, becoming thinner and thinner. I wished I could just take the cancer out of them.

My nêhiyaw and nêhiyaw Metis family and territories.

mancôsa î-môwikot is how nêhiyawak, the Plains Cree, describe cancer, which translates to “he/she is being eaten by bugs,” my nehiyaw friend and relative Robin Mcleod says. Cancer is new to us as Indigenous people in relation to the dispossession of our territories and our correlating oppression and subjugation.

How I envision that cannibal one that cancer evokes. I don’t know the original artist of this image.

In Brown and Black bodies, cancer like diabetes, high blood pressure, and many others is a disease that is symptomatic of colonialism and capitalism. The collective trauma of the land and waters manifests itself inside our cells. Our Old Ones tell us, “We are the land and we are the Waters. If they are sick, so are we.” When I first started to lose loved ones, I was so afraid of cancer. I watched them suffer from the inequities and racism present in the health care system, which leads to lack of access, misdiagnosis or even no diagnosis. Over and over again, I watched the people I love die preventable deaths. It’s why Covid19 is such a threat to us as Indigenous and Black people. We know we do not get the same type of health care as White people. It is a documented, simple fact.

I don’t fear Covid19, nor do I fear cancer anymore; I do, however, respect both in relation to their power to take life. Fearing something gives it energy and I don’t want to give the disease or virus that kind of food.

When they told me they had found something from the mammogram, I smudged, took my asemaa, and went to the Water again. I sat quietly, shed a few tears, and asked the môwikot, that Cancer, what it was here to tell me or show me.

I never knew how to use my asemaa, nor did I know that I could enter into a relationship with the Water or Creation. Water Walking and the Midewiwin Society taught me about both.

I remembered the first time the doctors told me something was wrong. I was in my early 20s and something had settled in my womb after my son was born. It appeared again in my 30s and early 40s. The centre of my being that carried this beautiful, little boy was also carrying a life-time of intimate and sexual hurt. I lost baby after baby to miscarriage. I would have had 5 children today instead of just one. Cancer danced into my cervix, my uterus, my endometrial lining and my colon on its’ tiptoes. “Have a hysterectomy,” they said after my 3rd surgery. I told them, “No, I don’t want to. I will find my own ways to heal.”

A Cancer Cell.

Creator’s greatest gift is that of free will.

We can choose what is best for us. My very best friend fought breast cancer by combining chemo and Indigenous medicines. My adopted father diagnosed with lung cancer fought it with chemo, laughter, resiliency, and sheer stubbornness.

Another time, the nurse practitioner called me because of a number of growths in my neck. We need to take biopsies for throat and thyroid cancer, they said. “Your voice,” those lumps whispered to me as I shrunk inside a domestically violent relationship, “You need to ‘find your talk’ and start speaking your truths – and his – no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how much back lash, no matter how scary it might be.” So, I did, and the lumps were right. It was hard in all of the above ways, but my voice became so strong it even began to sing.

A few weeks ago as the possibility of cancer spidered out of my breast, I remembered a lump found 3 or 4 years ago. Now, there were two: one in each. I remembered looking in the mirror just a few months ago critiquing them and finding them lacking in relation to some subconscious ideal related to growing older.

When I saw the ultrasound, I thought there’s a mistatim in my breast…

Sitting beside Nibi, I could hear the whisper: “growing old is a privilege.” As a Black Indigenous woman, I beat the colonial odds; odds like the Stats Can one that warns me I am 6 times more likely to die a violent death by simply existing, never mind the numbers that tell me I am more likely to get one of the colonial diseases and die from them.

I fought aging for a long time, falling prey to that same colonial machine that tried to eradicate one set of Ancestors/Ancestresses and enslave the other. The same machine that repeatedly tried to tell me I was never good enough, never thin enough, never white enough, and never young enough. It told me I could buy youth or take the risk by using cancer causing products.

Capitalism and colonialism morph into a killing machine.

Even now, despite the risks to lives, it is more important to “open” up the economy and to lull people into complacency and willful ignorance. Don’t focus on the death of your child, your mom, your dad, your partner or loved one, the Earth, the Water, all of Creation….go shopping, instead! Covid19 hasn’t happened to you, so is it even real – you need to have access to “stuff” – the wealth of the 1% depends on you. Quick! Take all the toilet paper because we need to be sure we can wipe our asses.

Creation is kind as is Creator. We are given chance after chance to look at ourselves and our actions. We can shift our behaviours at any given moment. We can stand in our own truths. We can see how we are, as a whole body, mind, heart, and spirit, a reflection of Creation, itself. After this last whisper from Cancer, I stopped looking so critically at my grey hair, my wrinkles, my aging. Instead, now I see a life lived that wasn’t always easy. I am wearing the wrinkles and grey like war lines and shades of survival.

I carry them with pride now as a Grandmother to 2 little girls and a Aunty to many others. I think of them as kôhkom/Aunty badges. Ironically, so many people comment on how “young” I look or they can’t believe I am a Grandmother; the construct of what a Grandmother should look like is so engrained in their heads.

“kohkom’s Girl” Aurora
“kohkom’s Baby Girl” Harper and Lily, my “grand-pup”

I now consciously celebrate the lines in my face as beautiful rivers like the ones that cross okâwîmâwaskiy/ Shkagamik Kwe and the silver in my hair makes me think of that beautiful Mide Spirit.

I am going to actively age Indigenous style, decolonizing it as I go through the process, so the young ones coming behind me will question the constructs from outside of our culture; and instead of trying to contort into a mould that isn’t ours, they will celebrate and embrace who we truly are as beautiful Black and Brown people of all ages.

From L to R: Marion Bourgeois, Alicia Rose, Autumn Peltier, myself, Florence Osawamick, Ciara Peltier and Stephanie Peltier at the All Nations Water Gathering in Elora (April 2018).

Published by Mide iskwêw (Tasha Beeds)

Tasha Beeds is an Indigenous scholar of nêhiyaw, Metis, and mixed Barbadian ancestry from the Treaty 6 territories of Saskatchewan. She is also a creative artist, a poet, a community engaged Water/Land activist, a Water Walker, and a Mide-kwe from Minweyweywigaan Lodge out of Roseau River First Nations and Wiikwemkoong, Manitoulin Island. She is also a mom to a son Dakota, and a kôhkom to two beautiful granddaughters, Harper and Aurora.

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