Bridge to the Other Side
Annie E. Wenger-Nabigon
Bridge to the Other Side
Legend tells of land crossed with rivers slow in summer,
Hard in winter, swift in spring with water, twisting, rippling,
Cutting withers of rock and flashing fish.
Settlers came searching for home and haven from cold Europe’s hatred,
A hard separation, stubborn thought forbidden,
Righteous steel against soothing water.
Stiff-necked settlers, undaunted, damned rivers
Running so deep you couldn’t cross them,
And waded in up to their necks, not seeing it was just a small trickle
Boot prints left on moccasin paths now lead into tenacious mission centuries,
Weaving deep rivers into canyons, into places where wanderers go lost searching
For a way to the cross.
I am bridge and not bridge—launched groundless, flung past railings,
There is no handhold, just skin-scraping grips on hard canyon walls,
Feet wet, watering blood where footholds should be and are not.
Nothing clings safe to solid ground, hooks fast my lines.
A bridge is to be walked on; a bridge builder must grow wings,
It is not yet time to fold them—the canyon is deep.
We learn to tread air or breathe under water.
remember meals at Grandma’s house that were topped off with mincemeat
pies and sweet meadow-mint tea. Grandma was tiny, round and soft, with
a wicked sense of humor from time to time, and a laugh to match.
wonder—what would she think of the life I’ve come to live? Would she
like the moose mincemeat pies I make and the hot bannock with wild
blueberry jam? Would she understand my husband’s humor? How would
Anishnaabemowin spoken with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent sound in her
mouth? I know my "relatives by marriage" would love to swap recipes
with her as they did with my late mother, and have fun joking with her,
as they do with me.
It’s a far distance to
travel to where I am in my life. I’m traversing tricky ground—am I
Mennonite, or "Wishnaabe"? Am I like or unlike those I’m related to by
blood and those I’m related to by marriage? Am I visible or invisible,
or both? Dreams I have at night reveal the interstitial spaces, become
the Trickster Teacher taunting and inspiring. Without my dreams I would
be lost on this trail. I’m trying to understand my Mennonite identity
as a settler descendant on Turtle Island.
are parts of my story which can only be told with poetry, and for six
years it’s the poems that parse out my journey, giving voice to my
struggle. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the university
library, working my way through a pile of books on Canadian Aboriginal
history and putting down the book I was reading to write the poetry
that started to flow. I had to learn to know myself in a different
dimension if I was going to face the growing awareness that my identity
was changing, was being changed by what I was reading.
poetry that started with "Bridge to the Other Side" hasn’t stopped,
although only a few poems have come before readers’ eyes. That poetry
and new knowledge has changed me. I can’t see the world with the same
eyes I had a few years ago, and that’s a good thing.
course, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the world in quite the same way as
anyone else. I’ve never felt as if I fit in anywhere. When I was a
teenager my mother told me that the reason I felt that way was because
I had a different brain than other people, but I never knew what that
I did know I felt differently about many things than most
people I knew. For example, no one else I knew seemed to be interested
in "Indian" things. As I learned more about the true history of Native
America, I discovered opinions that no one else I knew agreed with. At
least not until I found Vine Deloria Jr.’s book, Custer Died for Your Sins. Then some things started to make sense for me, and I have been on a long and winding way ever since.
was born in the mountains of Arkansas, the territory of the Osage
peoples. When I was seven, my Mennonite missionary parents moved back
to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I discovered that I spoke the English
language incorrectly. I was determined to hide where I really came
from, and then maybe the other kids would stop teasing me. It didn’t
help that I had to dress differently, couldn’t participate in the gym
period where dance was taught, and had no clue about the television
shows that were discussed.
A few students
were friendly—the ones on the margins because of the color of their
skin, or the poverty evident in their clothes, or the physical handicap
keeping them on the sidelines. I learned how to live in boundary
The first school field trip I
remember was to the Lancaster Wax Museum. Those displays had quite an
impact on my young imagination, and when we stopped in front of the
display of the final terror of the Conestoga people slaughtered in
Lancaster in 1763 I was stricken. Ever afterward I could see that scene
in my mind’s eye whenever I saw or heard the word Conestoga. The wax faces float in front of me like a misty overlay when I visit Lancaster.
think about my ancestor’s beautiful farm on the shores of Susquehanna
River and wonder if spirits of the massacred people ever visit there.
Did my ancestors know the Conestoga people? Does my genetic heritage
carry connections to the Paxton Boys who committed that crime? What
does it mean that I am born of people who dispossessed the original
peoples of that territory, bought stolen land, and feared the remnants
of the disappeared peoples? Now "we" pretend they never existed and are
ignorant of contemporary Native life.
taken me until my sixtieth year to accept the mantle of my identity as
a "settler descendant." When I first encountered that term, something
in my heart shrank away from recognition. Surely there were better
terms for me to use—Mennonite, professional, wife, mother, advocate, or
immigrant. Even a label of depressed, divorced, co-dependent, or any
other pejoratively applied term would be more acceptable.
can I find a bridge between the words settler descendent and ally? How
can I look in the mirror and not feel shame and guilt if I embrace the
concept of settler descendent? Would good Christian forgiveness be
applied to me, as it was not applied to the original inhabitants of
this land when Europeans arrived? Can a bridge emerge from the shadows
of shame—the shame of those overrun and the shame of those who
participate in a continuing colonial project engraving devastation here?
know what it is like to feel shame and embarrassment which accompanies
exclusion and bullying. My powerlessness disgusted and enraged me as a
child and left only fantasy to help me cope. When I think of the
Anishnaabe family I’ve married into, and the exclusion and bullying
they have faced from the dominant culture, I think of all the borders
that define us. Here in Canada their nation is called Anishnaabe, but
in the country of my birth, the United States, the same peoples are
Is there any difference?
Of course, but how can I understand the subtleties that led to that
division? My Anishnaabe husband and I share a distant heritage of Scot
ancestry—does that mean we are alike, just a bit? How do these genes
and stories and borders define us? Can a stable bridge be built across
the deep divide to a path of relationship?
have discovered through my poetry that bridge building can start from
either side. I see my job as constructing the bridge foundation on my
side of the river and not worrying about what others are doing on their
side of the river. My task is to be honest about all of who I am and
realistic about where I stand. I must give up helpless wallowing in
assumed shame, guilt and self-pity.
I am not my ancestor and didn’t ask to be born in this time and place
(or maybe I did), yet I carry privileges inherited from what my
ancestors appropriated. Those privileges require something of me if I
am to live a truly authentic life on this continent—this part of Mother
Earth where many nations lived and told stories about Her, and some
named her Turtle Island before "others" came and imposed a different
story called North America, the land of opportunity.
I know it was an opportunity for the original peoples to be
"disappeared," condemned to disenfranchisement, confinement on small
parcels of undesirable land, and myths that misrepresent their true
natures. The colonial project, through the use of settlers, stole not
only the land and resources, but also cultures, languages, identities,
and spirits. Can bridge building help me with a different story in this
There’s baggage that comes from living
in a society with core values shaped by deep foundations in theft,
greed, arrogance, genocide, slavery, rape, ongoing economic violence,
and simple ignorance. Ignorance is our worst enemy, and I have learned
that in many ways, people chose their particular ignorance. It is the
beginning of the loss of innocence.
can’t afford any longer to hide behind illusions. I can be sure that my
neighbors see quite clearly the baggage I carry, and I need to listen
to what they have to say about the nature of that baggage.
else am I to learn how to sort through it and carry it with correct
intentions? I am no more capable of a solitary construction of my
identity as a settler descendant than I am of getting through life in
isolation. I cannot "get it" all by myself, and need help with bridge
The gifts of my poetry teach me that
silence is also a great gift. Listening to the silence of the past
opens new places inside of me. I hear my ancestor’s voices and feel
their tears over the trauma they lived through. Without the gift that
came to them on Turtle Island, they would have had no place to live and
I would not be alive.
Perhaps because of
my professional life, I have an understanding of the silent story of
historical trauma that others lack. Or maybe not. Regardless, any
understanding I may have doesn’t give me anything special. All that
insight can do is open my heart to seeing and hearing the truth of the
devastation that has occurred, and continues to occur, on Turtle
Island. I must listen and bear witness.
month I am moving again. My husband and I are going to live on his
Reserve north of Lake Superior, a beautiful place within walking
distance of white sand beaches and rolling dunes where his ancestors
have lived for tens of thousands of years.
think my ancestors would be happy to know that the hospitality shown to
them when they arrived on this continent, ignorant, hurt, and wounded,
is still alive despite the hurt this settler project passes on. Maybe
if they had learned how to be human beings on this land, if they had
given up their fears and compulsions, there might have been a different
story—one that came full circle to a holistic space, not a linear,
boxed-in space with well-defined yet brittle boundaries.
the newcomers could have learned an "indigenous" identity instead of
forcing Euro-centric identities on everyone else. Then maybe I wouldn’t
be wearing a backpack labeled "settler descendent."
it’s never too late to heal, even to heal the past. It’s never too late
to have a happy childhood, learn to play a drum, sing a song in a new
language, and learn a dance that tells a new story of letting go of
trauma. I’ve learned to cook moose meat and bannock. Now I’m moving
away from an "urban reserve" space to a place where I can learn how to
find the best blueberry patches in the bush and canoe on the river that
carried my husband’s ancestors.
to learn to tell a different story. It’s never too late to learn to be
a bridge builder, to write better poetry, and to create a settler
descendant identity that is dignified, loving, and respectful of
Creator’s guidance to this place. I think my grandmothers would be
happy to know I’m finally "getting it" when it comes to pie baking,
poetry writing, and yes, even bridge building!
"The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past." —William Faulkner
Wenger-Nabigon is enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Human
Studies Program at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. Her
research focuses on a First Nation model of resilience from an extended
family perspective. She lives at Pic River First Nation, Heron Bay,
Ontario, with husband Herbert Nabigon and is a consultant in the mental
health field and in anti-racism education.