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Bridge to the Other Side

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.

I 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. 

I 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.

There 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. 

The 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.

Of 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 meant.
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.

I 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 territories.

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. 

I 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.

It has 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. 

How 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?

I 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 called Ojibway. 

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?

I 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. 

Yes, 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.

Now 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 context?

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. 

We 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. 

How 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 building.

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.

Next 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. 

I 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. 

Maybe 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."

But 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. 

I’m going 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

—Annie 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.