The FOLD’s Suzanne Methot on Storytelling as Medicine and Restorative Dialogue

The Festival of Literary Diversity is well under way, and in our final interview with Suzanne Methot, we discussed her book Legacy, Indigenous Medicine, and healing.

The festival takes place in Brampton from May 2nd-5th, and tickets are available at The FOLD website.

What made you want to write Legacy?

How long have you got? It was a process of even deciding why it needed to exist. At first it was a response to the questions I was getting from students I was teaching at the time. I was a public school teacher for about 5 or 6 years, and I would always get a lot of questions from students who wanted to know why certain things happened in history, why certain things were happening in their families and communities. I felt like I had to make that connection for them around what happened in history and how that had affected our history, so they didn’t feel ashamed, as so many told me they did around things they experienced. It was important for them to understand that this came from a very real history of colonial interference and oppression.

As I started writing I realized my own skin in the game. It then became a process of reflecting on my own family history, understanding that I couldn’t just be the teacher telling others about this. I would have to address it and understand it through my own experience. After that it became a process of typing it out, and getting mad. The first draft was a bit about getting the emotion out on the page. I was realizing what all of this meant for me and my family. Once I got further into the research and writing process, I fully understood why I needed to write it, realizing that non-Indigenous people need to understand how these things apply to them and their society. It’s not just Indigenous people who have intergenerational trauma of course. There’s a lot which has happened to different populations that confer a history of family, and community trauma.

Also just in terms of Canada’s colonial history and present; It is not a post-colonial country. It’s still very much a colonial country. I wanted to create a book that was a call to action if I can say that, though it’s up to the readers to decide if I was successful in doing that. I wanted to write something that helped people understand that we needed to change something in Canadian society if we’re going to stop chronic trauma. If we’re going to create a different future we have to do that.

I appreciate what you’re saying about trauma because I feel like we don’t always address it from the right perspective. Conversations about it and around it needs to be more expansive so that people experiencing trauma are not seen as objects.

Let me just say briefly, that what you just said is also part of it. The word trauma is appearing sometimes in media, in a CBC story, as an in-depth investigation of a community on the Prairies and healing centre. I don’t feel like we really get to a rich discussion of the issues which is what I wanted to do.

While reading it I noticed was that agency isn’t taken from those who are experiencing trauma. It was so refreshing because writing about trauma so often re-victimizes people as not being capable or agential. Especially with marginalized communities, it doesn’t feel like trauma . How did it feel to write about trauma like this, where so much popular media takes it away?

It’s a complicated thing to deal with and it was probably why I needed two extensions to the deadline for the book. The book took me longer to write the book than I would’ve liked, and a lot of it had to do with the intensity of the topic and taking breaks from it. Much of why it took me six years to write, was around making sure that I wasn’t pathologizing my own people. I wanted to make sure that it came across that people shouldn’t take away a pathology, making clear in the first few chapters that some of the challenges we see today are not innate to our culture. We know that we had fully functioning and very health societies; This came from colonialism. It was about making that clear in every chapter, where I made sure that for each person whose story I portrayed, whether it was the story of someone I knew, or one that appeared in the media, they were full people. It was important for me to discuss people in terms of how their trauma affected them, but also that they were for example, the graduate of an art college, or a pow-wow dancer, or a teacher in a high responsibility position. It was important to write about trauma but make sure that the people affected by it stayed intact in the narrative. It was also important to state that the issues were being addressed by the communities affected by it outside of colonial structures.

What has the response to the book been like so far?

I was prepared to have to explain myself and justify it because people would ask why I was putting our dirty laundry out into the world. I’m so proud of the reception, and my community for knowing what work has to be done. People have told me that it’s awesome, that every Indigenous person needed to read this. Others have said they wanted it in the course they were teaching at university. Non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people have both been responsive to it, which is nice. Someone at a book signing leaned down to speak with me saying, “This is the first time I’ve seen my experiences put out there,” and at the same event a non-Indigenous person didn’t say what his particular experiences were and he wanted to know if there was a way for him to find healing with Indigenous Medicine, at a healing centre nearby from his life experiences. I’m happy that people from all communities and backgrounds are seeing that this work needs to happen, and finding Indigenous storytelling and Medicine helpful.

I’m worried that people will see it as a scholarly work, and that it’s not accessible, just because of the topic being so associated with academia. It’s for the general reader. I know it’s not going to be an instant bestseller, and I’m grateful for that, actually. I hope it won’t burn bright quickly and then be put out. I think it’s going to be passed from hand-to-hand, recommended from person-to-person. It’s going to be from course-to-course. It’s going to help people over a long period of time, and grow in that way. If it grows in that way, I would be overjoyed. Publishing the book was the beginning of the process, and a new phase of the process.

Trauma informed spaces are increasingly important, particularly with the Provincial leadership we’re under. We’re seeing what used to be hidden but it doesn’t change the violence. We’re better able now however, to assign appropriate responsibility for what happening rather than people blaming themselves where they just feel like they need to work harder.

I absolutely agree, and there’s something about this book that goes against what we’ve been taught so far in terms of these Enlightenment ideas of pulling up your bootstraps and anybody can be successful. It’s this lone person writing their story, and though yes, we’re all at the centre of the medicine wheel and possess agency, and some power, we exist within a framework of community and the systems and institutions serving our communities. If we don’t elect the right leadership to guide a visionary process whether that’s in Indigenous communities or elsewhere, we’re doomed. It’s going to require visionary leadership, and new ways of functioning in society.

You talked about a non-Indigenous person at a book reading, seeking a way of healing, using Indigenous Medicine. I wanted to understand your thoughts on the way that it can be a form of cultural appropriation, particularly where there are still Indigenous people who cannot access Medicine, community or healing because of colonial structures. Given that this is so often the case, where people have commodified culture so that it’s inaccessible to the very people to whom it belongs.

I think that walking forward, and creating the help and systems that we need we have to be aware of it. It’s a double-edged sword where the more non-Indigenous recognize the intelligence, science and efficacy behind Indigenous Medicine and healing methodology, the better. It will force larger and more dominant systems to change around Western Medicine. I hope for this at least. It happened with my doctor who I was seeing for years, but then once I went to a naturopath she was stunned at how well I was doing, and asked what I was doing. Only making intergenerational trauma resources available exclusively for Indigenous people is incredibly short-sighted. It goes across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, economic class, place of residence, sexual orientation, ability, or gender identity. I wrote Legacy in an Indigenous context because I felt it needed to be written about, but trauma is not just experienced by Indigenous people. Responses to trauma would be helping everyone.

What does this mean for those who, for colonial reasons, don’t have access to elders, or are part of communities where Christianization has created a climate where those ways of knowing are still seen as pagan or evil, so there are no practicing Medicine People? What does it mean for the large number of us who live in urban environments? I don’t know that I have the perfect answer to that, but I do know that in Chapter 9 of the book I talked about having government support, as the Native Women’s Association of Canada has recommended, to start training herbal Medicine People. We need government support for understanding that these ways of knowing are efficacious and that they wrok. We need support in multi-year funding, while talking about community hubs. We have to talk about the ways we can make this available to more people. We need to be mindful of the appropriation piece, though I know that we have to start thinking about changing society to make it more available to everyone. We would be addressing the appropriation piece in the ways we make it accessible to more non-Indigenous people. Government support is required to do that because Indigenous people are marginalized and oppressed by the dominant settler-colonial systems, and society’s economic system. We’re doing this and setting up healing centres, and many healers will see non-Indigenous people. I think the key is bringing it out from the shadows of Western Bio-Med, where anything other than its science is seen as some witch doctor stuff when it’s really just science.

The government support piece became very clear in your book, where you talked about Supreme Court decisions where judges would rule against Indigenous communities, and yet in their opinions state that they agreed with the community. It’s infuriating and I liked that your work placed responsibility on judges and experts so that they weren’t seen as innocent victims of the system they’re in, but complicit in it.

We need to change those systems to the point where we’re bringing Indigenous knowledge in as equal to other knowledge. The delgamuk decision did that by enshrining oral tradition and storytelling as evidence, equal to the book evidence brought forth. We’ve seen it happen. Even the gladue decision, where life experiences are counted as evidence in the criminal justice system. I feel like health and medicine are so resistant, and I feel like that’s the next hurdle. We’re really going to have to start talking about why Western Bio-Med insists that anything outside of it like allopathic medicine is seen as pseudo-science or not real. I sometimes feel like asking people- how do you think our people and even your people got along before the Enlightenment? The WHO has a report on traditional medicine that upwards of 80% of people still use herbal medicine because it works. We have to bring Indigenous knowledge in and have it equated as equal to, if not superior to, Western systems.

It often feels reductive and harmful to ask for a few steps forward on that path by saying “what’s one thing we can do…”,  but what could this change look like as it reaches a critical mass?

I agree that it shouldn’t be one thing. There are people organizing in the legal systems, working to bring in alternative dispute resolution. People are already doing that work and don’t need me to remind the world that it needs to be done. We need to take a big step around healthcare, and Health Canada is trying to change the rules around so-called natural health products. We need fight against that and make sure people can still access herbal, and complementary medicine. Individuals need to understand what’s going on at Health Canada and what that means for someone who wants to access Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic Medicine, or Indigenous Medicine. Be informed about the rules, why they’re changing it, what’s behind it, and how they’re doing it to make sure that the health system is based on European ideas.

People could start talking to their MP’s and MPP’s, saying that we need to enshrine Trauma Informed Care in legislative form, asking them what they know about the issue, in order to raise it. We need to use legislation to help our systems and institutions enact the change that people need.

One of my professors this year, Dr. Basu, led a discussion in a seminar about how in politics, and particularly in local policy, equity is called diversity and inclusion, which turns into a form of management of diversity in service to acceptability politics. It wove into your book because of the way you talked about government systems and their policy needing to change, but I wondered what your thoughts were on this idea, relative to the trauma you write about.

I think we need to talk about these things because they affect us all, and though my book was particularly about Indigenous communities, it wasn’t just for them. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t have some history of family trauma, or experience of trauma. It’s why we need some kind of legislation because we have to use the tools of the colonial system to get our agency back. We need to change our systems to reflect that it crosses into all of our lives and that it’s just as important and just as flashy as the United We Roll protests across the country. They’re noisy so they get the attention, but sometimes people don’t want to talk in public about their history of family trauma and rightly so. I even had to think about what stories I told about trauma in the book. Opening yourself up, and then not getting the support you need can actually be devastating, and hinder the process of healing. Jessie Thistle at York talks a lot about the Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart’s work on historic trauma. We need to be able to engage in public mourning but we don’t have that support right now, so we don’t talk about that stuff. Instead, the noisy groups, get the attention, and take priority with policy.

I absolutely appreciate what you’re saying because it almost has a normative effect on what’s then appropriate to talk about, and defines the boundaries around what even equity can mean.

The way the media portrays opinions polarizes who even gets to sit at the table. I saw it on the news talking about vaccinations, and while I’m not going to get into that too much, it was scary that the speaker who was reaching tens, if not hundreds of thousands on that morning show, said that anyone questioned anything was anti-science. It’s just accepted fact, but what he was doing was creating a norm. There are certain ideas, mostly white men working for government or pharmaceutical companies who get to decide the nature of the debate in this country. It has to stop, because that same train of thought applied to marginalized communities

Legacy talks a lot about lateral violence, stating that, “When a group of people has been marginalized and oppressed, they often turn on each other. Their fear of punishment for insubordination makes them unable to express their anger to the oppressor (or control figure), so they direct their anger laterally, across peer groups” (p.92). I felt this was incredibly important. As a queer person, I’ve seen this where the dominant group (often white), requires that everyone agree with them lest they be subjected to violence, which complicates trauma as you wrote. What would you say to those who are subjected to lateral violence, trying to find a way through a violent system relatively intact?

I would go back to a systemic analysis and say that if we had a truly decolonized country where our systems and institutions made room for all different types of knowledge and conversations, lateral violence would find it hard to exist. I wish we didn’t need sides to everything because it brings about so many justifications for lateral violence. The Indigenous understanding of the universe is that of a quantum universe. Western quatum science has proven that this Indigenous view is science. It doesn’t mean however, that Newtonian physics don’t exist because the Indigenous view exists. The Indigenous universe makes room for many “both and” scenarios, instead. Instead of blaming people and asking what they’re talking about, it’s important to tell people who are fighting for change, to absolutely believe in the value of your story. What you have to say that what you have to say is important. Believe in what the universe is showing you, whether it’s through your experience whether it’s a health or mental health story. Your lived experience is your truth and that has value. There’s a collective aspect as well to change systems so that people don’t feel alone, and if people do feel alone I would say that it’s because you’re not supported by the systems and institutions of society and that’s not your fault.

So many people internalize it as a personal fault, when it’s just the systems.

That’s where violence becomes lateral where, throughout many communities, people attack each other for what they say or know. We need to stop attacking people, and focus on building relationships, and conversations. It’s okay to disagree: it would be a boring world otherwise, and one that isn’t real. We need to stop attacking people for what they know and have lived, and what that’s shown them about the world. When that happens in a community it shows how colonization has infected us. We should hope we know where the interference is coming from, and that’s directly from the imported systems.

At the risk of sounding like I’m one pumpkin spice latte short of being the whitest person in the room, I was watching Brene Brown a few weekends ago, where she talked about dialogue like this. I know it more in the context you’re speaking about: restorative justice. She talked about how dialogue and better conversation seemed like a new thing, but this has been happening in Indigenous communities, and marginalized communities for a very long time. It doesn’t sound as sexy as being brave, but restorative justice read as so important to your book.

I think it’s important because we have to think about appropriation and commodification. Although we need to be aware of this, I would like to believe that everybody is fundamentally good. It’s why the value of conversation is so high. We have to keep doing the work, and the work associated with trauma. We can’t be sidelined by fear into not doing anything or not having conversations because we’re afraid of this stuff. The concerns and things we’re talking about here will exist as part of those conversations. We need to just get the work started.

What legacy do you want the book to leave behind?

The title means a few different things. There’s the legacy of colonialism and what that’s done to Indigenous communities, and the legacy of what trauma does to any person or community. Then there’s also the legacy we want to leave to the generations coming, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. What are we leaving on this earth for the next seven generations? It’s what we’ve inherited, but then considering the Medicine Wheel and how we need to talk about transformation, as the one sacred law of the universe. How do we keep transforming in our own lives and do so in society? It’s where we get to the other part of the legacy: what are we going to leave behind? It’s what I want this book to do: start these conversations and start making change so that we can deal with what we’ve inherited. I wish for nothing less than societal transformation.