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Pulling apart the knot of Indigenous trauma
Marie Louise, seen left at Richard Pierpoint Park in St. Catharines. Evan Loree

How the community became a Mohawk woman’s path to sobriety

 

“I prefer to be Marie Louise.”

Marie Louise gets her legal last name, Bowering, from her grandfather, but she doesn’t have a lot of kind words for the man.

“My grandfather is, I think, part of my trauma,” she says while warming up inside a silver crossover parked at Richard Pierpoint Park.

Outside, the snow is frozen on the ground and the bright sun makes it look like a sheet of white stained glass.

Marie Louise and the women who make up her sisterhood have to dig their heels in to the ground to keep from slipping.

Together, they lay down a green cloth in the shape of a circle and build a small fire at its centre.

Some of them have brought drums, some medicines and a few came with firewood.

When they are done, they have created a sacred fire with the four traditional medicines of the Anishinabe people present: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweetgrass.

Marie Louise says they always light the fire with a little tobacco to help it get going.

Tobacco is traditionally offered at Indigenous ceremonies to open communication with the spirit world.

The last time they tried to light the fire without tobacco they had a devil of a time getting it going, she says.

She and her sisterhood think it was a message.

*****

Marie Louise is mixed race, Mohawk on her mother’s side, Scottish and Dutch on her father’s.

Growing up, she didn’t have much knowledge of her ancestral teachings.

She remembers the first time she burned sweetgrass, it made her grandmother Maggie cry.

She thinks Maggie was scared her granddaughter was going to get hurt for following the ways of her ancestors.

“I knew I was native, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” Marie Louise says. “And it wasn’t something I wanted to go around and talk about.”

She grew up in St. Catharines and was mostly raised by her single mother, Marilyn.

Her father “was consistently inconsistent.” She describes a father who was around, though not a steady member of the household.

Bullied as a child due to her red hair

Marie Louise was bullied a lot as a child, especially for the colour of her hair.

Sitting in that silver crossover, she pulls a few strands of her fiery red hair into her hands and looks down.

“No wonder people made fun of me,” she says. “It’s beautiful!”

It took a long time and healing before she could look in the mirror and say that about herself.

“Nobody ever told me that, so I had to tell myself,” she says.

Despite her fiery red hair, a feature she gets from the Scottish branch of her family tree, everyone knew she was Mohawk.

Her family was “visibly native,” Marie Louise says. “A lot of my friends knew, even if I didn’t want them to know.”

It was especially hard to hide the alcoholism.

“My grandmother was heavy into alcohol, heavy into heroin, heavy into drugs,” she says.

Maggie also struggled with suicidal tendencies.

Marie Louise faintly remembers the sound of sirens coming for her grandmother, but tries not to focus too much on those memories.

She began drinking regularly shortly after high school, though she had her first drink when she was 15.

At her worst, she remembers waking up without knowing where she was.

“My life experience and trauma, a lot of it was strictly because of my Indigenous heritage,” she explains.

Mother in foster care, never went to high school

Her mother spent some time in foster care and never went to high school.

This is a common experience in the native community. Even today, Indigenous children make up more than half of all children in foster care, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census data.

Marie Louise was told her grandmother went to a fancy all-girls school. But that was not true.

“Grandma definitely went to an Indian residential school,” she says and suspects Maggie wasn’t the first in her family to do so.

Her great-grandmother Lizzy was often described as a “wild card” by her other family members and suffered from many of the same pos- traumatic symptoms as Maggie and other survivors of residential schools.

Marie Louise thinks she, too, went to residential school.

Growing up, Lizzy’s story was a cautionary tale to Marie Louise.

In October 1955, her great-grandmother was beaten and left for dead across the border in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She was 56 years old.

“All I ever used to hear about when I was growing up was about my grandmother Lizzy that got murdered.”

“My grandpa Tom loved her. She was an auntie. She was a friend. She was a gardener.”

But even Lizzy, “she, too, picked up the drugs and the alcohol.”

And so from one generation to the next, the bottle slowly made its way to Marie Louise.

“My mom taught me to drink.”

And when her mother Marylin drank, she did it to get drunk, she says.

“(Marilyn) raised me based on how (Maggie) was raised” and when Maggie came out of residential school “she didn’t have the parenting skills.”

“She didn’t have that nurturing ability, because she was not nurtured as a child.”

Marie Louise was about 24 when she realized, “I want more.”

And then, May 5, 1994, she too was beaten and left for dead.

“It was a robbery,” she says. And her assailant was acquitted … reasonable doubt.

“That was basically when I hit pretty much rock bottom.”

At the time she felt like “heaven didn’t want me and I was stuck here on Earth.”

Grandmother Jackie Labonte brought her back

It was Grandmother Jackie Labonte, a community elder and teacher of traditional medicines, who brought Marie Louise back to the fold.

At the time, the Niagara Regional Native Centre was running a 14-week life skills course in collaboration with the First Nations Technical Institute, she says.

“I signed up because Jackie said, ‘I need somebody.’ ”

Labonte had been on the perimeter of Marie Louise’s life since she was young, so she knew and trusted the older woman.

She felt flattered because she had always needed Labonte.

At the time Marie Louise had buried much of her trauma with alcohol. She was forced to confront a lot of it during that course.

She remembers much of it came to a head at the end of the course when she joined a group of medicine women to howl at the moon.

“I just thought they were batshit crazy.” But by the end of the weekend, “It was beautiful,” she says.

At the ceremony, Marie Louise was encouraged to express herself to the moon without words.

She growls quietly to demonstrate, much like she did 30 years ago.

They told her to go “deeper.”

“This wasn’t what I knew,” she says. “It was hard for me to let go.”

She remembers the women at the ceremony gathered around her. One of them placed her hands below her bellybutton.

They told her they were going to help her get the sickness out.

Marie Louise describes what she felt next as a knot of trauma being pulled up from the depths of her body.

“The knot was the sexual abuse from childhood” and it felt like the women were literally pulling the knot out of her, she says.

As she felt it rising to the top of her body, she suddenly stopped.

“I wouldn’t let it do no more. Because I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

After that, she says, she “chose to stay and walk with the elders,” chose to be part of the community.

Marie Louise credits the experience for being the start of her journey back to sobriety.

Thinking back to her grandfather, she can’t remember what he did, just that he touched her.

Familiar smell of beer and Player’s cigarettes

But she does remember, one day, she was sitting outside with her mother.

And the smell came over her.

“I could smell the beer. I could smell the old Player’s cigarettes. I could see my grandpa,” she says. “All of a sudden she looks and I’ve got all these tears rolling down my face.”

Marie Louise asked her mother that day, point blank, “Why’d you leave me with them?”

Her mother knew that her grandfather was not safe to be around, she says.

“It was the alcohol. I wanted to drink,” her mother said as the two sat and cried.

After the life skills course and after the medicine women helped her find her voice, Marie Louise joined a women’s drum circle.

Grandmothers like Labonte continued to mentor her and shared responsibilities with her.

“They made me feel like I was needed,” she says.

Marie Louise was almost at the end of her journey in 1999.

At the time she had been drinking about five days a week, not knowing that she was pregnant.

“There would have been issues with that child, had I not miscarried,” she says.

At that point “I had a choice” – between the way back and the way forward.

“And I said, ‘I’m taking it head-on.’ ”

“From there, I never drank another day in my life,” she says and is proud to say that her own children live drug- and alcohol-free, having learned the lessons of their mother.

“That cycle of abuse and trauma stopped at Marie Louise,” she says.

She couldn’t have done it without her Marilyn, though.

Her mom died 30 years sober and her example gave Marie Louise the strength to push for a better life.

“She taught me sobriety,” she says.

“Besides life, that was the most sacred special gift that my mother ever gave to our family.”

*****

Marie Louise looks out at her ancestral homeland as the sun starts to get low.

“I have forgiven, but I can’t forget,” she says, speaking of the Catholic and Canadian systems that devastated her ancestors.

“We stand in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is where the Two Row Wampum was created.”

In 1613, the Haudenosaunee people signed a treaty with European settlers called the Two Row Wampum.

In it they agreed to sail the same river side by side in friendship and peace forever.

Europeans would sail the river in their ships and the Haudenosaunee would travel in their canoes.

“Our canoes and our vessels aren’t supposed to touch,” Marie Louise says.

She looks around at the “white tape” binding her community to the Canadian government and says, “There is no Two Row,” the treaty is broken.

“I’m a canoe in a ship.”

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