Sunday December 06, 2015

Trauma research brings pain, healing to academic Jesse Thistle

Jesse Thistle began researching his Métis/Cree roots to make sense of his family history.

Jesse Thistle began researching his Métis/Cree roots to make sense of his family history. (Supplied)

Jesse Thistle, a Métis-Cree from Saskatchewan, is studying trauma and memory within the Métis and Cree people of Northern Saskatchewan and the northern Great Plains.

While working towards a master's degree in history at the University of Waterloo, Thistle is not only collecting facts, he's also collecting memories — often painful ones. 

Understanding family history

When he was three, Thistle and his four- and five-year-old brothers were let go by their parents and raised by paternal grandparents in Toronto.

"I grew up with a lot of resentments about my culture and my mom's people. I didn't really know them, or their history or their involvement with the resistances," he explained. 

Thistle ended up with addiction problems and was homeless for a while. But as he looked around, he began to wonder why so many indigenous people ended up on the streets. Once sober, Thistle started taking indigenous history courses at York University, which led him back to his own family's story and reunited him with his mother. 

"I'm very proud that we're rebels and that we stood up for our sovereignty. It's a really cool feeling to know that something so historically relevant to the foundation of Canada is in my family history."
- Jesse Thistle

With help from advisers and his family, he traced his family tree and began contextualizing its history.

"I found that we had 10 ancestors that fought at Batoche and from then on had passed their pain through the generations to me."

The Battle of Batoche took place in May 1885 and it ended the Northwest Rebellion, with Canadian authorities defeating a Métis resistance.

In his research, Thistle found out about the dispersal of Métis people after the soldiers attacked Batoche. His grandmother and uncle fled to Whitefish reserve in northern Saskatchewan, where they hid for five years. Some of the children they took with them starved to death. Thistle spoke of persecution by the soldiers and said his grandmother, until she died at 102, stayed somewhat in hiding. She avoided and was extremely mistrustful of Canadian authorities.  

Lasting trauma through the generations

As Thistle collected more stories of family members and elders, he could see the pain that was present in everyone he interviewed.

"It was disheartening and it took a lot out of me, but it was worth it. I have an archive of those memories and they will be there in perpetuity," he said. 

Jesse in hospital

After presenting a paper, Jesse Thistle ended up in hospital for emergency surgery. (Supplied)

Thistle began to notice some negative consequences on his own health as he started compiling his work into formal research papers.

As he headed to Winnipeg in 2013 to present a paper on the impacts of Batoche, he slowly realized he was becoming traumatized.

"I started to get physical pains in my lower intestine on my left side," he said.

"I gave the presentation, everybody really liked the paper. It kind of opened a new field of historical research in the field of  Métis studies. But it did take a great toll on me, and I was sidelined for about a week."

Then it happened again, this time after another interview about the research. Thistle's wife rushed him to the hospital, where he underwent emergency intestinal surgery. 

"What I would be afraid of is if it doesn't impact you, what does that say about you?" - Jesse Thistle

This type of physical response has happened to other academics studying trauma, Thistle said.

"A lot of people, they'll pick themselves. Some people have psychological breaks where they can't function. They abandon their studies."

Thistle said people are afraid to share this side of their research, because the stigma can cause people to view them as unstable and therefore, unemployable.

Recognizing historical trauma

To deal with the trauma, Thistle relies on support from his wife and cat and has developed his own ceremony with a bison skull that hangs in his office.

Bison skull

A bison skull hangs in Jesse Thistle's office. (Supplied)

"It's not in any way a traditional First Nations or Métis ceremony," he stressed. "[But]

to me, it is. I lost my culture and it's my way of connecting with that lost past that I have. I burn sage and do a smudge with the skull, and I pray that I can make sense of what I'm reading and that I can do justice to unravelling that historical narrative."

Thistle said he is driven to continue because the work has given him a purpose. It has explained why his family broke down in the first place and allowed him to forgive his parents and understand his ancestors.

"When I returned this history to my family out west, there's been an almost immediate healing," he said.

Thistle's mom went back to school at 56, one brother is successfully addressing addiction issues, another is thriving.

"Knowing what happened, people can heal from that. When you're undiagnosed, you can't really fight against that. So that keeps me going, the healing that I see from it."