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Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott's personal look at intergenerational trauma

In Haudenosaunee philosophy, there is the principle of seven generations: the awareness that the consequences of your decisions will ripple seven generations into the future, and your current situation is the product of actions taken by the seven generations prior.

Alicia Elliott's book, 'A Mind Spread Out on the Ground,' was published by Doubleday Canada this week

Haudenosaunee author Alicia Elliott poses for a portrait at the offices of Penguin Random House Canada, the publisher of her new book 'A Mind Spread Out on the Ground' in Toronto, Thursday, March 21, 2019. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

In Haudenosaunee philosophy, there is the principle of seven generations: the awareness that the consequences of your decisions will ripple seven generations into the future, and your current situation is the product of actions taken by the seven generations prior.

For Alicia Elliott, a Tuscarora writer of Six Nations of the Grand River who lives in Brantford, Ont., this telescopic perspective — leaping forward, arching back, extending in all directions — allows her to see centuries of intergenerational trauma, filtered through the intimate details of her life.

The result is A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Elliott's debut book published by Doubleday Canada earlier this week. The title is a translation of a Mohawk phrase Elliott uses to describe the mental sprawl of her depression, which she sees as symptomatic of the conscious experience of colonialism.

"It's a very abstract thing for a lot of people, but when you come from a people that has experienced (colonialism), it's lived in your body. It does take up a portion of your mind," Elliott, 31, said in a recent interview. "It makes you feel like you are less, because that's what you're being told by all of these experiences in your life."

In the collection of essays, some of which have previously appeared in magazines and newspapers, Elliott remembers being caught up in the conflict between her white Catholic mother, who cycled in and out of mental-health facilities to treat bipolar disorder, and Haudenosaunee father. While her parents provided plenty of love and support, Elliott describes how their own emotional trauma sometimes spilled out in ways that could be hurtful.

The itch of lice followed Elliott and her siblings as they bounced between motels, homeless shelters and a cramped trailer without running water, she writes. She took pains to conceal signs of squalor at school or when social workers started asking questions.

Elliott continued to lead a "double life" through university as a teenage mother, pumping breast milk in her dorm room to the feral soundtrack of trysts in the nearby co-ed bathroom.

She also writes about being sexually assaulted, but decided to omit graphic descriptions of violence, because she doesn't think survivors should feel obligated to relive their traumas for public consumption.

Elliott interlaces these personal vignettes with research-backed analysis, toggling between the micro and macro.

Elliott won the 2018 RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award

She draws an analogy between the difficulties of detecting dark matter and the insidious influence of racism, and explores how the elevated risk of obesity among Indigenous people today may be genetically traced to malnutrition in residential schools.

She also makes the case that members of Canada's literary establishment continue to scrutinize Indigenous writers' claims to identity through a similar framework to the Indian Act — even in the lead up to the book's release, Elliott said she fielded a pointed question about her "blood quantum."

But there are signs the tides are shifting, she said, as a burgeoning cohort of Indigenous writers — including mentor Tanya Talaga, who named Elliott the 2018 winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award — disrupt the literary conversation both in print and online.

Elliott, who has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, credits the social media platform with helping her hone her voice by exposing her to new perspectives, and allowing her to feel connected to the Indigenous community even when she couldn't be at Six Nations.

"It's helped having more voices out there, because the reality is, there is no one Indigenous voice," Elliott said. "The public is moving a lot faster than the government in terms of wanting to have that knowledge, and wanting to move forward with it in ways that are really positive."

Thinking about how A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, will be inherited by the next seven generations, Elliott hopes that in seeing how the forces of racism, poverty, abuse and mental illness have shaped her trajectory, readers will consider their own place within these systems of oppression — whom they profit, and at whose expense.

Elliott said she wanted to make space for these conversations getting to the core of Canada's national identity, carrying Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers alike through this difficult terrain, towards a common cause.

"There's this whole idea in Haudenosaunee culture that the land isn't ours, the Earth isn't ours. It belongs to our children and our grandchildren. We're just borrowing it," Elliott said. "Hopefully, we can start making better choices for the coming faces, for people who are going to be here."

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