When remembering isn't enough, this Indigenous author calls on us to 'unforget'
"Unforgetting is the excavating of that truth and bringing it to the surface."
Originally published on November 10, 2022.
When faced with painful stories from the past, it can be easier and more convenient to turn away than to turn toward the whole truth.
But author Patty Krawec says in order to heal and move forward, we'll first need to revisit and acknowledge what came before. Krawec's book, Becoming Kin: An Indigenous Call to Unforgetting the Past and Reimagining Our Future, pulls on threads from the past and the present to stitch together a way forward.
"We tend to think of now as this isolated time," Krawec, an Anishinaabe and Ukrainian writer from Lac Seul First Nation, told Tapestry.
"Following those threads back to 'how are all of these things connected?' But also the strength and resilience, and the truths of our stories that we can pull forward and help us to live now."
Here is part of that conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes.
You've studied creation stories from a lot of different cultures, how do those stories shape the way a society evolves? Why do they matter so much?
Creation stories tell us how we understand our existence in the world and our relationship to the world, the world that we find ourselves in. How do we relate with each other? How do we relate with creation itself? How do we relate with the intangible, with the idea that there are things that we just don't know? And all of those things are contained within our creation stories.
There's a notice stapled to a hydro pole in a downtown Toronto neighborhood, and it says, 'I lost my land and all I got was this lousy land acknowledgement.' When you're at an event, and you hear someone begin to recite that land acknowledgement, where does your mind go?
They're supposed to be a beginning, right? They're supposed to be an acknowledgement of relationship and presence. I heard one recently that talked about how all the wealth of our community is from the friendship of the Indigenous peoples and I listened to that, and thought, 'No it's not. That wasn't friendship, that was theft.'
So often they come down to: 'We stole your TV, and thanks. But if you want, you can come over and watch Netflix.' When really, they should be the beginning of thinking it through, what does it mean to be a business, to be a school, to be journalists, to be a church, to be any of these things on stolen land? What does that mean? How does that shape my relationship with the people who are displaced so that I could be here, so that I could do these things?
I helped a theater, a production company, at the Fringe Festival in Ottawa one year. And they wanted some help with a land acknowledgement. And so I asked them about their relationship with Indigenous community in Ottawa. And she said, 'I don't have one.' And so I told her, 'Well, let that be your acknowledgement then. That you have no relationship. That you understand who the people are. And then what you are going to do to rectify that.' And so that's what she did.
Rather than these rote things businesses and schools come up with, a kind of official land acknowledgement, it's far more powerful to hear somebody say, 'I know that we exist on this place, and that these are the treaties. But I don't have a relationship. And this is what I'm going to do about it.' I think it has potential and possibility. But too often, it's the end of the story. And then we just turn on to the other things that we're going to do as if Indigenous people didn't matter.
There's such an intriguing idea at the heart of your book, Becoming Kin, that we find our way forward by going back. Tell me what you mean. What do we find, when we go back?
We find the way things are connected. We tend to think of whatever is happening right now, as happening right now. And we don't see how it is connected to things that happened in the 50s, to things that happened in the 19th century, to things that happen further back. And we don't see the trauma, but we also don't see the strength.
We tend to think of now as this isolated time. And so we look back, not only to the harms — which admittedly dominates the first part of the book. Following those threads back to 'How are all of these things connected?' but also the strength and resilience, and the truths of our stories that we can pull forward and help us to live now. But in a way that's connected to these other things, and doesn't see the residential schools as an isolated thing. No, they're connected to child welfare. And together, those things are connected to other removals. These things are all connected.
I think a lot of people right now have a real aversion to going back or even looking back. It just seems that so much of the human attention span seems fixated on the future. How do you sell people on the idea that looking back is absolutely necessary?
I think people don't want to look back because they don't want to feel bad. They don't want to feel bad about those things that happened. They don't want to feel bad about what their family might be connected to, the relationships that they might have inherited — as settlers, as newcomers. They don't want to think about that. For Black and Indigenous people, maybe we don't want to think about it because it evokes all kinds of trauma for us. So there's all kinds of reasons for forgetting. That's part of the title of the book is the importance of unforgetting, because if we don't unforget, we're not uncovering the truth. The truth of ourselves for good and bad. And the bad can be transformed.
I tell a story at the beginning of the book from Aurora Levins Morales, where she's talking about her ancestors who had been slave owners. And she said, 'You can't say that they were good slave owners, there's no such thing. But if the descendant of slave owners can become an abolitionist, can become an advocate for social justice, how hopeful and transformative is that?'
I carry two threads — my maternal family were refugees from Germany and the Ukraine, and my paternal family is Ojibwe, Anishinaabe from Northwestern Ontario. In these relationships that we have inherited, how do we transform the things that are hurtful, that were painful, so that we can do better? So that we can repair these relationships? And a big part of the problem is if we don't acknowledge these things, for those of us who have experienced trauma, how do we grieve? How do we grieve these losses that nobody is willing to remember or acknowledge? And so then we carry this unresolved grief because if we talk about it, we get told that it wasn't that bad or it didn't really happen.
I'm interested in how careful you are with the language here because you don't frame this as remembering, you're suggesting a kind of unforgetting and I'm curious about the difference. What makes unforgetting something distinct from remembering?
Remembering is fun and builds community. Unforgetting suggests a process of deliberate forgetting, of burying.
There's a deliberateness in the way that stories are hidden or told in a certain way. Unforgetting is the excavating of that truth and bringing it to the surface. Because there's also a lot of good things in that history as well that also get forgotten in this flattening into this national narrative that we have.
I want to ask you about a time when you thought back, looked back, when you physically went back. I'm thinking of your return to Sioux Lookout, Ontario. Would you do a reading for us from Becoming Kin?
So this passage is about the first time I went home to Sioux Lookout with my father.
"I reconnected with my father when I was in my late twenties, and shortly after that, he took me home to Sioux Lookout. It was the first time I had been home since leaving as a toddler, and I did not know what to expect.
"There were people who remembered me, people who remembered stories about me, and in the intervening years, they had periodically wondered what had happened to me. This was not a surprise. I had also leafed through the photo album and wondered what had happened to them. But what was a surprise was the undeniable sensation that the land and water remembered me too."
Tell me about that moment, that powerful sensation that you were being greeted and remembered by the land and the water.
I spent a lot of time going down to the water and looking across and it felt familiar probably because as a toddler things imprint on you. And I remember still kind of leaning down and putting my hands in the water and it was like a physical reaction that I hadn't anticipated. And I don't know, a psychologist could probably give you all kinds of other reasons for that. But for me, I felt remembered, like I wasn't the only one who was remembering. And I felt profoundly connected to that place in a way that I had not felt connected to anyplace else.
And I think about that a lot, because I think about the way the waters from Sioux Lookout go down to Lake Superior, and then through the Great Lakes and pass by where I am now. And then the water cycles back in the form of rain. And it makes me think of this great conversation that's going on between the land and the water about us. And these beings, this whole unseen world that we don't understand. And if I can remember, and if it can remember me, then acting as if it's not a being in its own right, that's got consequences.
Q&A edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Mary Hynes and McKenna Hadley-Burke. Written by McKenna Hadley-Burke.