I’ve been thinking lately of the things we have no words for. As a writer and academic, this is a scary thought to linger on. But as a Kwakwaka’wakw person, it makes sense that the English language was not designed to capture and describe my reality. Although the arts provide powerful tools that allow us to open ourselves up to emotional experiences, I am not an artist. And so I continue to wrestle with words that were never intended to describe the landscape of my ancestors’ lives.
Over the years of working on violence, I frequently find myself getting frustrated as I write, talk, read and listen. How many times, in how many ways, can I talk about the prevalence of sexual abuse? How can I bend the English language to capture the enormity of loss and grief that extends across Turtle Island, as we mourn our lost loved ones? Recently, I found myself giving up on writing a particular article. Enough. Who cares if I write these words on this computer screen and submit it to this journal? What difference will it make anyway? Words become meaningless if they don’t move people enough to make embodied, emotional and material change. That’s the only way the normalization of colonial violence will shift. We need to be moved deeply, pushing back against the newsflash sensationalism that ordinarily numbs our reactions to everyday colonialism. Weak emotive reflexes have become a way of life. But as I shut off my computer and go for a walk, I remind myself that there is a cost to giving up. It means colonialism has won, once again, in silencing efforts to change colonial norms. Resistance and survival go hand in hand. And so I must return and struggle once again with putting words to something unimaginable.
As I write, I’ve been reflecting on moments of transformative change in my own life, trying to find words to describe them. How can embodied learning be shared with one another when it necessarily falls beyond the English language? In a society increasingly concerned with hashtags, tweets and sound bites, how do we move one another?
And how do we connect meaningfully with people who aren’t able to be at events or who can’t come together with others who share their interests? I’m thinking here of youth who are living in isolated communities, as well as people whose movement is restricted due to limited access to social spaces, social anxiety or illness. Again, how do we move one another across barriers of time and space, so as to motivate changes in one another’s learning?
I recently had the privilege of speaking about the annual women’s memorial march alongside four other coastal Indigenous women. In turn, we each shared personal stories and historical information with the 100+ people in attendance. In the quiet, dimly lit hall, we stood in front of photos projected on the wall above us, and paid testament to realities of loss, trauma and resistance that are at the heart of what it means to be an Indigenous woman today. As each woman spoke, she would often well up with emotion catching in her throat. Searching for words, or the strength to share those words, she would falter. And as this happened, the rest of us standing behind her reached out and laid a hand, or two hands, on her body. Touching an elbow or a shoulder, or wrapping an arm around her back, we stood together, moving silently, sharing our strength. It was remarkable, the feeling of moving together in support of one another. And slowly, I could feel each of us gather our strength, clear out the blockage of words in our throat, and move on with this communal resilience.
It was powerful. A lesson beyond words. Something that still swells in my heart many days later. I know that the next time I’m standing alone at a podium speaking about violence to a room full of strangers, I can call on the strength of these hands on my back. My body will remember.
And now, here in my living room, I search the English language for ways to share this lesson that my body so vividly recalls. For me, this is where real change happens. Beyond words. It can’t be captured in a tweet or a hashtag or this blog post.
In a society that increasingly relies on the branding of social movements in order for them to matter at all, I wonder how we can integrate this kind of embodied personal change. How do we get at what we mean by colonialism, love, violence, healing, mourning, loss, renewal? What does the hashtag #INM have to do with changing norms around colonial violence, beyond making something a speck more popular on twitter? When does a tag, a website or a t-shirt become a substitute for deep personal change? And what happens when a social movement, like the issue of violence in our communities, is not affiliated with such media?
We know the answer far too well. And this should haunt us all. It should linger in our most tender places of knowledge, the ones we have no words for.