Intergenerational Trauma and Blood Memory
By: Sandra Lamouche
Sandra Lamouche is a Nehiyaw Iskwew (Cree Woman) from the Bigstone Cree Nation in Northern Alberta and married into the Piikani Nation in Southern Alberta and mother to two boys with braids. She completed her B.A. in Native American Studies from the University of Lethbridge in 2007. In 2021 she successfully defended her M.A. Thesis at Trent University, titled “Nitona Miyo Pimatisiwin (Seeking a Good Life) Through Indigenous Dance” which examines Indigenous Dance as a Social Determinant of Health and Well Being. Sandra is a multidisciplinary creator and storyteller, she is a Champion Hoop Dancer, award winning Indigenous Educational Leader, two-time TEDx Speaker, artist, and writer. Photo credit: Define Yourself Photography
Dr. Peter H. Bryce’s 1922 report, The Story of a National Crime, explores some of the information and details, or lack thereof, about the health conditions in residential schools at the time of its publication. One thing that particularly stood out to me was the lack of reporting to the Department of Indian Affairs on the causes of deaths in residential schools. Health and wellbeing are holistic, and beyond physical health we have also inherited other types of health and wellbeing concerns that affect all areas of our lives and selves, including the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental aspects of wellbeing.
One experience to this effect happened to me recently. As the protests over Covid-19 health restrictions took place over the past few years, I found myself increasingly anxious in public, feeling unsafe, and even wondering if I would need to flee or hide. After discussions with friends, family, and a counsellor, I started to piece together some of the intergenerational trauma that may have triggered this. One piece was the fact that nimosom (my grandfather) and both of my grandmothers (nohkom) attended residential schools. It was here that public health was needed to prevent the high death rate, up to 75% of students in one school did not survive. Nimosom in particular had to flee west after the Métis Resistance. My mother said that he shared stories about having to travel at night and hide during the day as a young boy. Métis and Cree people were seen as a threat for resisting this Canadian expansion. I started to realize as I worried about ‘fleeing’ due to rising Canadian nationalism against public health restrictions that this could be due to intergenerational experiences of hiding and fleeing from the Canadian government. The connection between Canadian nationalism and pride and the fleeing of Indigenous groups was something my family and nimosom especially had experienced.
In “A Knock on the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools” written by Phil Fontaine and Aimée Craft for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada it is recognized that the legacy of residential schools is still felt today. The book says that this legacy,
…is reflected in the significant disparities in education, income, and health between Aboriginal people and other Canadians – disparities that condemn many Aboriginal people to shorter, poorer, and more troubled lives. The legacy is also reflected in the intense racism and the systemic discrimination Aboriginal regularly experience in this country. (p.129)
What people don’t understand is that racism causes trauma. It is abusive behaviour and serves to create stress, anxiety, and other symptoms in people. I experienced this firsthand following what is called a ‘white backlash’ after the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the discovery of unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School. I faced increased aggression and micro-aggressions at work, online, and in public. I developed generalized anxiety and trauma symptoms. I was able to understand my own reactions to the public health protests, especially living so close to the Coutts border between Alberta and Montana. I could create strategies for how to deal with these emotions, feeling safe in the moment, speaking up about the importance of public health to keep people healthy, being wary of ulterior motives behind protests and knowing what I was able to be in control of. I found a strange comfort in knowing that others who had experienced trauma were also triggered with the constant honking, Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends and family alike.
During one protest outside my son’s school, I was out of town. I called him that evening and asked if he was okay and how he felt about it. He shared that it was scary for him, but he smudged when he got home. It was bittersweet, knowing that he was possibly also feeling the threat of this protest, but also being so thankful that he knew that prayer, ceremony, and smudge would help him.
During a time of heightened anxiety, I started craving the scent of wagimauskigan, the diamond willow fungus. My mother and her father, nimosom, my grandfather, used to burn the fungus for smudge and prayer and I found that it calmed me when I meditated. I started carrying it with me, sometimes in my shirt pocket or in my purse, so that when I felt anxious I could use the smell to calm me down. This practice made me curious about the teachings, meaning, and traditional uses of diamond willow, wagimauskigan. I cam across an article, “Haploporus odorus: A Sacred Fungus in Traditional Native American Culture of the Northern Plains” by Robert A. Blanchette, who writes:
Numerous collections, some dating to the early 1800s, from the Blackfoot, Blood, Cree and other northern plains tribes indicate this fungus was used widely as a component of sacred objects and as a symbol of spiritual power. The exceedingly fragrant anise-like scent of H. odorus sporophores appears to be the reason this fungus was selected and revered. (p.233)
I also learned that Cree women carved the fungus, fashioning beads for necklaces from it for spiritual protection. Sometimes, they even made necklaces for the horses. I found photos of Cree men clad in robes (blankets) with the fungus sewn into the shoulders. Discovering that Cree people had worn it at one time, like I had been doing, I felt like a blood memory had been activated.
I tried to try to carve the fungus into beads with little luck, using burning, sandpaper, etc. I reached out to friends and family and none of them had heard of or seen this practice, the necklaces, or the robes. It seemed among my friends and family to be a forgotten practice and I was able to help people re-discover this knowledge through my own healing and blood memory.
As I continued to read and learn more about the wagimauskigan, I discovered that the fungus grows out of the wounds of trees. This discovery shocked me because this medicine ‘spoke’ to me while I was feeling wounded myself. I was like that broken tree that had grown medicine out of wounds. My learning and experience with wagimauskigan and using it for healing literally came from my own wounds of anxiety and trauma. This does not mean that residential schools, racism, and other things that cause others pain is ever justified.
Blood memory is the belief that we carry the wisdom of our ancestors and our culture in our blood. Today there is research around this idea that we are genetically impacted by the experiences of our parents and grandparents: it is called epigenetics and much of the research is done in terms of intergenerational trauma and how this can be carried in our genetics for up to four generations. Through listening to my own body and blood memory, in this case the sense of smell and the practice of carrying wagimauskigan on me, I was able to rediscover an old practice and ancient knowledge used amongst Cree people. Just as much as we carry intergenerational trauma, we also carry intergenerational wisdom and through listening, mindfulness, curiosity, we can discover for ourselves healing and wisdom that we carry within. I have reached out to several knowledge holders and family members about this practice with no luck—it seems that it is not a well known practice.
Through my own blood memory I was able to discover a way to help myself feel safe and grounded. I was able to see for myself how I carry blood memory within that can guide me in my own healing and wellness. This was only possible because I am my family has used this medicine for generations and we are from a place where the diamond willow fungus is used frequently. Residential schools not only removed children from community, family, and culture but also from the land itself and the practices that were aligned with health and wellbeing. This experience has reminded me that no matter how big of an impact residential schools and colonization has had on me, I can always trust that I carry within my body, heart, and spirit, the wisdom and knowledge of my ancestors.
Blanchette, Robert A. “Haploporus odorus: A Sacred Fungus in Traditional Native American Culture of the Northern Plains” Mycologia, Vol. 89, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1997), pp. 233-240.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “A Knock on the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools,” written by Phil Fontaine and Aimée Craft, 2015.