An NDN Boyhood

By

First Person

Billy-Ray Belcourt. Photo: Tenille Campbell.

My twin brother, Jesse, and I were born marked by a history of colonization and a public discourse of race we can’t peel from our skin. We were made to take on a mode of embodiment that erodes from the inside out with vicious precision. At the same time, we came into being because love is mathematical: when two people desire each other, they multiply, in various shapes and forms. In our very corporeality we are thus a container for the terror of the past and the beauty that it can’t in the end negate. In this way we, like NDN boys everywhere, are subliminal.

The first year of Jesse’s and my life was a hotbed of decisions, desires, and disavowals that would hover above our shared emotional worlds deep into adolescence. This isn’t my story to tell in painful and careful detail, so the picture I paint now is one that’s rehashed from a handful of sources, including something like intuition.

Here goes. My mom and dad loved while coated in the ash of history. Twentysomethings entranced by the ecstasy of optimism, they made a family out of nothing but the human need to be a part of something less resonant with toxicity than solitude. They didn’t know how to ask the question Sheila Heti poses in Motherhood: “Who is it for me to bring all this unfolding into being?” Perhaps the philosophical basis for their children’s lives was that they no longer wanted to exhale smoke.

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If we subscribe to the idea that we inherit bits and pieces of the psychosocial habits of our family, then my parents’ approach to life-making might also be descriptive of mine today, in their aftermath. Perhaps this pressurized orientation to memory—one by which we understand the past as a trace that pulsates in a body in the present—is always the case with life-writing. The writer is called on by others to do the politically significant and ethically charged work of construction and then documentation. This is my job: to report from the scene of an undead past colliding with a still-to-be-determined future.

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By the age of twenty-three, my mom had four children, two girls and two boys, between the ages of three months and five years. My dad says Jesse (his legal name is Jesse-Lee) and I were named so as to usher us into the world of rodeo. I’ve seen the pictures of toddler-me dressed up as a cowboy, my dad positioned in the corner of the frame, smiling, perhaps bathing in the scene of self-recognition before him. Names are worldly, and it was with that knowledge, that emotional and maternal knowledge, that my mom gave us her last name, passed on to her from her dad. I imagine this was a rare practice in the nineties in northern Alberta, which was unshakably conservative. I like to think my mom did this to foreground our enmeshment, how irrevocably hers we are, how even outside of the womb we populate the affective house of her, then and now.

The story goes, my mom and dad fell out of love, hard, with an always-accelerating speed, shortly after our birth. A forest fire can’t be a refuge. My mom wanted to live in a land without a dangerous weather—in this way, we’re profoundly alike. According to my dad, he went about the drama of raising twins on the reserve, enlisting the aid of a similarly inexperienced nephew. Six months slowly inched by as his sense of maternality disintegrated. On our first birthday, having lived twelve months in an ecology of complicated love, of sociological forces that elided our awareness, we went under the care of my mom’s mom, nôhkom. It’s impossible to deny that this reorganization indelibly ordered Jesse’s and my future, those collectively and individually lost and those newly birthed. Language is inadequate here to bring into focus the communal effort, involving an extended family unit that included my parents and their parents, that went into raising two NDN boys not in a way that would ignore the coloniality of the world but so as to engender life that might breach its grip. This is the old art of parenting in order to keep NDN kids safe from what lingers of a governmentally sanctioned death wish against them.

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NDN boys are ideas before they are bodied. Our lives are muffled by a flurry of accusations that outrun us. Ideas of this vexed sort leave a burned path in their wake. Feet like ours are singed with a history that isn’t done with us. There is a point—call it a turning point—at which NDN boys can become angry men of at least two types (I’m not suggesting that this is fatalistic; the norms of gender and race fail to regulate us completely, to paraphrase Judith Butler): one that is imprisoning and riotous at once, a mode of being that sucks the air out of the room, and another that is quieter but equally denigrating, a slow injunction on happiness and possibility. Both beget a sense of immobility—these are ways of life at the heart of colonialism that cut along gendered lines. There is a host of violent acts done as a symptom of these performances of racialized masculinity. This is a well-documented facet of NDN life: the trauma of colonialism erupts in the minds and bodies of men, who then bombard the lives of women and girls, two-spirit peoples, and queers. Today, we are beholden to the work of feminist mothering and fathering to repair what has been done and to bring about boys and men who answer the call of democratizing the labor of care.

What is it to live, to suffer, and, above all, to love in an emotionally inflexible world fashioned to produce men who eat “too much of the sunset”? We are haunted by that turning point, brought back to it again and again. But it doesn’t once and for all consign us to a ravaged life. There is more to be said; there is another mode of life to inhabit.

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In my first memory of nôhkom, she and I are on the couch in our home in the hamlet of Joussard, only a few kilometers from the place of our political and social belonging, Driftpile. What I remember most is a feeling of childish liveliness, which orbits nôhkom, and her enduring attentiveness to the ebb and flow of my behavior.

I’ve found myself unable to properly go about the task of articulating the infinitude of nôhkom’s care. How does one thank another for manufacturing a world to experiment with the precarity of aliveness? I might spend the rest of my life inching closer to that place of articulation, to a place where her act of giving in to the demands of care are made visible, celebrated. How could I strive for anything but this unfinishable avowal? How does one remain unwaveringly answerable to this call from nowhere and everywhere? On the other hand, how do I resist enfleshing a writer-me that is obsessed with bringing into view this unrepayable debt while the world-me idles by? Too much can go missing in this space of translation. Maybe the onus isn’t to sputter out in the ruts of the abstract, of the textual, but to live in a manner that cites those dear to the heart. Butler claimed that language and styles of behavior are citational, that they echo from a history of use. Joy, then, is a politics of citation.

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Like most twins, Jesse and I were inseparable. We were Pokémon trainers and baseball players, boreal forest foragers and amateur engineers. At times, however, I strain to call up shared memories; I suspect this is because our senses of selfhood were intertwined, that we were bound up in a “you” and an “us” and a “we” that hardened into a singular entity over time, having begun in utero. What I do know is that many, relatives and otherwise, made us out to be opposites, good and bad, feminine and masculine, academic and unruly. Perhaps they were simply pointing out the parts of us that bifurcated, in opposition to our drive to enact a sameness that upset liberal norms of individuation. Maybe it’s a mere psychosocial fact that the lives of twins are labyrinthine, like any other social form. There’s a photograph of us from a Halloween in the late nineties; I’m dressed as Tinky Winky, the purple Teletubby, and Jesse is dressed as the blue Power Ranger. This artifact is regularly invoked as evidence of our disparate identities (and my nascent queerness). Nevertheless, Jesse and I were collaborators and accomplices, best friends and sometimes rivals. Which is to say that we too were key architects of the world of care that brought and is still bringing us into being, against the odds, in opposition to the insufficiencies of gender that colonialism yields.

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“maybe i am here in the way that a memory is here? now, ain’t that fucking sad and beautiful?”

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It is likely impossible to trace when, where, and under what conditions those who arrived with enmity on the shores of what is now improperly called Canada inaugurated a modality of gender that produced men who self-destruct. Surely a historian more disciplined than I has tried, but my suspicion is that one would end up again and again with an incomplete bag of events, theoretical inclinations, and emotional responses. That this blow to subjectivity doesn’t invite curiosity from those outside our communities doesn’t, however, lessen its cruelty and longevity. We might look to the testimonial record that burgeoned from the atrocities of the twentieth century bathed in the language of state care and fiduciary obligation. Here, for example, is the public testimony of a woman who was made to attend a residential school on Vancouver Island:

I remember entering through the front doors, and the sound of those doors closing still haunts me when I go to places that look like … that building … when the door closes … The fear and the hurt … there’s nothing you can do once you’re … once you’re there.

Though not explicitly vocalized, we might hear in this harrowing account of the reverberations of the trauma of state education a nodal point in the history of colonization that has to do with the brutalization of NDNs at every conceivable level. This is to say that throughout the long twentieth century, Canada incubated death worlds where meaning was made to injure via the categories we have come to inhabit with ease. Part of what is ghoulish about the fungibility of those doors, those facades that lived on in horror-filled memories, is that they bear too the experience of gender as it was traumatically unmade and remade in the bodies of NDN children.

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It’s sometime in the early aughts, and the wretchedness of history is still revealing itself, testimonial by testimonial, angered and shaken voice by angered and shaken voice, until there’s a pileup of words and tears that Canada can’t obliterate from its cultural memory. I can’t identify the source of my curiosity, but I ask nimôsom if he’d been made to attend the Indian Residential School at Joussard. Yes, but I don’t want to talk about it, he says without looking up from his plate.

This “yes, but I don’t want to talk about it” floats above our family like an open secret. I watch nimôsom struggle against emotion, against gender, but never waver in his drive to break from the spell of that haunted door, that omnipresent and cursed doorway, in order to provide for our family. Everywhere NDN men are in a struggle against gender.

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There are cavernous gaps in my memory in which people I love with fortitude today, those without whom being in the world would be a taxing affair, don’t exist, as though my brain has been surgically hampered. Rather than let those gaps swallow me up, I plant flowers of all sorts there. Daisies and prairie crocuses. Northern Alberta flowers that grow in the wild, ones that hold a firm place in my childhood psyche where bodies should be. There is no use marinating on the thorny question of how and for what reasons there is nothingness where there should be a haze of good feeling. A thick opacity is missing. Again, it isn’t mine to estimate who or what was the thief in the prairie, subarctic night. Perhaps I write now, in the mode of autobiography, to stimulate the conditions that might call up that opacity, the fragile and engrossing density of memory. In this way, I’m an archaeologist of the disappeared.

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Nôhkom worked full time as a receptionist at the health center on the reserve, so when nimôsom, a mechanic, had an uncompromising string of repairs to attend to at his garage, Jesse and I would stay at my dad’s house, also on the reserve. In and out of his house flowed a host of relatives and family friends, all irrevocably thrown into the orbit of softness and openness that was my dad. To this day, his house is something of a brown commons, an ideational and affective infrastructure that, to use José Esteban Muñoz’s language, “holds and shelters brown life within its walls,” one that dissipates the governing power of the male property-bearer and proliferates space for other forms of life, other ways of togetherness. For the untutored eye, for the normatively socialized onlooker, my dad’s house, his houses, might be best aestheticized as a disorderedness, one without law or social norm. It is, however, this antiauthoritarian rhythm that irradiates a more politically radical geography of care. In retrospect, this is likely why Jesse and I rarely wanted to leave when nôhkom came to retrieve us after work. This is what I want my home to make possible, the shelter for brown life I want to prop up, wherever I end up. This, then, is part of a feminist project that Maggie Nelson describes as a socialization or democratization of the maternal function, which is to ask: How are we to architect places through which NDN life flows, through which it isn’t slowed down or disappeared but embraced and therefore multiplied?

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I never felt the pressure to actualize my parents’ dreams. Not one. Or, if any, it was the dream of making a life unhampered by the strictures of indecision and ignorance, which is probably something we all want for ourselves anyway. One time my dad said I was living the life that he could’ve had, had he refused to let anyone be the bearer of his optimism. I wonder what it is about my life now that he wishes for his past self, the self-that-could-have-been. Like most parents, he inspects me through the rosy filter of unconditional love, but he doesn’t have enough material to develop a complex idea of the intricacies of Billy-Ray Belcourt the adult, who is different from Billy-Ray Belcourt the child. I don’t mourn this lack of expectation, this absence of narcissism, which is the narcissism of wanting to see oneself in one’s child, to have them bloom into another you. On the contrary, without a mirror held in front of me at all times, I felt without skepticism the platitude that anything was possible.

Maybe I spoke too soon. I remember the worrisome responses from a number of relatives upon the declaration of my queerness. Despite establishing in clear yet sparse wording that their happiness was contingent on my happiness, there was also a fog of grief. This was the grief of childlessness. In my vocalization of a non-normative sexual identity, they heard too a disavowal of futurity, that I had relocated permanently to a land emptied of fathers, one inhospitable to the customs of fatherhood. Perhaps in those seconds and minutes I became less like them, less theirs, less bound up in the ticking time bomb of social reproduction, so less beholden to the continuation of a name, a history. In the quiet variations of tone and tempo I heard the world rearrange in their minds. I watched their language ache and falter as I myself ached and faltered.

Regardless, I forgive them just as I forgive naive versions of myself. I choose instead to appreciate the vastness with which they think of my future self, however tied it is to a fiction over which I don’t hold sovereignty. I can’t blame my kin for forgetting that the form for my life’s emotional content isn’t, as one might expect, a family but an entire world, a wilderness ruled by unknowing inside which I’m a future relic. What binds us is the knowledge that it can be devastating to discover that a loved one has forfeited everything to that which you’ll never fully see for yourself. To love someone is firstly to confess: I’m prepared to be devastated by you.

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The noise of everyday life rings inside my head. This essay sits at the center of the multisensory labyrinth that is memory recall. When not distracted by other business, I, like a janitor, scan the darkened building of me for detritus and misplaced things, something to put me to work again. When nothing jolts me out of a stupor, I stare up at the ceiling, hoping something will drop onto my face, something with which to make a mess worth looking at, worth showing to others.

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I didn’t ever think I would write about this, but here we are. The conundrum is that the data that is the past isn’t a block of clay we can, like an artist, press our hands into. Some of us might seek to be one step ahead of memory, to whittle the loose ends of our personal histories down to a single knowable object (a block of clay or a diary or a memoir), to expose a kind of hidden or suppressed truth, to give it a form, to contain it, to master it. It is difficult to discern when I’m doing this and when I’m not.

In my case, the memory is one I’ve let slip from my mouth only two times. Even now I won’t divulge all the details. The first person with whom I had sex was a dear friend. He and I spoke few words and no complete sentences. In the absence of language, we activated the textuality of gesture and emotion, of sense and sensation. This repeated in the thick of one hot summer. It matters what I call this now, so I hesitate to call it anything. Perhaps if it were a performance art piece I could call it My Subjectivity or Becoming a Subject in the Shadow of Language rather than having to make do with the tropes of the coming-of-age story. That this encounter has seldom lived in the world of speech, hasn’t grown a skin of its own, perplexes me still. Memory, it seems, isn’t always material out of which to make art. Sometimes remembering refuses us. Sometimes I’m a shoreline the water of memory drags its palm across.

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It’s August 2012. I give the valedictory address in a church behind the high school. In it, I spend a great deal of time thanking family and friends for their contributions to my upbringing, to my becoming-human. During the softly named “rose ceremony,” I cry as I hug a number of my relatives. As the graduates empty out of the room, I hug my dad, who is sitting with his partner and their kids near the altar. I realize everyone is taking in the spectacle of two NDN men in a familial embrace, both of us overcome with emotion. In those piercing seconds, we were possibility more than anything else, a mode in which NDN men rarely exist. In hugging me, my dad teaches me how to hold. In hugging me, my dad teaches me how to be held.

At night, I turn down the lights with this image. It gives me a nocturnal language—something with which to go about the unglamorous work of survival.

Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation. He is Canada’s first First Nations Rhodes scholar. He is the author of the poetry collections NDN Coping Mechanisms and This Wound Is a World, which was awarded the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, the 2018 Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, and a 2018 Indigenous Voices Award. A History of My Brief Body marks his nonfiction debut.

From A History of My Brief Body, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. Copyright © 2020 by Billy-Ray Belcourt. Reprinted with the permission of Two Dollar Radio.

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