I had to write a story. For my class. I’m in a First Nations class, and we write themed narratives. This one had to relate to honouring an Indigenous woman who writes narratives. We had to create a life narrative that depicted how we’ve changed and how others may be changed from her stories. I chose a Haida woman, Florence Edenshaw Davidson, daughter of well renowned artist, Charles Edenshaw. Her stories about becoming a woman and marriage were very inspiring and I learned a lot about the customs of the times. She was living in a time of change, where Haida traditions were beginning to mix with European customs. I thought I’d share my story on the blog, just for fun! One last thing – it’s partially a women studies class too, hence why we were honouring Indigenous women.
I hastily crawled under my striped duvet, on top of my single mattress. The chilled air in my bedroom forced my withdrawal under the blankets. I am 16 year old, and earlier that night, I had talked to my mother about a boy. His name was Alan, and I liked him. He used to watch me as I wandered aimlessly in the hallways, waiting for classes to begin. I knew, because I saw. He wasn’t good at being sneaky. Alan took a long time to ask me on a date. Before the snow fell we had started liking each other. After it settled, he finally asked me. I was walking home that day and he followed. He told me he would be leaving in 5 months for university after graduation. He was afraid to start, but we agreed we should try.
“Mom,” I said quietly, “Mom, I have to tell you something.” I poked my head into the blackness of her bedroom. She was nestled under the blankets, and moved when I spoke.
“What is it, honey?” She asked, rubbing her eyes as she woke.
“There’s a boy, Mom. Alan. He-he asked me out today. Is that okay?” I stammered on my words. I was 16 now. Mother said I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16. I had only recently become a woman. I was a late bloomer, and everyone could tell. I sat beside her in her bed. She sat up straight against the headboard and turned on the light on the table beside her.
“Do you like this boy?” She looked at me, concerned.
“Definitely.” I replied. I was so nervous, I could feel myself shaking.
“Then okay. You’re old enough. Just please don’t get pregnant.” I chuckled. My Mother had a child when she was 16, my eldest brother Jamie. I wasn’t going to do that. Why would I ever want to get pregnant at 16?
We spoke further about Alan, and I explained how we were going on a date on Friday night. My Mother still seemed concerned, but she trusted me, and gave me her approval. I asked her to tell my Father for me. I felt weird talking about boys with my Father.
I was filled with excitement and nervousness as I crawled back into my own bed. My cat was lying at the end of my bed, next to my feet. His purring calmed me, and eventually my eyes shut.
While my eyes were closed, my mind began to dream. Immediately I was placed in a village. This was a village I had seen in my Haida classes in elementary school. I saw intricately designed totem poles erected in front of many longhouses. Canoes lay in the grass. I saw fish hanging to dry, children dressed in hides, and women around fires heating up rocks. I could faintly hear women singing, in an unfamiliar language. I followed the singing into a long house.
I hunched over to enter the door carved out of the totem pole. Inside I saw girls, lying. What is happening in here? There were three girls inside, lying in different areas, as other older women catered to their needs. The other women were singing songs as they did their work. One girl in particular, about the age of thirteen, I noticed first. She was in the corner, lying, and nothing more.
I walked over to her. Nobody in the longhouse noticed me. Am I invisible? I waved my hands in front of the girl laying, but her eyes were closed. She had very soft features, shoulder-length dark brown hair, and her lips closed gently. I whispered in her ear. “Hey you, what are you doing?” I asked. Her eyelids bolted open and she turned her head to stare at me. When she noticed none of the other women could see me, she seemed puzzled. “Who are you?!” she whispered loudly. The women looked over at her, so she looked away. When the others went back to singing, she slowly turned her head towards me again, eyes wide.
“My name is Alissa. I don’t know where I am. What are you doing?” She looked at me as if my skin were foreign – which was right. Her eyes scanned me entirely before she replied.
“My name is Florence. Florence Edenshaw. This is my home, and I’m on tagwena (menstruation).” I was still confused. I asked her to clarify. Her English wasn’t the best, but she managed to tell me about her bleeding. She resisted at first, almost as if she were ashamed.
“Oh! You mean your period! I just got mine today too. I got it a few months ago. This is my third time. I’m 16. Much older than you. Why must you lay down?” I was excited to talk about it with her, as I hadn’t told many girl friends about it yet. She remained quiet and still. So I asked her again why she had to lay.
“You don’t know anything about the blood and you bleed so much.”(Blackman, 1982: 91). Her eyes closed. “You have to lie down, and you must not drink water, for it is bad luck. You cannot look at the sea, or your face will twitch. You cannot eat shellfish, or much of anything, really.” She shifted her weight. “You have to have respect for yourself, my mother told me.” (Blackman, 1982:91).
“Well, that’s just silly!” I replied, throwing my hands in the air. “I wear a tampon. It’s a cotton ball inside of me. I can walk, run, and even swim when I wear it!” I was shocked by the traditions she was forced to partake in. How can you just lay here all day? She spoke of how she must lay there for two weeks. I laughed, thinking it was all a joke. Clearly, it wasn’t, as indicated by her facial expression.
I told her I would come back. I stood up to leave the longhouse, to go find a something to eat. The village had to have something for me to eat. But as I left the longhouse, things began to change. I looked around me and noticed white buildings now, with smaller totem poles erected in front. What is going on? Where am I? It looked very different. The people outside were dressed differently than before. The fish was now drying on the front porches, and I couldn’t hear singing. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see Florence standing before me, wearing a long skirt, her hair still shoulder length. She looked to be a little bit older. But instead of lying, she was standing.
“Hello!” I exclaimed, “I was wondering where you may have gotten to!”
“I haven’t seen your white face around here in some time, Alissa. Where have you been?”
“What do you mean? I left the longhouse and this is where I am now!” I lifted my arms to show off the surroundings. Florence looked at me with another puzzled look. “You folks sure can be crazy,” she muttered.
We walked towards a small house together. She opened the door, peered inside to make sure the coast was clear, and then invited me in. She lived in a house now, with an intricate layout, unlike the longhouse from before. She showed me her living room, the kitchen, the bedrooms. It was quite a nice house. It was very similar to mine, but with more bedrooms. She must have a lot of people living with her.
“You’re never going to get a husband like that.” (Blackman, 1982:93) She told me. I asked for further clarification. “Your shoes are untied and under those nails, they’re dirty.” I shoved my hands in my pockets. Sure, they were dirty, but not that bad. “My Mother always told me that when you make bread, you wash the dough off,” she said. Florence also told me about the man down the road who didn’t marry a woman because she always forgot to tie her shoes. I sat at her kitchen table, listening to her stories in awe. She lives such a peculiar life than I.
“Don’t drink too much water and eat too much shellfish; you become poor.” (Blackman, 1982: 93). Her Father told her this. I asked her why she wore such a long skirt now than when I had last seen her. “I am a married woman now,” was her response. My mouth dropped suddenly. Oh man, this can’t be real.
“My wedding was awful,” she exclaimed, “I didn’t want to get married. I had non-traditional foods, a wedding cake, and people would waltz and sing a variety of songs.” She stared out the window as she spoke, looking down the unpaved street. “The people were married in the Indian way before the missionaries came.” (Blackman, 1982: 72). I wonder how that was.
She was baking cakes and bread – lots of bread. She had a button blanket on her wall depicting a traditional crest. I saw woven baskets.
“How can you be married? I am 16 and my parents just let me have a boyfriend!” I was so confused, and began to get homesick. Where am I? Florence seemed even more confused than I.
“I didn’t let my husband touch me for a long time. He told someone I didn’t want babies because he’s not handsome. Finally I gave in.” (Blackman, 1982: 101). I was so foreign to these concepts. I had never kissed a boy. Alan had not yet kissed me.
“Alissa, I don’t know where you come from. But ever since your white men came here, things have been changing. We follow what you do. Haven’t you noticed I speak English much better? I even taught my third child mostly English. I hope to have many more children, and I will continue to teach them English.” She had stopped smiling at me and waited for a response. In that moment, I just couldn’t imagine a life where I was to lay during my menstruation each month, where I must not drink water and eat shellfish or I will have bad luck. Where I have birthed children before the age of 20. Where I stop speaking my language to my children because of someone else’s preferences.
She sauntered over to the door. “I’m sorry Alissa, but Robert will be back any moment. You must leave before then. I have to get dinner ready, clean, and get the children’s Sunday clothes ready.” I stood up and took one last glance around her home. I looked at Florence, a girl younger than I, with so much more wisdom and life experience. I gave her a hug.
“Thank you Florence, thank you. You don’t even know how much you have helped me. I wish you and Robert all the best. Keep sewing and making button blankets. Keep weaving and doing things with your hands. One day, you won’t have to lay. Us white people, we don’t lay. I don’t have to marry yet. I am 16 and I don’t have to marry. I got to school and will continue to do so. Should I ever see you again, I hope you will be able to see how I live. It is much different, Florence. I don’t have culture or traditions. I find all of your traditions silly, but you find the lack of traditions I have silly too. I have a boyfriend now, not a husband. You’ve grown up so fast, Florence. I admire you.”
I stared at the beautiful, brown skinned, young girl. Florence’s hair descended to the tops of her shoulders. She was similar in height to me, but I was short for my age. I stepped outside.
I woke up slowly. I wanted to keep dreaming, but eventually I got up. I slid out from under my covers and headed to the washroom to have a quick shower. I looked at my white skin and brown hair as I washed myself. My small chest and hips reminded me of my youth. I remembered my dream, and Florence. How she had to lay. How she had to grow up so fast. How she had to face so many changes. I am so thankful for my life. I had choices, she didn’t. She hated her wedding. She hated having to lay. She loved to do things with her hands.
I dried off my body and got ready for school. After I had put up my hair and gathered my books, I went to school. As I walked into my first class, I noticed Alan on the opposite side of the room. Still nervous, I sat behind him without talking. He turned to me and smiled. In that moment I imagined myself married to him, baking bread, birthing many children. I just couldn’t imagine.
“We are still good for Friday night?” he asked. I nodded, still silent. I knew from this moment on that I was becoming a woman. I might not be like Florence, sitting in a kitchen. But now I was entering the years of change, relationships, family, and more. Life started now.