Medicine: Spirit of the Knife
Reflections of ourselves in those we love.
Physical mirrors remind us that we are present, but the reflections of our strengths and struggles found in the healing of meaningful relationships are much deeper. Teachings found in the stories of people around us, offered by their being; the teachings we offer others from our state of being.
This story was published in my masters thesis and is one of the concluding chapters in my autobiography soon to be released. The autobiography will be complete once I finish edits in relation to my most recent troubling and difficult experiences while studying at TRU Law school.
But until then, I offer this story that represents the best of life. The stories that live inside of me as a result of the healing nature of so many meaningful relationships can be found throughout my blog, but for now my experience at law school is barren so I must always remember the healing that has occurred only made possible through the people in my life. Law school is filled with a different kind of people, a different culture, a professional and ‘upper-class’ culture fraught with an ancient history of abuse, denial and oppression; a culture that needs more change.
When I remember the stories that brought me to where I am today, is where I find my true purpose and strength. For me the law is but a tool, a tool to bring voice to people like myself, friends and family (nehiyaw). I believe we can reshape tools to make them better, but only if we hold others accountable for their actions while also being accountable for our own actions. Thus, I must press on best I can and remember the spirit of my family and friends, and the spirit of knife.
Throughout my university career, which I started at age twenty-six, with a grade seven education, my interest in watching and listening to storytellers led me to the Weaving Words Aboriginal Writing Festival. I attended the event two years in a row. Maintaining an anonymous presence at the festival was the most natural engagement for me. Sitting quietly in the sidelines. Listening to others’ stories, connecting and relating to them, while on my own. Previous to attending the University of Northern British Columbia, where this writing festival takes place annually, I had attended the University of Alberta.
While at the U of A, an invitation from my cousin led me to a reading by First Nations writer Richard Van Camp. While listening to Richard I felt compelled to talk with him, but did not do so. Afterwards my cousin Zach and I went to the bookstore and bought a copy of The Lesser Blessed. I enjoyed the book. Years later at the Weaving Words festival at UNBC Richard Van Camp was one of the annual readers. I found him funny and entertaining. He engaged my spirit in a way I had never known before.
During one of my courses at UNBC, in the First Nations Studies program, we had a guest speaker in class. This was on the first day of the Weaving Words Aboriginal Story Telling Festival. Garry Gottfriedson, a renowned Secwepemc poet, came and read some of his poetry to our class. It was intimate and raw. It was about the streets of East Van. I could smell, see, taste and touch the words and phrases he read out about some corners and alleys in the lower east side. Lower is such a good way to describe that area of Vancouver. It is hard for me to know and remember that as a child I was alone on the streets on the lower east side. It was like I was back on the streets of East Van when I listened to Garry read. It took everything in me to not break down with shattered tears in class. Immediately after Garry was done reading, my feet carried me to retreat in the washroom. Tears streamed down my face. Finally someone in the university spoke my language. I was compelled to talk to Garry, but did not do so. Instead my introverted retreat sewed my lips shut. My fear crippled me. I had no idea what the fear was about. It was apparent that it was simply overwhelmingly a response of fear to Garry’s words. Perhaps the fear of returning there to the streets, or the fear that other children, will endure similar experiences.
The following year both Garry and Richard were reading again at the festival. I was excited. After one of the readings the crowd converged to a local campus coffee shop. As we all stood in line Richard was standing there with several of his peers. He looked at me and smiled. I gave him a responsive forced half smile. He looked down towards my crotch. My first thought was “what the fuck are you staring at?”
Then he looked in my eyes while pointing at my pocket, “Hey, that’s a nice knife you got going on there.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
“Can I take a look at’er?”
I pulled the fold up blade out of my pocket. I handed it to him. “Whoa, look guys!”
He showed the knife to his friends. “It’s a camo knife. ohhh, so cool!,” he said with utter excitement. I could not tell if he was fucking with me or if he was being genuinely nice. “Can I open it?,” he asked.
“Ya man knock yerself out.”
Richard slowly pulled the blade of the knife open, with a huge energetic smile. You could feel his enthusiasm illuminate the room. “Whoa! Man! That’s the coolest thing ever! Look guys! The blade is camo even. Awesome knife man! Are you a hunter? My uncle is a hunter even. Whoa! This is so awesome!”
My heart was pounding. I was building up to an uncontrollable desire to punch him in the face. My heart felt like it was trying to jump out of my chest with every beat in order to reach out and smack him in his lips. He folded the knife up and handed it back to me. “That’s a wicked cool knife man. I want one like that someday. It would make a great gift for my uncle.”
I had never felt so patronized as I did in that moment. It felt like he knew about me. That he identified my knife in public to teach me a lesson. “Why the hell was I packing a knife at school for, anyways. What the hell was I afraid of. Was it necessary? Why the fuck was this son-of-a-bitch bugging me.”
Him and all his friends ordered their drinks and left to the large table nearby. I was so relieved when they walked away. They were all laughing and joking at the table. I felt like they were laughing at me. Everybody knew. They all knew Daniel was crazy. He packs a knife at the university, does he think he is tough or something. I got my tea and left. I split like lightening. I got about thirty paces down the hall. I stopped dead in my tracks. A voice spoke inside my head: “You have to stop packing knives Daniel. You need to look at your fear son.”
I took a deep breath in, and released all my pent up energy in a single exhale. My fight was gone. It felt like I was going to cry. I knew my fear had to be relieved through letting go.
Letting go is not an easy task. Usually it comes with a lot of tears and intrusive self-destructive thoughts. I feared in that moment that someone would try to hurt me if I put my knife away. Besides what’s the point in owning a knife unless you carry it with you. The voice of knife spoke again. “Give it away to Richard. He is the one who just called you on your bullshit. You’re in university and your life is different now. Why the hell are you carrying the streets with you here in these hallways. Let it go. Give it away. That’s the Cree way. Face your fears son.”
I marched over to Richard while he sat at the table, they were all laughing and joking around. I slammed the knife down in front of him. It felt like the sound travelled through all the halls in the university. The entire school went quiet and glared at me. They all had seen me. Everyone knew. I felt busted. “This is for you,” I said.
I spun around immediately, and stepped away one foot in front of the other before Richard could respond.
“Hey! Hey man, thanks, but what is this for?”
I side-stepped and spun around while walking backwards. “It’s for you man. It’s my gift to you. It’s yours now” Then I saluted him and walked away.
“Whoa guys look! This knife is so awesome! Look!”
I could hear his bullshit as I walked away. Reluctantly that night I slipped into another one of Richard’s readings. I had to. The guy pissed me off so bad and got under my skin that there was no choice but to face the demons inside me. The festival ended that night.
A year later, I attended the festival again. Both Richard and Garry were there. The opening event was a number of First Nations poets from all over Canada. Garry was reading that day. I needed to attend this one for sure. Garry’s readings brought me to places I did not want to go. But I knew those places needed to be re-visited again. Being haunted by the streets every day of my life is a curse, intrusive memories and grotesque recalls are continuously summoned. But during Garry’s picturesque poetic description of the real world seemed like a healing time to visit those horrible spaces.
As I walked in and sat down, Garry glanced over at me. Immediately he jumped up from his seat in the auditorium and quickly came over to where I was sitting. He plopped down beside me. “Hey, I want to talk to you. I been trying to get to you for two years in a row now. So after the reading make sure you don’t run off like you usually do immediately after. Ok?”
I smiled, “Ya, you bet. I will stay in my seat till you’re not busy afterwards. Just don’t forget about me waiting”
“I won’t. k. I gotta go talk to those people over there before my reading”
I sat there in tears. Finally someone had seen me. It was a relief. It had been several years since someone seen me, and made the action to approach me. The last time that had happened was with Gary Moostoos and Jerry Goodswimmer, in Edmonton (Gallant, 2012a). I felt validated in my existence from the one simple fact, Garry saw me and had articulated that he wanted to talk to me.
We hung out and chatted for several hours. Then he asked for a ride to his hotel room. As we drove down the university boulevard, a hill that is stretched over four kilometers of a sloping downward grade, our conversation got deeper and deeper. Soon our conversation shifted to our histories of childhood abuse. We were in to some pretty dark details. Then Garry talked about the healing properties of writing. I knew what he was talking about.
We talked about how our writing helped us and why we initially started to write in our lives. We talked about how later in life the red road led us to further healing, and helping others. He was shocked to hear that Cree culture influenced my life. Then he asked, “Do you got any of your writing with you?”
“Ya, of course I do. I write everyday in class. Otherwise I could not sit in class if I did not write poetry. I couldn’t process the social work bullshit without my poetry,” Garry smiled. “OK! Grab your bag. Come up to my room and read me a few pieces. Then I will give you some feedback”
I had my backpack on and ready to go. We went up to his hotel room. My heart pumped fear because I had never read my work out to anyone before. We were in his room. He dimmed the lights. Set me up at the table. He laid on the bed, on his back. His hands were clasped together, his fingers on top of his chest. His eyes were closed and he said, “Read the first one.”
I recited my poem: A Letter to Matthew.
“Ok. Good! Read the next one.”
I read my poems about prostitutes and one of the serial killer’s in BC.
I read my poem about gossip.
“Ok. Good. Now read the first one again”
I recited it one more time. I was feeling anxious to hear his feedback. Intuitively I knew it was going to be good feedback, but my fear and self-talk screamed that he would not like my writing. I had never read my poetry out to anyone before. I had been writing since my first psych ward stay when I was fourteen. Now thirty-six-years-old and reading poems out loud for the first time.
“You have an important voice. Here is what we are going to do. At Christmas time you are going to come stay with me. You will spend the holidays with me for three weeks. We will edit your writing and build you a manuscript”
I was smiling ear to ear. I was found. I was seen. I was heard. My whole life was spent trying to be heard, and now, it was coming. I was going to have a loud voice. We agreed that we would both commit to this offer. “There is one stipulation,” he said. “You have to call me every week until Christmas time. Otherwise I know you will not come”
I smiled. I knew in that moment he saw me. All of me. He understood me.
The writing festival continued the next day. Garry went home. Then on the last day of the festival I attended the last event, alone. Richard Van Camp was going to be reading at the wrap-up for the festival. I was pumped. As soon as the reading was over I rushed off to the washroom. When exiting the restroom Richard said, “Hey! I wanted to talk to you. But you keep vanishing every time I turn around. You’re like a ghost ‘ir sumthin.”
I laughed, “My friends on the rez used to sing a Stompin’ Tom Connors’ song every time I would walk in out of the blue: I am the wind.” Richard and I cracked up. Our bellies laughed. It was like standing there with one of my Cree cousins from the rez when I was a kid. Relaxed and real. I felt at home with Richard.
“Hey I wanted to thank you. Hold on, I brought something for you.”
He ran over to his bag and a group of people surrounded him. “Hold on a few minutes. I just gotta talk to this guy before he disappears on me again.”
Funny enough, it was about three seconds before my feet were gonna high tail it outta there. He came and sat with me. He handed me a folded cloth. It was dark blue. Then he pulled it away from me when I went to grab it.
“This is spiritual tobacco. It was a gift given to me from the six nations. It was grown by my friend. She honored me. Now I am honoring you. You gave me a gift. Now I am giving you a gift. That’s our way.”
I interrupted him. “Richard. Can I tell you something first?”
His eyes looked into my curiously, “Yes, of course. Go ahead”
I continued, “You know last year when I gave you that knife. I was mad at you. Real mad.”
Richard’s pupils dilated huge, “Whoa. What? Why? What did I do?!!”
Then I explained to him what had happened for me. “I have to tell you the story. You made me look at myself by being yourself. You are genuine. So was I. It was an internal clash for me. That day I learned something from you. You helped me. By simply being your beautiful self. I did not understand till awhile later. You gave me a gift and that’s why I gifted you your knife. You helped changed my life.” I was choking back the tears. But my eyes could not hold them back. My right eye poured out tears down the outside of my cheek. I looked in Richard’s eyes, “Thank you” I said.
Richard’s eyes were welled up and he softly said, “Thank you. That is some real powerful stuff.” His eyes then pushed the tears to the edge of his eyelids. The only thing holding back the waterfall of cry was the upward curve of his eye lashes, “That’s beautiful. Mussi-cho”
He handed me the tobacco. Then his shoulders flung back, his backbone instantly straightened, his eyes wide open and then his open hands moved upward in excitement. Then he went on to say, “Now I gotta tell you what I was going to say to you when I brought you these sacred seeds. The knife you gave me. It’s in a sacred place now. I had the knife in my pocket. I carried it everywhere because I knew it was looking for it’s home. Did you know? Knife has a spirit eh? I have even heard stories that there are knife people.” His eyes were smiling.
“This is so cool. What you told me really fits. This is so important. Knife has a spirit. Everything does. And that’s why we are here. That is why you are important to me. Now I got to tell you. Your knife. My knife. She is with medicines now. I was with my friend and he was looking for his knife. He was so upset. No one ever goes into his medicine bag. But somehow his knife went missing. No one ever touches his things. He even lives alone. So no one touches his stuff. Ever! Weird eh?”
Some things just happen for reasons beyond our understanding. People are put on our paths. Richard continued, “So I pulled the knife out of my pocket. My friend said “ahhh cool. But the knife has to be sharp. My medicines are tough.” So I opened the knife. I stroked the knife on my thumb to see if it was sharp. And holy man! It was ever sharp. We nearly became blood brothers. You know! Like in the old indian movies. So my friend said: “perfect!” Richard smiled.
“So that’s where your knife is. With the medicines. So now I understand why that knife is where it is. But I need to know something. Where did you get the knife?,” Richard asked.
I told him I was teaching a young First Nations guy to hunt. “I met him in school. He was in a heavy metal band and they played a lot of concerts in Canada and all over the continent. Their band, Giybaaw, always came into contact with white supremacists because of the type of heavy metal fans that went to the shows. And some of the bands were Nazis. So they asked me for help cuz I know about that stuff, eh? Then the next thing I know we became such good friends. I took him up north to teach him how to hunt. I realized I needed a pocket-knife. So we stopped at an old gas station in the middle of nowhere and I picked that knife. It had a perfect edge and beautiful tip.”
Richard smiled and stood up. He put is hands out to the sides and waved me in for a hug.
“I thank you Daniel. You’ve honored me with your story. Mussi-cho nechi”
I hugged him and quietly said, “hiy-hiy. You honored me today too.”
I continued on with my day. I was so grateful. Life was going where it was supposed to be going. The spirit of the knife told me this. Three and a half months later I went to Garry’s. We hit the work hard. We edited over a hundred poems in nine days, while we developed the manuscript. I also wrote many new poems. It was beautiful. Ten to sixteen hour days for nine days straight. We even did eight hours of work on Christmas day. After we were done we talked about the experience together. De-briefing all of our emotions and spiritual gratitude for having our paths intersect. I told him how much the Weaving Words festival meant to me that year, and why. I told him about the story with Richard and I.
Garry’s eyes filled with tears. He shook his head as his neck shivered,
“You know what?!”
I looked at him confused.
“Your knife is with my medicines.”
We looked at each other in shock. We both knew in that moment, these paths of the red road were healing trails. This was the spirit of the knife at work. This is what medicine means. Knife has a healing spirit, with an edge.