Indigenous Arts & Stories - A Hug from Totah

A Hug from Totah

2012 - Writing Winner

I began to ask my totah “Did your mother or grandma ever hug you?” She let out a chuckle and said “no”. Surprised and curious, I asked “why is that gram”? She replied, “well that was a different time for our people, some people are still learning that today, how to show affection or love”. I started to wonder why and how it still affects our people today.

Read Shelbi Jonathan's A Hug from Totah

Shelbi Jonathan

Ohsweken, ON
Six Nations of the Grand River Territory
Age 20

Author's Statement

My name is Deyenuyahkwa Shelbi Jonathan. I am a Mohawk, Bear Clan from the Six Nations and Grand River Territory. I am a mother of a beautiful 3 year old daughter, a wife, a daughter, granddaughter, a sister, an honours student and a friend. I am currently an honours graduating student of a Social Service Worker program I plan to continue my education in September by completing my Bachelor of Social Work degree. My community is my strength for wanting to help us heal and to return back to our traditional ways. I have a big heart for wanting to help my people and try my best every day to learn more about how I can help. My family is my motivation in my life and I have always kept my family as my first priority.
The piece I have written was inspired by my Totah. She has always been a light in my life. Nothing feels better than getting a hug from your grandma. I believe we can become affectionate people as we once were before. It all starts with wanting to heal, wanting to learn our languages, using a good mind and having respect for yourself, others and the community we live in. If you think about it, we all come from the same place, therefore we are all one, we are family.


A Hug from Totah

I grew up on the Six Nations Reserve believing that it was the nicest, cleanest reserve in the whole world. Like any kid growing up, my favorite place to go was my totah's. Whether I had to get my mom to drive me there or ride my bike, I always felt at home there. My totah was my mother’s mom, I never had a close relationship with my other grandmother because she lived far away. When arriving at my totah’s it always made me feel pure excitement driving up her bumpy lane way to her little yellow house sitting up on the hill. I do not recall a time in my childhood where I was not at my totah's house playing. My totah was a wise but very funny Mohawk lady. I never had the chance to meet my Grandpa since he had passed away before I was born, but she spoke of him often enough to make it seem as if he was still there. My Grandpa's nickname was Longshot Bomberry, a name he got from playing lacrosse. There was a lot of men in my life I never got to meet and it always makes me wonder how different of a person I would be if I had men in my life. Both of my grandfathers were long gone before I came around and my own father had passed away while I was in my 2nd year of life. As much as it makes me miss them, I am proud of the woman I have become raised by women. I also consider myself lucky since not a lot of families have close connections as mine. This is what began my thinking on how I feel receiving a simple hug from my Totah.

One day, as I sat on my grandma's rocking chair listening to Willie Nelson's greatest hits on the stereo in the kitchen, I started to wonder, why hugs from totah are so important to me. I looked outside and tried to imagine how different my family, my people would be if we did not hug each other. I began to ask my totah “Did your mother or grandma ever hug you?” She let out a chuckle and said “no”. Surprised and curious, I asked “why is that gram”? She replied, “well that was a different time for our people, some people are still learning that today, how to show affection or love”. I started to wonder why and how it still affects our people today. Of course, my first thought of this was because of the impact residential schools had on us. Sometimes I found myself wondering how those children in those schools felt and often find myself wiping away tears when I think too hard about it.

The time in our history of residential schools still haunt people to this day. The closest residential school to my reserve was the Mohawk Institute, located in Brantford, Ontario. I have done many student placements and trips there and always find it extremely creepy. There is a long straight lane way leading up to an Old Red Building, often referred to as the Mush Hole. If you go there today, you will see a museum beside this building to educate yourself on the history of the Iroquois people and the many tragedies and proud moments we went through. For many people who know only a thing or two about residential schools would be surprised and scarred to know how abused, hurt and scared the children were. The children who were taken from their homes by the Priests and nuns were native. They were stripped of their native clothing, their names, their language and their appearance. Many children were given English names, others were organized by a number. The children were washed and scrubbed to prevent any diseases from spreading according to the Priests. They also got their hair chopped off and were beaten if they fought during the process. Getting the strap, a term to describe getting whipped on the hand, back, buttocks etc by a leather belt, whip or wooden stick, was used daily. Other severe cases involved physical abuse such as hair pulling, punching, kicking, pinching, slapping and being stepped on. The sexual abuse, which is often kept hushed about, was more violent. The boys and girls were both affected by this. Not everyone did go through this, but some cases were discussed. Among all of this abuse comes emotional and mental abuse. The children were not allowed to speak their native language or practice any ceremonies, songs or dances. They were forced to learn the English and French language and the the Bible and gods. They were forbidden to play lacrosse, ding ball game or any game associated with the Native cultural.

Along with being brainwashed and transformed into different people, these children did not receive the love or affection they once did from their parents and families at home. The families were not allowed to visit their children and this tore families apart. The parents no longer had responsibility which lead to domestic violence, abusing alcohol or drugs and forgetting the traditions and cultural of our people. Families once lived by staying together and the importance of having one another. After the residential schools, with parents separating and children coming back forgetting who they are, this began the loss of affection within our families. The children did not receive hugs or kisses before going to bed and they were not told how loved and cared for they were. This became a huge tragedy for our people as the children got older, they suffered many mental illness’s. Many became depressed, suicidal, bipolar, violent, criminal and isolated. Others began families, not knowing how to be a parent or knowing what their roles were, this affected them the most. Being parents with having a tragic childhood did affect their parenting skills and how they handled raising their children. Those born to the children survivors felt the affects of not having any affection of parental love or attention they had deserved. This is where parents also had a lot of children, leaving the older children often to look after the younger children. Along with this came resentment of the older children, since they were taking on parental roles when they were young they did not want to have kids when it became their turn. This has carried on generation to generation until this day.

This was one of the reasons I wanted to become an advocator as a social worker within my community. My community needs to heal, that is the only way we can return to our old traditional ways is to heal everyone. Many have tried to seek their own help and many have returned to longhouse ceremonies but it has to be more than a handful to help a whole community out. We can begin to heal by learning different ways to express ourselves and share stories with one another. It can make a huge difference and it starts with just one hug.

As I go to visit my 74 year old totah today, along with my 3 year old daughter, I teach her the importance of greeting her with a hug and one to say goodbye. My totah enjoys spoiling my daughter Ogranaweh and I hope in the future, she learns the importance of affection to loved ones around her. Ogranaweh is still young yet, but she learns quickly and is beginning to speak Cayuga so she can speak to her Totah at home. Often elders in my longhouse describe my daughter as being an old soul. She has the warm gentle feeling of an elder stuck inside a 3 year old’s body. Sometimes it worries me that she can go up to anyone to say hi or give them a hug but other times it makes me feel proud. I have high hopes for my community to return back to our old ways, at least in my lifetime. I would like to see our languages come back and our warm gentle hugs to one another.