Indigenous Arts & Stories - Emails to an Invisible Woman

Emails to an Invisible Woman

2015 - Writing Winner

I found Dad’s comics. They were tucked in the corner of Ȋhsta’s closet, covered with coats we’d outgrown and dusty VHS tapes. I’d always assumed they were rotting in the dump over on Fourth Line – a pile of technicolour pulp. Even though she swore up and down they had no place in a traditional Mohawk house, even though she screamed for days when she found them during her great Canadian purge, Ȋhsta couldn’t bear to throw them out.

Read Alicia Elliott's Emails to an Invisible Woman

Alicia Elliott

Brantford, ON
Six Nations of the Grand River
Age 27

Author's Statement

Twelve hundred.

That's how many of our sisters' lights have gone out. Lights that could have illuminated a life, a country, a people.

We are currently in the midst of what many are calling an epidemic. For whatever reasons, our women's bodies are seen as more deserving of violence, less deserving of respect and basic humanity. You can see it in the news everyday if you care to look: a white woman goes missing and the country holds its breath, racing out with flashlights and fliers and casseroles for the family. But when a Native woman goes missing, no one bats an eye. Business as usual.

Though there were Native women doing the work of trying to advocate for our missing and murdered sisters, Canada at large didn't truly believe how many women were gone until the RCMP released their official report on the matter in 2014. When I read their report, I wasn't surprised by the number. The Native Women's Association of Canada and Sisters in Spirit had given similar numbers until their funding was cut by the federal government in 2012.

However, I did notice a glaring omission in the RCMP report: two spirit or trans women. Unfortunately, there is a terrible amount of transphobia evident in the way that these women are treated by society, police and the criminal justice system. Sadly, these same women sometimes face discrimination from our own communities - another devastating result of colonization.

As a cisgender woman, I don't presume to speak on behalf of these marvelous, brave, wonderful, beautiful two-spirited women. With my story, I hope to encourage our communities - and Canada - to let them speak for themselves, and more importantly, to listen.

We can offer our support.

We can fight to make these once invisible women visible once again.


Emails to an Invisible Woman

from: Janet (

to:  Lucy (

date: Mon, Dec 8, 2014 at 7:50 PM

subject: Wolverine?

I found Dad’s comics. They were tucked in the corner of Ȋhsta’s closet, covered with coats we’d outgrown and dusty VHS tapes. I’d always assumed they were rotting in the dump over on Fourth Line – a pile of technicolour pulp. Even though she swore up and down they had no place in a traditional Mohawk house, even though she screamed for days when she found them during her great Canadian purge, Ȋhsta couldn’t bear to throw them out. They were like a relic from our family’s renaissance. Back when we were whole.

Each issue was individually sealed for maximum freshness, safe from change and greasy children’s fingers. That was always more my problem than yours. You were meticulous in your cleanliness, washing and drying your hands like a surgeon before even handling the plastic. Meanwhile I’d grab at the comics with hands freshly-licked and wonder why you winced.

Remember when Dad read comics to us? He’d ask us the question all comics fans ask each other: “If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?” You chose the healing powers of Wolverine from X-Men; I couldn’t decide; he wouldn’t say.

The first comic I pulled today – hands washed; I’ve learned a thing or two since then – was an issue of The Fantastic Four. Sue Storm in her cerulean suit was splashed across the cover: beautiful, white, with a cloud of blonde hair so voluminous it should count as a superpower. It doesn’t, of course. Sue’s the Invisible Woman. Her power is to disappear.

If any superpower belonged to the General family, I think that’d be the one. Dad disappeared. I was 6, you were 10. One of his shrugging co-workers told the cops he was having “problems with the wife,” so they decided it was another no-good Indian leaving his family and that was that.

But when his truck was found with blood on the seats, they grudgingly renewed their investigation. And when a bartender mentioned that shrugging co-worker left with Dad that night, they grudgingly laid murder charges that’d never stick. The all-white jury agreed: Dad – whose face was so damaged Ȋhsta couldn’t identify him – was the one who started the fight, and this white man with few injuries was lucky to get away alive.

That was when Mom as we knew her disappeared. In her place, we found Ȋhsta: a rigid, rarely-smiling woman intent on scraping all colonial influence from our lives. She seemed to think if she could save us from becoming “too Canadian,” she could save us from Dad’s fate. As if, of all things, that arbitrary descriptor was what really we had to fear.

You couldn’t disappear as Luke. Maybe that was the problem. All through high school, everyone said it was only a matter of time before the National Lacrosse League recruited you. At longhouse, Rabbit Dance became a bloodsport. Girls nearly strangled each other for the chance to ask you to dance. You were invited to all the parties, offered all the drugs.

Lucy, on the other hand. Lucy was the ultimate Invisible Girl. When she first went missing, no one was waiting for her to reappear. After all, she wasn’t a beautiful, white blonde with supernatural hair volume; she was a Native trans woman living on the wrong side of Jarvis. Your friend Judy filed a missing persons report when she hadn’t heard from you in a few days, but it was nearly two weeks before we were informed. You never mentioned us to your friends, I guess.

Anyway, I came across the comics while looking for photos of you. Finding a good one wasn’t an issue. We have a bunch from when you still lived at home — muscles taut, long black hair braided, holding a lacrosse stick and smiling. Yours was a face people loved to look at. If you were born a couple centuries earlier, you could have modelled for the Italian masters — provided the Italian masters didn’t hate Indians.

Problem is, you don’t look like that anymore. I’ve been tasked with finding a picture to put on signs where you’re actually recognizable, yet still upholding Ȋhsta’s standards of decency, which is actually impossible. Everything on your Facebook profile she dismissed outright.

“I gave birth to a son. I want pictures of my son.”

You know Ȋhsta. It’s amazing what stays constant in people, stubbornly refusing to change or adapt, even in a crisis.

Naturally, this, coupled with the discovery of Dad’s comics, made me think of Mystique: shape-shifter extraordinaire. That blue-skinned, red-haired, yellow-eyed mutant bounced between genders and races with such ease. If you had her powers, we wouldn’t have this problem. We’d have lots of other problems, but not this one.

It’s strange. You knew all about Mystique when Dad asked whose powers we wanted.  You still chose Wolverine every time. My question is, why? If you could adapt under any circumstances and never get hurt – never even be a target – wouldn’t that be better than regenerating? Sure, Wolverine can heal, but he still feels pain. He still bleeds. What good is healing anyway?




from: Janet (

to:  Lucy (

date: Tue, Dec 9, 2014 at 11:41 AM

subject: MAC map

Looking at your Facebook pictures again. I can trace a sped-up female adolescence through your make-up. I recognized the self-consciousness in those first quivery eyeliner applications, the clownish blue eyeshadow every girl mistakes for sexy at some point. It was almost like a checklist:

-          So much glitter a kindergartner at craft time would find it excessive

-          Lips – and teeth – as red as an old Hollywood starlet’s

-          Streaks of unblended blush like pink war paint

And so on.

Slowly, the naivety waned. The black lines rimming your eyes became more controlled, the palette more neutral and complimentary. You learned much faster than I did.

So many of us can use cosmetics to map our journey from girl to woman. The first time I wore make-up was in grade 8. I was 12 and all the girls at J.C. Hill unanimously agreed we were teenagers — a declaration that could only be made official with raccoon eyes and lip gloss. Desperate, I stole Maybelline eyeliner in Ebony Black from the Pharmasave.

As I was drawing lines in short, exploratory strokes, you burst in my room uninvited. The sharp point stabbed the soft orb of my eyeball. I screamed, clutching my eye.

“Luke, what the heck? Get out of here!”

“Oh, shut up. You’re fine.” I didn’t protest. I was fine. Plus I liked having you around. I felt more grown up by association.

You threw yourself down on my bed, stinking of lacrosse practice, then turned to me, curious. “Holaaa, what’s that around your eye?”


You darted up. “Oh my god. It’s make-up, init?”

“So what if it is?” I asked, summoning all my little sister sass.

“Aww, don’t get mad. I was kind of waiting for this to happen.”

I grabbed a tissue and started wiping at my eye furiously.

“What’re you doing that for? You looked pretty.” I stopped and smiled. I looked trashy, not pretty, but yours was a precious lie. That’s the kind of brother you were.

Ȋhsta didn’t think I looked pretty. She thought I looked like a “colonized Indian slut.” I think those were her words. They’re what I remember, anyway.

As I stood there, crying, you calmly explained that if she ever said that again, you’d quit lacrosse on the spot. Ȋhsta couldn’t have that. As she reminded you so often, lacrosse was the Creator’s game, and you were its star: her Onkwehon:we pride and joy, and the envy of every self-respecting Mohawk woman on Six Nations. Her mouth shut fast.

From then on, you usually found your way into my room when I was getting ready — watching, amused, as I artlessly applied more and more layers to my face, then accompanying me out the door, shooting looks like warning shots at Ȋhsta. She watched, silent, her lips a straight line.

We had no idea my use of cosmetics would start World War NDN. But even if we did, I don’t really think you would have backed down. You would have kept on escorting me under that blistering gaze, completely loyal, completely unfazed.




from: Janet (

to:  Lucy (

date: Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 3:23 AM

subject: Destiny

Can’t sleep. Surprise, surprise. To pass the time I’ve been going through Dad’s collection and trying to figure out what powers I’d want. So far, I’ve read twenty issues of X-Men, twelve of Uncanny X-Men, ten of The Fantastic Four. Seen super strength, telekinesis, telepathy. Control of fire, weather, metal, ice. I don’t want any of those.

I think I’d want the power of Mystique’s best friend/lover, Destiny: the power to see into the future. Maybe then I’d have waited when you told me who you really were. I’d have simply listened and loved you, which was all you wanted anyway. I wouldn’t have scrambled to the Six Nations Public Library asking for all the books they had on two-spirited people. I wouldn’t have dog-eared pages and used hamburger paragraphs to craft an argument titled, “Why Two-Spirit People Are Actually Traditional.” I wouldn’t have tried to deliver this argument to Ȋhsta in a low, shaky voice. She wouldn’t have grabbed me six sentences in and shook me, screaming, until I agreed that you were possessed by Bad Spirit. You wouldn’t have come home from practice to face all the wrath Ȋhsta could muster for a secret you weren’t ready to share. You wouldn’t have left home for Toronto with a backpack and $50. I wouldn’t be sifting through the artifacts of our diseased family history, looking for an appropriate picture to paste on “MISSING PERSON” posters.



from: Janet (

to:  Lucy (

date: Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 4:03 AM

subject: Sorry

Sorry about that last email. Sorry about everything, actually.



from: Janet (

to:  Lucy (

date: Wed, Dec 10, 2014 at 1:22 PM

subject: Combing out snakes

I found the perfect picture. You look so pretty in it — and not precious-lie pretty, actually pretty. When I showed it to Ȋhsta, she turned, practically hissing, her worn face puckered like an old medicine pouch.

“You deaf or something? What’d I tell you ‘bout those pictures?”

My chest got heavy, my stomach felt sick.

Then I remembered the story of Tadadaho. It’s the closest we have to a Haudenosaunee superhero story. Ȋhsta would tell it to me sometimes before bed. Do you remember?

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker were close to getting all five of our warring nations to agree to peace. One of the last barriers was Tadadaho: an Onondaga chief so evil he had snakes in his hair. Like any true supervillain, he refused peace. He even killed Hiawatha’s daughter. But instead of quitting or getting revenge, Hiawatha returned to Tadadaho and, with the help of the Peacemaker, combed the snakes from Tadadaho’s hair. Hiawatha’s forgiveness totally transformed Tadadaho and created our Confederacy.

It occurred to me that even though it’s not flashy and would never make an interesting comic book, forgiveness is its own kind of superpower. It creates change and builds trust in a way other powers never could.

I took Ȋhsta’s hand. “It’s not your fault,” I said.

At first I thought she was going to slap me. I think she did, too. Then her legs buckled and, for the first time since I was 6, she started to cry – the big, choking kind that leaves you gasping. She didn’t let go of my hand for an hour. Then she whispered, barely audible, “He goes by Lucy now?”

“She. And yes.”

“Your grandmother’s name.”

She almost smiled.

Lucy, sister, I need you to know: I’ll plaster your picture on every wall and lamp post. I’ll fight to make you visible.

And maybe, eventually, I’ll fight to heal. To forgive.