"Describe to me the texture of my mother's skin when she first came into this world. What colour was it? Almond or penny brown?"Read Ashleigh Giffen's C O P P E R D U S T
Oji-Cree and Pueblo
I wrote this piece following a critical reflection period in my life. I felt a lot of lateral violence from my community, and violence from settler society as I began to undo years of conditioning and colonization. It was a time in my life where I wasn’t sure how I fit into the big picture. I felt unhinged and muddy, as if I was floating between the physical world and the ancestral one. It is difficult to be a young Indigenous womyn who comes from a bordered peoples. I never knew my father's side of the family, and as I began to understand the Indigeneity of my people in Mexico it left me feeling displaced. This piece explores the ways in which I physically and emotionally tried putting the puzzle of my family history back together. I weave through memory, both ancestral memory and my own stories of childhood and family, along with dream spaces, spirit guides, tricksters, oral traditions, language, and poetry to release. Indigenous theatre is an embodied form of shapeshifting through language and movement, and in creating a dream state where my characters are unhinged from borders of anthropological understandings of Indigenous peoples as well as the limitations of environment, I am then free to heal my (re)searching as well. The characters name is my middle name, which was my maternal grandmother's name. My Grandmother struggled with intergenerational trauma throughout her life before she moved away and began isolating herself. Feeling grounded in my identity was difficult, for so much of my family history was shown through addiction and grief. The only times I saw ceremonies were during funerals. As I grew older I began to understand. Decolonization is not meant to be a comfortable journey. It can be isolating, exhausting and even sometimes frightening. In this piece, I am reminding my Grandmother of our similarities though we survive in this world in different ways. In our raven hair. In our inquiries and mysteries. Our hips side my side while we sort decade old boxes of memory after a death. In our brown hands. I am all of that as she is all of me.
The stage is warmly lit, with blues and purples. Very dream like. Floating in the ancestral realm. Perhaps somewhere between the spirit world and Earth. Kimberly, a young Anishinaabe womyn, sits on the stage looking at herself in a hand mirror. She presses on her face, purses her lips, fixes her hair. She looks at herself as if she is trying to figure something out. She says “I am womyn” several times, in different voices with different gestures. Nothing seems to be working for her. She takes a break and speaks confidently, but with an air of sadness, and loss. While she says this monologue, she walks around the stage as if in each moment, laying on the stage, moving on the set, sitting on the edge of the stage, whatever she feels.
I am womyn made of copper dust. Broken up bits of things too far away and lost. Free falling into spaces that were never mine.
(more towards the audience, as if explaining) I was the eldest cousin. Leader of the tribe. Wrangled toddlers in the kitchen, cleaned up baby mouths and rubbed backs after a scuffle on the playground. Mediated disputes over movie choices and second-hand barbies.
(quieter, as if she was telling a secret) I was also the keeper of secrets. Knew too much, too young.
Adults whispered, but I always heard. Always cracked the code when they tried to speak in tongues. Trying to warp english for all the wrong reasons.
Secrets filled me up. Made me want to listen to stories in the dark rooms the adults sat in after dinner. Smoking until the room was dense. Whiskey on the rocks in each hand.
When I was younger, when my great grandmother died of cancer. I had only seen pictures of the descent. I was confused at how such a glamorous woman, (picks up the hand mirror and takes a lipstick out of her pocket and puts it on slowly, emulating her Grandmother, admiring her reflection) always done up! never leaving the house without lip liner, rosy cheeks, big hair! beat. Could rot away so quickly. Falling into tired skin. Sinking into a physical failure. Acceptance creeps up on the weak. No one said how hard she fought at her funeral.
My Grandma took me to clean out her closet. (she sits down, cross legged and stares at the ground as if there are things there) It had never occurred to me that it was her mother who died. As a child, you don’t think of the adults as children. But here my Grandmother was. (looks beside her, where her Grandmother would be as if she speaking to her) The same age as me. Mourning the woman who had given her life. Who had made so much of it difficult. When someone dies, it can either paint over pain caused in life, or inflame it after death. The choice is made by the living.
We sat on the floor, cross legged. Hip to hip. Boxes of sequined purses, suede bodysuits, wigs of every colour but...more blonde than brunette. (touches her braids protectively) More blonde than brunette. More blonde than brunette- there were so many beads! So many rusting bells, measuring tape, wait! Where was the jingle dress made with these beads?
This was my life. Never knowing the true answer. A speck of a story and a million questions. What am I made of if I do not know a single taste of something? If all I am ever given are pieces of people. Glances at joy and boundless pain that makes everything make sense for one moment. Pictures of beautiful womyn in beautiful dresses that I have never seen. Womyn that look like me.
Grandma, we are the same.
I am womyn made up of copper dust. Broken up bits always drifting to distant skies, never slowing down enough so I can collect something whole. Every birth and marriage and death is a puzzle. (she moves around the stage with more hectic energy now, as if she is looking for something, or is lost) Just when I think one is finished, a new empty space appears, stretching further behind time than the last.
I free fall. I am free falling! Everyone is too busy running from the descent to catch me. I am free falling into spaces that have never belonged to me.
(angry) This is what they did! Plugged up the river so all we taste is a poisoned drop. Block off the trails, on OUR side of the mountain, so the only way to find home is through a path we do not have access too.
My sistar cries when she tells me she cannot remember being little with me because of the pain. The feeling that follows children when they know that something has been taken away from them. Something they can’t even name because they do not yet have their tongue.
I tell her. I tell her? (she takes a blanket and wraps herself in it, sitting on the floor looking at where her sistar would be in front of her. Talking like you would to a small child) I tell her...hold onto every flicker of a rainy morning, when mom would go to work. How we would make an island of pillows, nuzzling into each other and I would tell her stories! Wild stories of warriors battling evil! Or the feeling of scraping her knees on the coral at the beach. (she takes care of her sistars wound, wincing and trying to calm her down) How quickly salt claims its space in deep wounds. How she cried so hard a mother seal and her pups rose to the surface of the water and stared at us like “oh my god, what's wrong child” And then we laughed! Oh my god we couldn't stop laughing! We laughed so hard the salt in her wound turned into sugar.
Or the time her shoe fell off while we were swimming in the river with our dad! How I pretended I was Pocahontas, (she runs around the stage as if through a dense forest) dashing through the trails in my bare feet, diving over thick overturned trunks, the moss clinging to the cedar cheering me on as I dove into the deep, clinging your neon pink sandal like I was Indiana jones and the sandal was the ancient artifact! But instead, I returned it to the rightful owner. You made me a flower crown to say thank you.
(towards the audience) Anything, I tell my sistar. Anything that clings onto what we have still have of those little girls. They never left.
We are womyn of muddy past.
I am keeper of memories not my own. Pain that isn’t mine. Pass it on to the next.
(louder and passionate) So I took advantage of every drunken night. Tiptoed around every birth story because so many of the times the mother never had the chance to know her baby. I investigated every hitch hike that went wrong, every could have been found dead in the ditch, always hoping the next shot, or the next round would bring me closer to a truth. I wanted to fall faster. (laying on her back) I wanted nothing more than to hit the ground, breathless and forgiven. Oh, how I would sink into the knowing. (crying now. exhausted) Oh how I would pray to say thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Grandma. Grandma? (gets up and speaks to the everywhere) Grandma I am here. Can you hear me?
What is the origin of my blood?
Tell me the name of the horse you had when you were a little girl?
Confess to me every time you thought you were in love, every time you were.
Describe to me the texture of my mother's skin when she first came into this world.
What colour was it? Almond or penny brown?
Did you wear your hair in two braids like me?
Grandma? I am here. (holds her hand to her chest, clutching) My mother says I have your hands.