My name is Melanie Marsden. My Indigenous name is “She Carries the Light Woman,” given to me by a healer and Elder. I am full status registered with Aldervill First Nations, I am Mohawk and Ojibwe, and I am Bear Clan. I give gratitude to the seven generations that have come before me, honouring the creatures of this land and all our teachings. I am the second youngest in a family of eight. My mother was Mohawk, and my father was Ojibwe.
It’s important for you to understand the intersection of disability and Indigenous. In this post, I look at my past, present, and future while weaving in teachings that guide me coupled with a framework of social justice.
Birth and Early Years
I was born in 1964 when Indigenous peoples could not attend ceremonies or even say they were Indigenous. “We need to get rid of the Indian problem” was the focus of the government then.
I was born prematurely, weighing one pound 11 and a half ounces. I was put in an incubator and given high oxygen levels so I could breathe because my lungs and eyes were not fully developed. Back then, the doctors didn’t know what damage the high levels of oxygen would do. I have retinopathy of prematurity.
My blindness is not hereditary. It was caused by too much oxygen. Some people in my community would say that I am blind because my parents did something wrong in their previous life. That is negative thinking.
I have since learned that I need to go back to our teachings and ways of knowing and being to have a balanced life. This means I need to use the medicines, ceremonies and traditions for strength, balance, guidance and knowledge. To do this, I had to find healers, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers to learn teachings and traditions. Then I will add in my knowledge of advocacy to be part of this world.
Throughout my schooling, I experienced attitudinal barriers. Several teachers treated me poorly. I heard messages that were offensive, slang words, and exclusion practices that were directed at me: “She won’t amount to anything, she’s just an Indian, there goes Hiawatha because she was born on the wrong side of the tracks.”
It was colonization at its best. At that time, I had no one from my Indigenous community who was raised with traditions that they could have passed along to me that would have helped me cope with my blindness. I wish then I had known about the medicine wheel, which teaches Ojibwe and Mohawk people to live a balanced life by taking care of their spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual well-being. It wasn’t until I took a trip with my class that I was introduced to this knowledge. We went to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons where we made wooden shoes and snow snakes. While making these items was an awesome experience, how the traditions related to me was still a mystery.
I had the privilege of taking my first Indigenous course when I was part of the Bachelor of Social Work degree program at Carleton University. This started the exploration of my intersecting identities of Indigenous and disability. I loved the talking circles where we learned about medicines, treaties, and the Indian Act. Honouring our oral traditions was part of the class. For once in my academic experience, I felt like I was on an even playing field with the able-bodied students because the information focused on listening. Another Elder taught me about Mohawk ways, how to spiritually pray, and how to hold circles. To this day, this experience warms my heart.
My struggle in the greater Indigenous communities is that I don’t look Indigenous. I let colonial messages stop me from attending ceremonies as I felt like I had no right to be a part of my own culture. The reality was that it had been stolen from me. However, taking baby steps gave me the courage to attend pow-wows in Toronto. While learning more teachings, I realized it would be up to me to find a balance in life and inner peace within my spirit. This meant seeking people to teach me my traditions and learn to honour who I am as an Indigenous, disabled person. Anything I learn, I pass along to my three kids and granddaughter.
In my career, I have had the privilege of coordinating several projects with a fantastic elder who taught those of us with varying disabilities how to make tobacco ties to give elders when we seek support. For the first time in our lives, we heard about these teachings and how to make ties.
I also learned how to connect disability with Indigeneity by being a part of the Expanding the Circle project with York University. One of the tasks that came out of that project was that I organized an Indigenous disabled panel to start the conversation of how Indigenous and disabled people can learn more of our traditions and how can we, as people with disabilities, can be more involved.
We talked about how to make events accessible. I drew on an experience I had when I attended a pow-wow with a volunteer who guided me. Not only did I participate in the circle but, for the first time in my life, I danced in the circle because I had a guide. It’s important to build relationships by having conversations to identify barriers. This is how we break down attitudinal barriers that so many of us experience.
I Am Enough
Constantly proving that I am enough is exhausting, even though many people have now told me that this is my right. I am sure I am not the only person out there who has struggled with learning how to honour identities. Moving forward, I offer tobacco to learn from Elders and Knowledge Keepers.
The next step for me as an Indigenous and disabled woman is to be in the circles of conversations with Chiefs, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers. I will offer my time and give back to my community as what traditionally is done to be seen more in the community. It is also important for Indigenous disabled women to hold positions of power, especially in colleges, universities, or not-for-profit organizations so that younger people can learn that Indigenous disabled peoples are visible, and are part of our society.
It is relatively easy to have conversations. It is not necessarily easy to make the next steps happen that require actual actions. But maybe if we do things a little differently by working together, this can be made easier.
I am currently in the Master of Social Work Indigenous Field of Study program at Wilfred Laurier University. I love the program. It fills my spirit with gratitude.
It has taken me a long time to get here as I walk in my moccasins, but I know I am not doing this alone. I have the seven generations that have come before me along with my classmates, Elders, and professors as I unlearn colonial thinking and ways of moving back to my traditions.