Three Kohkums and an Elder
The plane banks left. The sun is setting and shadows move across the cabin as passengers turn on their overhead lights. Once we’ve landed, I’m happy to be on terra firma at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, the first leg of my trip to BookFest Windsor. I’m nervous; I have never been east of Winnipeg, and this is my first festival appearance.
When I get to Windsor, “agent” Ellie, a festival volunteer, chauffeurs me to the Four Points Hotel, pointing out the sites where the Indigenous writers will be presenting.
A complex flush of emotions washes over me, little demons with steely claws latching onto my shoulder the way an eagle carries away a juicy rabbit. Fear is the prelude to anything I’m uncomfortable with. It circles like a hawk, silent and deadly. You’re not Indian enough. Or, no such thing as an Indian writer. I’m a field mouse, one eye on the ground, the other toward the open sky. I am an invitation. Carrion. Let the opportunists come feast on my self-esteem, wash it down with a tall draught of my spirit.
It’s late when Ellie leaves me at the hotel. “Here,” she said, handing me a white business envelope. “Your guest package with all the details.”
The next morning, I wake up jetlagged and go for an early walk. When I return to my room, I realize I’ve locked myself out. Returning to the lobby, I see a Native lady talking to the concierge who is handing her a package similar to the one Ellie gave me.
“Tansi,” I say as I approach, trying to ignore my inner monologue. My mother’s disapproving voice: what kind of an Indian are you? Her criticism reverberates through me like a wave of shame.
“Tansi,” she says with a smile. “I’m Carol GoldenEagle. You must be Joseph.”
“Have you had breakfast?” I asked.
Carol shakes her head.
“Inside your package you’ll find breakfast vouchers.” I smile, trying to hide the nervousness that shakes my voice.
When Carol and I step into the restaurant, Louise Halfe Sky Dancer waves us over like old friends. I sit in awe, humbled to be in the company of two very talented poets laureate. By the end of breakfast, my mind has calmed; the claws of anxiety have loosened their grip. It is as if I have been taken under the wings of a mighty thunderbird.
It is just after one when I meet Tyler Pennock in the same restaurant. He recognizes me first and waves me over; I order a drink while he eats. As with all the Indigenous people I’ve met, the similarities in our history, our trauma, are eerily familiar. That’s Indian knowledge, a shared experience, similar but different. We talk for over an hour, sharing like war vets.
The four of us touch base throughout the day, before and after events. That night, I read from My Indian Summer, a coming-of-age story about a twelve-year-old Indigenous boy who relies on the support of three kohkums and an elder. I realize that Carol and Louise have been my kohkums, putting my heart to ease. And, like Crow, a gentle wisdom pours from Tyler.
I felt truly validated, but also elevated to a status that means I have a duty to my people. I am here for the future generations, as a guide for other Indigenous men and boys. In the talks that I had with Carol, Louise, and Tyler, I expressed my disdain for patriarchy and capitalism. We were a matriarchal society and that should never have been taken away. As complex as this issue is, I now understand that I have been given an assignment by Creator. I am here to show men and boys that it’s okay to seek help for their trauma; to mend their spirits, and that there is strength in seeking help.