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One
of the most recent social issues to come to light in Canada is their mistreatment
of their Indigenous women. Many argue that this stems from the patriarchal
system implemented by the colonial history of Canada post-European contact. Today
Indigenous women still suffer from Canadian contemporary society and abuse from
within their own Indigenous communities. Aboriginal women in Canada frequently
experience challenges and discrimination that are not necessarily shared by
non-Indigenous women, nor are by Indigenous men. They are the victims of
racism, of sexism and of unconscionable levels of domestic violence. (Fereras, 2016,
para. 4) In her 2015 novel Birdie,
author Tracey Lindburg writes about a young abused Cree woman named Bernice
“Birdie” Meetoos and her path to recovery. Lindburg, a Cree herself writes the
story of Birdie to give voice to the Indigenous women whose lives have been
traumatized by sexual violence or who have become lost and forgotten in a
society that neglects them. The story is written as non-linear and takes
readers to Birdie’s past and present memories to experience her story at a
deeper level.

Birdie’s
background is not that unfamiliar than any other neglected Indigenous child who
was failed by the system. Raised by an alcoholic single mother who disappeared
one day leaving her alone.  Pushed into
foster care she eventually found herself on the streets in Edmonton and for a
time in psychiatric care. Indigenous mental health is reflective in Birdie’s
backstory. Many Indigenous people find themselves prone to depression,
substance abuse, and suicide. The imposition of European culture and the “loss
of indigenous culture, lifestyle and self-determination are seen as a major
cause of health and social problems within the Indigenous population” (Centre
for Suicide Prevention, 2013 para. 2-3). Birdie ends up in Gibson, British
Columbia because of a celebrity crush on Pat John, an Indigenous actor from the
70’s Canadian show The Beachcombers.
To her, Pat John represents the ideal husband an Indigenous man who is healthy
and has a job to support his family.

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Birdie
is from the Little Loon Nation in Alberta. But because she is a non-status Cree
member she is not allowed to live on the reserve. This plays with her identity
issues as she is part and not a part of the Indigenous community where she
lives. Many Indigenous face identity crises, not only for the loss of their
culture but are victim of racial stereotypes that discourage them from
participating in many things, such as access to healthcare. They fear public
embarrassment and shaming because of the negativity surrounding the Indigenous
people (Browne & Tang, 2008, pp.119). Bernice is no different. A victim of childhood
sexual assault and incest she frequently leaves her physical self for books and
her imagination. This physical disassociation continues in her older years as
the reader is told her survival stories by flashback memories and travelling
through dream sequences to places she has lived in the past. These dreams are
important to her spiritual healing. The mental and physical abuse she received
from her uncle has made her feel damaged. The dream sequence allows her to
remove herself from the physical and allows her to revisit memories that enable
her to heal the mind, body, and soul.

            Lindburg’s
novel is about self-destruction, spirituality, and healing. Bernice’s traumatic
experience reaches a boiling point when her cousin reveals her mother has died.
She begins to fall into the negative Indigenous stereotypes of alcoholism and
promiscuity. She begins to disassociate from her physical self-more and more,
allowing herself to confront her traumatic experiences on a spiritual level.
The other women in her life, her sister-cousin Freda, and her mother-aunt Val
also serve as a healing tool. As Birdie begins to gain weight, the symbolism is
one of health and not of sickness. When Birdie was on a self-destructing her
body was thin as she ignored the physical over the existential. Living above
the bakery she works at, the owner Lola, worried about Birdie, calls her Aunt
Val and Cousin Freda to care for her. Absent from her physical self the women
do what they can to heal her.  Now on a
healing path, Birdie has gained weigh symbolising a protective a new shield as
she begins coming into herself physically.
            This central theme is the
concept of a reconciliation relating to the healing journey on recovery for
traumatic events such as sexual assault and incest. Although all communities
are affected by these horrible acts, Lindburg wants to bring attention to the
neglect and trauma many young Indigenous females are subjected to. Birdie and
the author identify as belonging the Cree community. In Cree legend women are
given a central role in circle of life. It was a woman “who came to earth
through a hole in the sky to care for the earth. It was a woman, who taught
Original Man about the medicines of the earth and about technology” (AJIC, 2004
para 6).  Gender roles were not ranked
hierarchically but rather considered to be complementary, in many cases women
were able to transcend gender roles, and “the central role of Native women
within their societies is often reflected in the religious or spiritual content
of their cultures (Tsosie, 2010, p.32). Women are seen as the creators of life
and involved in all things that dealt with creativity, from planting and
harvesting, to giving birth and raising children. Women were the nurturers and
the sustainers of their communities. Many marginalized Indigenous women can
trace their downfall with the adoption of European patriarchal structure
brought by Dominion colonials.

Traditionally
in Indigenous communities, when an abuse occurred, the abuser was confronted
immediately by his male relatives or those of his victim. If the abuse
continued, punishment could be severe, including banishment, castration and
death. (The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2006, p.11). Post-European contact,
many Indigenous women face life-threatening, gender-based violence, and
disproportionately experience violent crimes because of hatred and racism. In
2014, Indigenous women were 2.7 times more likely to have reported experiencing
violent victimization than non-Aboriginal women (Stats Canada, 2017, para 10).

Like
Birdie, any Indigenous victim of abuse can find reconciliation through the
strength of returning to traditional holistic healing. Not only does it provide
a much needed cultural attachment but allows community members to heal together
through an inter-connected journey. Indigenous community members must play a
large role in recovery. Identifying those Indigenous victims who are status or
even those like Birdie, non-status but racially Indigenous and reaching out to
provide support from within. Among diverse women in Canada, colonialism and
capitalism have set all women back. The effects of colonialism make it hard for
some women to develop a healthy sense of identity. That is why traditional
holistic medicine like women’s sharing circles serve as a return and healing
journey for many Indigenous women of abuse.

Many
argue that colonialism is still prevalent in Indigenous societies even until
this day. Women are no longer respected as sacred beings but were looked down
on by Europeans. The patriarchy that was established still exists. Prior to
1951, under the Indian Act, status women who married non-Indian men lost their
Indian status and band membership. “They were banished from their communities.
The denial of identity and status, along with losing access to community and
familiar land has forced some Indigenous women into cities. Being pushed away
from their community Indigenous women often find themselves more socially and
culturally alone” (Government of British Columbia, 2016 p. 3). A return to
their people is needed to help these Indigenous women.

Birdie
represents a real and growing problem found with Indigenous women and youth.
Birdie a child-victim of neglect, subjected to an alcoholic mother, incestuous
uncle, and foster care. She represents the many young women who find themselves
alone and eventually on the streets. With the support of her aunt and cousin
she is able to find a good home that has “no cigarette burns in gaudy-coloured
carpet, no empty bottles or glasses half-drunk or spilled on the floor on
weekends” (p.33) She longs to belong somewhere and to stay long enough to gain
a sense of community. Birdies personal story is to allow a discussion around
the Indigenous issues in Canada.

Although
Birdie is dripping in symbolism,
metaphors, and motifs is it not an easy read. The non-linear plot jumps from
past to present at what seems at the most random times making it difficult for
the reader to sometimes follow. For those readers who do not easily pick up
imagery provided from the book it can often force them to go back and re-read
parts to gain a better understanding. The book however allows one to really
step into the shoes of the main protagonist and becoming witness to the
atrocities commit against Birdie and her healing process. Lindburg uses a Tree
of Life that Birdie takes care of as a motif reflecting the man characters
healing state. The character is very non-typical and speaks in fragments often
confusing the reader. The message of the lingering effects of colonialism is
received during the reading of this novel.

In
conclusion, the female characters of Birdie are all vulnerable. Lindberg gives
these broken traits to all these characters to illustrate that because of their
vulnerability they can be subjected to violence. With the underlying tone of
patriarchal colonialism as the perpetrator to many Indigenous problems, it is
mentioned, but never discussed, the cultural genocide of the Indigenous
communities by the residential schools of Canada. One of the greatest
atrocities the Canadian government committed was the forced and often violent
approaches to assimilate Indigenous people into the Dominion. Because she is an
Indigenous woman, Birdie is already at a disadvantage and is vulnerable to
become a victim of abuse or to abuse herself. Lindberg illustrates that Indigenous
women need that extra sympathy and protection from their communities to prevent
being subjected to the atrocities experienced by a person like Birdie. Not to
say Indigenous women are fragile, Bernie’s spiritual healing journey
demonstrates the power of self-preservation and perseverance of these
Indigenous women.

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