Nov. 13, 2020

Indigenous and Disability Blog

Indigenous and Disability Blog

by Melanie Marsden



As I was reflecting on this blog it occurred to me that I feel it would be important for the readers to understand the context of disability and Indigenous and how they intersect and why this conversation is so important.

 In order for me to do that I will look at my past, my present and  my future and weave in some teachings that I have which guide me throughout my life coupled with my social justice framework that I use in order to advocate for myself.  I have been taught to introduce myself first identifying my Indigenous name, tribe, clan, and honouring all that have come before me.

My name is Melanie Marsden-Meyers, my Indigenous name is “She Carries The Light Woman” I am registered with Aldervill first Nations, I am Mohawk and Ojibwe and I am bear clan. I give graditude to the 7 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 8. My mother was Mohawk and my father were Ojibwe.

In 1964 when I was born  Indigenous peoples were called by the government “The Indian problem” Indigenous women had no status, we were not allowed to practise, attend ceremonies or even say your Indigenous. “we need to get rid of the Indian problem” was the focus of the government then.

When I was born I was born “normal” however I was born prematurely.  Because of being premature I was put in an incubator and given high levels of oxygen so I could breathe because my lungs and eyes were not fully developed.  Back than the doctors didn’t know what damage the high levels of oxygen would do. The doctors were focusing on keeping me alive as I was one pound 11 and a half ounces. At 9 months old my parents discovered that I was blind. I have retinopathy of prematurity.

My blindness is not hereditary and my blindness was caused from high levels of too much oxygen. Some people in my community would say she is blind because her parents did something wrong  in a previous life. I have since learned ideally Indigenous families need the support of their communities when traumas have happened rather than being shamed or ignore blind people. It is important to remember here that I was not raised with my traditions, ceremonies or teachings that could have offered guidance to my family.  I chose   to find Elders, Knowledge keepers,  or other people  to learn my traditions  plus the traditions I would learn would need to take in to account my blindness.

For all of these reasons I have chosen to find Elders, knowledge keepers and others to teach me traditions and teachings even though it may be in bits and pieces.

Throughout my schooling I experienced attitudinal barriers, treated poorly from several teachers I heard messages that were offensive, slang words and exclusion practises directed to me “she won’t amount to anything, she’s just an Indian, there goes Hiawatha, she won’t amount to anything because she was born on the wrong side of the tracks.” Colonization at its best.

Growing  up I didn’t know what to do about this treatment, I didn’t know how to honour my identities as an Indigenous disabled person, there was no one from my Indigenous community that was raised with traditions that could have identified with the blindness along with the Indigeneity. The medicine wheel which teaches Ojibwe and Mohawk people to live a balance live taking care of your spiritual, physical emotional intellectual well being would have been great to have that knowledge and practise to learn how to thrive honouring all of my identities.   I was growing up knowing no traditions and having no teachings to support my emotional, spiritual self. The only class trip that had some historical context was :  we went to St Marie among the Hurons for the class trip we made  wooden shoes and snow snakes  making these items was awesome not understanding the why and how I can relate it back to my life was still a mystery to me.    

I was accepted into the Bachelor of social work degree program at Carleton University.  It was at Carleton University that I had the privilege of taking my first Indigenous   course with Professor Gord Brier. My journey of my intersecting identities of Indigenous and disability began. To this day this experience warms my heart.

I loved the talking circles I could appreciate policies and the white paper which I enjoyed learning about because the focus was not writing notes down but actually listening to the barriers the white paper created for Indigenous people. Our professor said “what you need to remember you will as Indigenous peoples we honour our oral traditions.” For once in my academic experience I felt like I was at an even playing field with the other abled bodied students in my class because I could identify with the information we were being taught from the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical self.

As I was completing my degree in social work I had the privilege of being taught teachings from  Moana Staats.

Moana and I had many conversations about traditions,   what oral traditions are, how to pray, and how to hold circles using medicines,   

Because for other reasons feathers triggered me Moana supported me in finding another work around Moana gave me stones, and a woman made out of cedar, or acorns which we used in speaking to the creator.

My struggle in the greater Indigenous communities is  I don’t look Indigenous and I hadn’t gotten to ceremonies I felt like I had no right to be apart of my own culture and many people through the years had told me that my family had been cursed because I was blind.

Moana and my professor constantly told me to honour who I am, that I have the right to learn my traditions and teachings.  and I am a gift from the creator.

I was told that it was the inability of people to see me for who I am that is the issue some in the disability community would call this ableism.

Attending pow-wows, in Toronto, and learning some teachings, I realized it would be up to me to try and find a balance in life and find an inner peace with in my spirit.

This would mean seeking out people to teach me my traditions, and to learn how to honour who I am as an Indigenous disabled person.

I now am happy to say I have an Indigenous name, “She Carries the Light Woman” given to me from a healer and Elder James Carpenter.

I am full status that in many communities at least proves your heritage. This cultural identity is important because I can than pass this along to my 3 kids and grand daughter.

In my working career, I have had the privilege of coordinating several projects with a fantastic elder Evolyn. Evolyn is an Elder that came and taught some of us how to make tobacco ties to give Elders when we are seeking support. Many of the people in the group had disabilities and had some Indigenous background and for the first time in our lives we were able to hear about teachings and practise how to make ties. Evolyn modified the teaching as some women had physical disabilities.    

In my working life as a social worker I began to find opportunities to learn how to connect disability with Indigeneity. I had an opportunity to be a part of the Expanding the Circle project with York University and one of the tasks that came out of that project was I put together an Indigenous disabled panel to start the conversation of how can Indigenous and disabled people learn more of our traditions, how can we be more involved.

During this talk we all shared stories about how we want to attend events that aren’t always wheelchair accessible, or as a blind person I can’t take my guide dog into the circle.

We started having conversations about how we want to attend our ceremonies but don’t know how and at the same time want to honour prodigals.

To date, I was honoured to attend a pow-wow in Feb. at Ryerson University and one of the volunteers/peers  and I not only participated in the circle but for the first time in my life I danced in the circle with the volunteer/peer. My journey will continue to be honouring who I am as an Indigenous disabled person, and bringing people with me that can ask the questions we need

I was honoured to co facilitate conversation with accessible Canada act with another Indigenous person, I was fearful that I would not be Indigenous enough. The consultations went quite well and I experienced a very humbling experience with Wanda.  

Constantly proving that I am enough is exhausting and at the same time there have been many people that now have told me this is my right.

I am sure I am not the only person out there that has struggle with this identity and moving forward I am happy to seek out more guidance, learn from Elders and attend a sweet lodge one day.

Next steps, for Indigenous and disabled woman to be in the circles of conversations, with chiefs, elders, knowledge keepers.

For Indigenous and disabled woman to be experience traditions by offering my time as traditionally is done so that you are seen more in the community.

To hold positions of power as an Indigenous disabled woman in colleges and universities or in not for profits so that younger people see and learn that Indigenous disabled peoples can function work and live in our societies.

Maybe   we do things a little differently though we can all work together.

It can be relatively easy to have conversations it isn’t necessarily easy to make the next steps that require actual actions to take place.

I hope to be accepted in to the MSW program at Waterloo for MSW Indigenous stream.