The word “reconciliation” is thrown around often in today’s discourse. But Indigenous writer and scholar Amber Meadow Adams doesn’t believe in this noun, only its gerund: “reconciling.” That is, reconciling as something we engage in, invest in, but are never—will never—be done with.

This “Letter to a Stranger” is penned in that spirit. During a tour of the residential school where her grandmother was forcibly educated, Amber revisits the past, resurfaces its evils, but does not deliver us to a healed place. On the contrary, the tour leaves Amber gasping for air, retching by her car, all too possessed by the pain. 

Witness the lyrical power of this astonishing writer, whose prose makes so clear that history lives on, both within and beyond us.

The OA Editors

"Were you a good girl? Did you turn the blade of a butter knife toward the silvered rim of the plate? Your other grandchildren show me photos of a skinny girl out of uniform, wearing a borrowed Sunday dress and standing at her father’s bent knee. You were the ninth or tenth child of his third or fourth wife."

Amber Meadow Adams, "To My Grandmother, C/O the Mush Hole"

OA: Your essay is set in a former Indian residential school, where your grandmother grew up. What brought you to the Mohawk Institute that day?

I was hired to do some historical research as part of an ongoing project to convert the 150-year-old school building into a national museum. One day, at the end of a meeting, someone came in and said, “Hey, the architect’s ready for us. Let’s go over there.” If it hadn’t been sudden, I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to just walk in raw.

OA: This place affected you so much that you threw up upon leaving. Were you bracing yourself for such a strong reaction to the place, or did that visceral impact surprise you?

I knew it would be bad. I didn’t know it would be that bad. I’d been in the building before, about ten years ago. The Woodland Cultural Centre had taken it over in the 1970s, after it was closed as a school. They were storing their Haudenosaunee language material archives up on the third floor, where the student dorms had been. So at that time, the space was padded with onkwawén:na, our vivid, imagistic languages (there are six in the Haudenosaunee family) audio recorded and written down by several Elders and teachers. Some were people I’d known personally, worked with—loved. Their voices were insulating. Once it had been emptied and stripped to the boards, there was no more psychic shelter. The people from Six Nations walking through that day all knew what had happened in that place, and that it happened to family. That kind of trauma has incredible momentum and persistence. I wonder what effect working there every day had on the construction crew.

OA: You toured the school to make contact with your grandmother, to know her better. Did writing this letter close that gap?

Hell no. Nor would I put faith in any sense of completion or closure if it had. My grandmother was raised in what was, in many ways, a North American concentration camp. I was a tourist walking through it for an hour. Whatever brutal family history connects me to her, any fantasies of affinity have to be torn wider if I truly seek understanding of what her life was and the reasons for the decisions she made that still cause me pain. Pain is the origin of compassion. When we (whoever “we” are) invest in the lie of cheap grace, of blanket exercise reconciliation, we starve the potential for honest compassion, for becoming onkwehón:we—genuine, sincere, fully realised people.

OA: There are lots of “Haudenosaunee lowlights,” as you put it, in your essay—cultural references that only certain Indigenous readers might pick up on. Were you to footnote this essay for outsiders, what might you annotate?

The best of the old storytellers have such craft, such deep command and sensitivity for their audience that they can narrate almost polyvocally, making images and tones carry many times their own weight in referents and valances of meaning. In traditional Haudenosaunee (and many other Indigenous peoples’) storytelling, audience means everybody. So the best storytellers can speak to the most knowledgeable Elder, the smallest child, and everyone in between simultaneously at their own level of understanding. This is an almost unimaginable capacity to writers trained to address quite specific audiences, and a fullness of mastery I’ll never achieve, but I can’t resist trying to emulate it a little in my own work.

One clumsy example: “The eggshell domes of new faces,” where they “fertilize the earth.” Our ancestors used to rotate village sites, moving about once every generation, leaving deceased family buried at the old site. Personal names are also recycled through generations of the same Clan. When moving back to an old site, women were said to draw the coming faces, or new faces, from the earth, i.e., become pregnant with a child that would carry the name (and, quite possibly, the physical features) of a now-deceased relative. There’s more to that image, but it would take a lot of unbundling to fully explain. 

OA: There’s a great deal of research underpinning your essay. What has that research process been like, and what surprising directions has it led you in?

Survival surprises me. When I read internal correspondence about outbreaks of tuberculosis left deliberately untreated, government permission for doctors to perform medical experiments on kids, letters to parents telling them their child is incorrigible and has run away when in fact the child died and was buried behind the school, it seems impossible. How are any of us still here? How did our parents and grandparents make the families we are now out of that kind of hell? And how did (do) the people running and working in those schools and their descendant institutions do the same? Victims’, perpetrators’, bystanders’—how does anyone’s humanity survive? Any answers I thought I had going into this project dissolve further the further I go.

OA: You're currently reworking your doctoral research on the Haudenosaunee story of Creation into a novel, in which your grandmother also has a presence. What about that Creation story most compels you?

Grief. In the years I was working on my dissertation, I lost two very close family members, several mentors and teachers, and my home. Working with the Creation story through intense, complicated grief showed me ways in which the story illuminates paths from stasis to the primal change of death to the resolution of life in another form. It’s a rich, round, striking, and exceptional story at many depths. When I came back to fiction, I wanted to get my hands dirty with the story in ways I couldn’t as a scholar, and I wanted to see if the grief map I’d found in it held up when applied to grief on other scales: my own family’s, the community’s at Six Nations that is ground zero for the Indian residential school system in Canada and the United States, all the cultures’ based on all the ecologies whose destruction is Indigenous genocide. The global ecological collapse all people now face—I see in this story a sequence of instructions for addressing the loss of biome on an incomprehensibly big scale, starting with the acknowledgment of human-scale grief that has to happen before we can get down to the work of recovery.

OA: What, if anything, gives you hope these days?

The knowledge that we’ve been here before. We Haudenosaunee, we Indigenous peoples, we humanity, we beings of Earth. I see the word “unprecedented” used too often in media to describe health and ecological and political crises. These crises are terrifying, especially when they feed each other. But they are not new. Humanity has done the work of negotiating pandemics, global climate change, and murderous leadership. For Indigenous nations all over the world, the apocalypse came a long time ago. We know it’s not a moment, but a process that shudders along a broad time scale. The Haudenosaunee story of Earth’s creation is about total ecological collapse, the terror of free-fall, and what it takes to remake a world that will always be fragile. Kayanerenhtserakó:wa (the Great Law or Great Peace), which comes later narratively and historically, is about what happens when people—families, cities, nations—are so locked in conflict that reconciliation and peace seem impossible. They’re not. They can be restored, they require constant work to maintain, and they, like a biome in balance, will always be fragile.

Our ancestors left us practical, principled instructions for facing despair, coaxing new life from bare rock, and reconciling irreconcilable conflict. Those instructions have kept the Haudenosaunee alive as nations, however damaged and scarred, after three centuries of genocide. They include the charge to share these instructions with anyone, even those building their own nations by levelling ours, who need them to help sustain life in this place. My hope is that more people are now ready to hear them.

Support for our writers comes from the New York State Council on the Arts.
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Header photo by Elias Schupmann.
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