I had just gotten my hair braided the day before nohkom came to edmonton to treat her near-terminal cancer. two incredibly tiny braids, about an inch long. My hair wasn’t long enough for one braid yet.
I’m growing my hair for many reasons. it’s a healing journey, one that started around the time she was diagnosed and one that i’m not sure when i’ll complete. It’s a way for me to feel more ndn, as it grows closer to the land. it’s for my ancestors and relatives, their hair cut off against their will.
But most of all, it’s for nohkom.
Nohkom was one of 18 kids, born in a tent. she cared for her younger siblings — so much so that she stayed home from school as a teen to care for them. She was taken and brought to a convent in edmonton to go to day school.
She ran away twice, back to slave lake. both times, she was caught and sent back. but that third time, she told the worker, “next time, you ain’t fuckin’ catchin’ me.”
She was right. She scaled a nine-foot fence, hitchhiked to vancouver, changed her name to joyce grey, and didn’t look back.
She grew into one of the most amazing matriarchs I’ve ever known. She helped raise more than 100 indigenous kids in the foster system —
some for a weekend, some for 18 years. she helped raise me. She helped me become who I am today.
When nohkom died in august, it felt like a part of me died, too. I don’t look native, and I still hardly feel like it. but being with nohkom, she made me feel proud to be ndn when we picked raspberries, eating them almost as fast as she could pick.
I learned it was customary to cut my hair after a loved one died. It leaves that part of your journey behind and helps you start a new healing journey in mourning.
I couldn’t bring myself to cut it. I remember showing nohkom my newly braided hair. She was so proud. I’d say it was one of the few things she smiled about in her last days, but that’s not true. She was always laughing and smiling. but i could see the love, the pride in her eyes.
Now that nohkom has entered the spirit world, I feel her presence in everything I do. I feel her presence when I’m kind to others, when I smudge, when I try to inspire the next generation of ndn kids to succeed beyond their own expectations.
The two braids have since become one, forever intertwined, present within each other.