Living My Kokum’s Words

Posted by on Jan 29, 2013 in Opinion


When I was a little girl, we went high bush cranberry picking up off Highway 28. I might have been 7 or 8. It was a family day. My Mom and Dad, all us kids, my Kokum (Grandma) as well as my aunts and uncles, who weren’t really all that much older than me were there. To me the berries seemed impossibly high. It was hard work and we had to work in pairs. I would pull down the branch while one of my sisters or brother would pick the berries. We were plenty grumpy I remember because we couldn’t even eat the berries, they were so bitter off the vine. When you picked saskatoons or blue berries; at least you could snack all day!

I can’t remember exactly who found the dead squirrel. One of us did. It was all emaciated and gross. There were bones protruding from the fur. I remember my brother grabbing a stick and flipping it over and all the maggots were wiggling around all over underneath it. And then it happened: someone went to touch it.

KKKKKIIIIIIYYYYYYAAAAAAMMMMMM!!!!” I sometimes try to find that memory…to be sure that it is the word she screamed running at us. Maybe it was another word. As I grow older; I doubt that it was the word but yet; my understanding of this word comes from a vision of my Kokum blazing a straight line at me yelling “Kiyam!”

What?!  We all asked in unison. She told us to ‘leave dead things alone‘ and ‘don’t pick up dead things.

Why? We all asked again. She told us that picking up dead things could ‘make us sick.’ She said, sometimes it could even kill us, but that the earth had a way of taking that sickness into itself and turning it into new life like the plants and berries we were picking. Then she shuffled us away from the squirrel and made us pick closer to where she was. So ever since then in my brain kiyam meant don’t pick it up.

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It wasn’t the only time my Kokum used the word kiyam. When I was around 10 or 11 we were living in a very small town. We weren’t bad kids. We were taught to respect our elders and our teachers. We did what we were supposed to do. But, despite that, we all had a very hard time.

I remember every day as being difficult for me in some way. From the type of clothes I wore, to the constant lice checks; I was bombarded with stereotypes and racial slurs. I remember being called a ‘squaw’, a ‘prairie nigger’, ‘dumb’, ‘ugly’…it just never let up. I wasn’t even out of elementary school yet when ended up getting diagnosed with an ulcer. I was sent to spend some time with my Memere and with my Grandma.

One day at my Kokum’s we were in her kitchen and she was teaching me to make blueberry perogies (meh, that’s another story!) Once she got me rolling out the dough and using a jar ring to start cutting the pastry into circles, she started asking me why I had been so sick that I hadn’t been going to school. She never quite seemed like the very wise person that she was, but even today when working with kids through some painful experiences I follow my Grandma’s lesson by putting them to work.

I tried to be vague with her about what was going on, but eventually she pulled everything out of me, one blueberry perogy at a time. I started to cry and she hugged me. “Dawny…kiyam.” And this is where I got really confused because to me kiyam meant don’t pick up the dead things.

She told me, Let it go.

I protested. Why should I be the one to let it go? They are the ones that are hurting me. Do I just let them get away with it?

She said, They don’t get away with it. That kind of mean always comes back on itself. Some time, some way, it will come back. You won’t have to do nothing but if you pick up that mean stuff and take it into you; it will start to work in you. You don’t want to be that kind of mean, do you?

No, Grandma.

Then let it go. Don’t keep their hate.

I know that my understanding of kiyam is different from many other people. I might be the only one who sees it like this because of a faulty set of memories with a dead squirrel, but this is how I see what my Kokum taught me. Just like we didn’t know what killed the squirrel; we do not know what the roots of the vengeful words are.

I have studied racism, colonialism, social Darwinism, eugenics, white privilege, psychology, sociology, spiritual warfare and have a really good idea but ultimately; it could just be human stupidity and ‘there ain’t no pill for stupid’.

The funny this is, that now when I find myself in uncomfortable situations where every ridiculous stereotype is being paraded out, I see dead squirrels. I know that they are throwing things at me because they are intending me to pick it up and throw it back. So I let it hit the floor. Even though the chance is remote that I could possibly get sick myself; I’m not going to risk it. I don’t pick it up.

photo credit:

photo credit:

My Grandma taught me that if I pick that up, it could kill me. It could damage me intellectually. It could damage me emotionally. It could damage me spiritually and cause a physical illness as I try to process the poison thrown at me. Whatever their reasons: lack of knowledge, entrenched beliefs, privilege or internalized oppression – doesn’t really matter. The squirrel isn’t any less dead.

So as best as I can; I don’t pick it up. Every time I make the mistake and do, I recognize once again that my Grandma is right. These things cycle into themselves and become energy sinkholes. I’m the one left hurt and without energy, and so is the other person. Their opinion hasn’t changed and neither has mine. And there it is; the death of any opportunity for transformative dialogue.

So if I follow my Kokum’s lead, the smartest thing to do is to let it be. The Earth has a way of taking that negativity and transforming it into something beautiful in its own time. So if I don’t pick up this squirrel and I just let it be; eventually the process will bring out something truly better. Just leave it be – kiyam.

It’s not letting them off the hook. This is about trust.

When my teachers and elders stop talking to me, I recognize it sometimes means that I am not listening and I am so far off the mark that they have decided ‘kiyam.’ I must reconsider my words and actions. In short, they realize they cannot teach me if I’m not listening and they must let me go find out the truth on my own. And chances are I will come around to their way of seeing it…but it’s going to be a much more painful process.

The person throwing squirrels is going to be confronted by this process whether I go throw their squirrels back at them or not. So let them drop and instead plant a seed of truth and walk away just like all the best kokums and moshoms. The truth has more healing power and once planted; it will grow. Not in my time; but in nature’s time.

So the way I’m looking at this; through my quasi-screwy-messed up recollections of my Kokum in a language I struggle to hang on to…there’s a heck of a lot of dead squirrels flying around…and I see people around me catching them in the air and hurling them back. But if we stop the toxicity, if we let them drop, that’s a lot of fertilizer for the truth. For anyone who fears nothing will ever change if we don’t confront all the issues now; take an example from nature…it only takes one season from the planting of good seed to the formation of good fruit.

This is not going to be a quick fix. It has lasted for centuries and these dead things thrown at us have corrupted us to the point where we lash out at each other.

If we have any chance at all; we have to minimize the power of their words and in their place use our own. Go back to our teachings about right living (kweyaskipimatisiwin), working together (mamahwohkamatowin), getting along (miyo wicehotowin), leave it be (kiyam). I’m finding my own words and living by them…even if they are slightly mixed up with dead squirrels.

ekosi maka


Follow Dawn on Twitter: @Cree8Dawn

Dawn Marie Marchand is Cold Lake First Nation; she is Cree and Metis. A student of the Boreal Forest Institute for the Indigenous Arts in Fort McMurray, Alberta, she has a unique perspective on mastery based instruction. Dawn Marie is an artist who uses the Circle of Courage™ (Reclaiming Youth International) and Art Integration as a way of engaging youth. She is an advocate for using the strengths of culture as a tool for accessing positive change in lives. She is a published author; has guest lectured at the University of Alberta on several occasions and is co-founder of Cree8 Success. Her artistic style honours the teachings of her mentors while expresses her own vision.


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  1. Bridget Courchene
    January 29, 2013

    What a great way to look at things. When you put it that way, that all those hurtful things are just some gross little dead squirrel, then it makes so much sense. We don’t need to touch the dead squirrels! Love it. 🙂

  2. Jennifer
    January 30, 2013

    Thank-you for that.

  3. melya long
    January 30, 2013

    This message is uncovered in the most beautiful way. It comes from more than a few moments of reflection.

  4. Julie Kirkpatrick
    January 31, 2013

    Thank you.

  5. karen
    February 1, 2013

    I love this piece of writing, the humour the image of throwing dead squirrels really paints a strong image of truth. Also, your love of your kokum. <3

  6. mary cardinal collins
    February 1, 2013

    taansih dawn or peh wapan [dawn in cree] no website yet but will soon be contributing to the Cree Literacy \netwok as a guest blogger? until i figure out if i wnt to go on my own.. Kiyaam -i use double letters to indicate long cree sounds is a word that i ahve reserched with elders it is one of those words with deep cultural means let it be..and you learned at a young age what this meant..i will not discuss this in depth here but it is also an expression of humility and acquiesence to the creators will let go and let Creator.. some Cree ppl think it is a givng up term or a fatalistic term but it isnt it indicates great fatih etc.. good work dawn keppercoming good to see young ppls perspectives..ayhay

  7. Paul Beach
    February 1, 2013

    Your story reminded me of just how many dead squirrels I am carrying around. Thanks for giving me the courage to drop them and let the Earth take them. Kiyam.

  8. Debbie MacDonald
    February 2, 2013

    Hiy Hiy! Thank you! I needed this medicine & I will share this Kiyam.
    Blessings, Debbie

  9. Mary
    February 3, 2013

    Thank you. Your Kokum was a wise woman, and so are you. There are a lot of us dodging squirrels, thanks for the encouragement to keep trying.

  10. myna lee johnstone
    February 5, 2013

    Good one!
    So if we pickup a dead squrrel accidentally or not, we can purify by brushing off,washing or smudging

  11. Tavin
    February 6, 2013

    Dawn, your words came at the exact right time for me. Kiyam. I need to let things be. Between yourself, and my brother Aaron, I am learning how to process my own experience. Thank you.

  12. Renee Freeland
    February 6, 2013

    Beautiful and calming words, which came to me on just the right day. Thank you. A’ho – Mitayuke Oyasin – We are all related!