Silence Is Not Our Mothertongue

Posted by on Feb 7, 2013 in Opinion


Silence is Not Our Mothertongue: Madwewewin, The First Taste of Sound.

There is this place called Silence that takes our women by their soft, browned hands and hides them in its long arms and holds them vehemently, wraps these women tightly so tightly and covers their mouths and eyes and feels their strong hearts beating against its dark submersion, its murky breath twining around their tongues, drowning all sounds silent. 

Let me curl into my childhood bed, press my dolls against the side of my face and inhale childhood thickly and drift back into yesterday’s scents and voices and memories. Find yesterday in today. Once, I sat sprawled against a bedcorner while someone from my church consumed my young body as I walked into silent dreamings of picking acorns from the long path behind my house and pulling the tops of each one of them and throwing them into my long, clear river that smelled like morning no matter which season or time of day. Nibi rolling the acorns away to a new shoreline. Anytime these things happened again I could escape back to this pathway so easily, drifting away from them at will, as simply as a dream or a solid door opening toward daylight. But there were never any sounds in these places. Only an underwater humming of pure, flat silence without echoes, without lulls, without a break in between or a parting of the water to ground me. At nights I would line the outside of the bed with my dolls and cover my face with their yarn hair, plastic skin under my fingerpads, their small black eyes watching me as I slept.

In creation we expand in the water, form features and eyes and fingers, elongate hourly into human form. Agonde. Floating we form, floating, agonde. The sounds of a mother whispering to her baby, her singing a dreamsong through the waters, through the taut stomachskin, the sounds of a mother’s laughter a trailway toward madwewewin. To the first taste of sound. In creation, we are reaching and turning and growing inside of the underwater humming, arching toward the sound of love, the sound of a voice we base dreams upon. Madwewein. We learn in the first waters how to hear.

My father had a voice that sounded like syrup. Stories piled up like books through our years. He left long trails against my mind, winding this way and that, and the stories are my inheritance. When we buried him, I carried his voice with me, placed them against my marrow, embedded them in the soft space of memory where I had him still, long after the nurse’s small white hand folded the thin eyelids over his still brown eyes. A memory of protection and strength, knowing that I was on my own now. Sometime later, maadaagami– the water swirled, and I was able to whisper myself out of the outer edge of silence. Was able to build long layers of sound wrung out of my own tongue somehow. We lived outside of these voices. My sisters and I walked forward, whispering to each other.  Mashkawadin.  It is frozen solid until it is warmed by ancient breaths, cracking open, ahki splitting one side to the other, the clear water flowing underneath.

When the world opened itself to me and I stepped through endazhi, that place, the blare of words a trumpet, concrete footsteps cracking, the lifepaths, the long walk forward, the stepping, we learned the prolonged pull out of silence. The pathway so incessant, the small whispered conversations, the people shaping people, the interchanged shorelines where ideas and visions might survive if we let it. I looked then to the waters. I saw the long bodies swaying beneath the waterline, the cusp of shore a page of memories, the edge of water a secret where strong voices lay flattened, silence holding them under as long as the hands didn’t reach too deeply.

Niibiikaa. There is a lot of water. Everywhere. Dimii. It is deep water. Endaso. So many voices laying in wait. Niibi. The water. Gaadoo. It hides these voices. Pulls it in its wrappings, lets them write underwater stories for the earth to read.  These women swimming stories like a scratch of a petroglyph’s rockdust settling against itself. We want to keep you here in safety, where they can’t find you, where the whole world’s careless words fall against the soil. Debinaak. The callous flinging of souls against a rockface, their stories scratching silently because it’s the only way to tell it. 

Many paths to silence seen in every mirror, crisscrossing over one another like piled limbs heaping against a stark white sky.  A blare of noon exposing the stitched lips and even though it is daylight, the people look over our heads, pretending that we might not be there, might not be taped shut and walking down the same streets. Nibbikaa. There is a lot of water and we are quickly sinking, the silence entering us in the schools when the teachers tell us that our own stories aren’t really happening. When we see our Grandmothers afraid to speak their own languages unless all doors are closed. When there are men who drive us home and think it’s okay to pin us down in the front seats and try to rip the buttons off our shirts.  When the other children laugh at our grassless front lawns with car parts and bikes and ski-doos leaning up against each other, the metal catching light and blinding us until our eyes tear and yet we never cry. We never cry. We never blink when we hear the words “Dirty Indians,” we don’t flinch when we see one of our own getting bullied for not living on the same city streets as the other good kids.  We just keep walking and smiling that hard plastic acquiescent smile. The same blank smile of my babydolls that got me through the thick nights of childhood dreaming.

And we are the loose buttons dangling tenuously on the shirt on the wrinkled and forgotten shirt, the hollow closet closing in. 

And now we are women. Walking through these paths. Choosing the ones we wish to step in, avoiding the ones we are told to accept.  Sometimes. We had half-loves, we had faltering minutes where we had to force our tongues to move to say those uncomfortable things that no one else at all wanted to hear. We had the big heavens shift and make us choose things that forced sound out of our mouths and pried words out of the silences that were more comfortable. But we also knew our grandmothers songs. We remembered her strong hands lifting us. We had her persistence threaded onto our spinewalls as tautly as the end knot of Creation. We are women. And because of this, we were compelled to speak, unless the silence held us as they do the still ones.  And this is ok, because some of us will speak for them. But for some of us, our tongues are loosened against a long shoreline, stretching as far as imagination can insist. These words that we have dancing against our lips are leaking a strong river overshore and we are wading here, finding solid ground, and deciding to stay. Some of like it here where we can entangle our grandmother’s spinewords and throat them with our own and speak our sounds which are so loud that the daylight doesn’t hurt our eyes anymore. Our voices are solid against ahki like the spirals of treetrunks, the eternity of sound stretching forward into a horizon filled with bodies stepping outward, a line of history marching, drumbeats stirring the waters like a large spoon. Maadaagami.  Lurid waters curving the whole world open, gathering.

When the Idle No More movement came I was speaking, my silence shrugged down my back, my tongue able to move along and beside many other women, youth and men who saw the need for chiseling spaces where our treaties are honoured and splayed open against settler abuses, where Indigenous women’s attacks are spoken about and acted against due necessity and justice. I have been writing and speaking for some time now and sometimes, because of this, our voices and need for justice are targeted and attacked.


Detail view of one of the pieces of hate mail.

As organizer of several Idle No More rallies and events in my home community of Garden River First Nation and the Bawating area, I received an envelope of hate mail containing my articles from local newspapers that expressed my feelings from an Indigenous standpoint on the Idle No More movement, which were cut out and had lewd pictures and writings, as well as a cut-out of Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. On these cut-outs were crude drawings of male sexual organs, horns, guns and semen erupting from the penises, as well as threats such as “Stay away from the SOO Lesley Belleau or else,” and “The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian,” as well as the words “Yum Yum” beside the penis. I contacted authorities and decided that such attacks were better off in the public eye in order to protect others and to create awareness. Also, it is important to let the perpetrators of such hate crimes to know that their actions are being monitored and does not create a bigger gap of silence for us as Indigenous people. This type of attack will never stop me from speaking, will not remove me from my rightful place of sound within ahki.

When we step outside of the gripping silence, the outer world becomes startled and sometimes angry, not seeing the workings for justice, but instead seeing a radical group of people attempting to speak a history that doesn’t make sense to some. It is radical to some people when we speak because the silence was so comfortable and easy and quiet, that the soft sounds of our voices creates a humming and drumming along the edges of people’s consciousness and awareness that is unwelcome and troublesome to the colonial comfort zone. But we should never stop because of other people’s anger or discomfort when we have a great work for the land, for the women, for our children’s futures, and for the entire worldscape of Indigenous people, some who are lulled by a comforting silence and others who are drumming sounds globally, the whole world inhaling these sounds as sure as a baby’s first suck in of air and exhale their very first taste of sound.

We must not let the hatred and misconceptions that others have within them silence our strong voices. Their hatred and racism is their problem, not our own, and we must continue speaking, acting, writing and moving to a greater change and justice for Indigenous people worldwide.  Silence is not our mothertongue. No amount of hatred, racism, sexism, misconceptions or stereotypes should act to bring us back to the false safety of silence. Our voices are being heard. And the unwinding from Silence’s strong hold, round and round, our hands entwined with others, was not so hard afterall. Let’s move and speak, from the first sound forward. Madwewewin.


Follow Lesley on Twitter: @LesleyBelleau

Lesley Belleau is an Anishnaabekwe writer from the Ojibwe nation of Ketegaunseebee Garden River First Nation, located outside of Bawating/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.  She is a Ph.D student in the Indigenous Studies Department at Trent University, and is focusing on studying Indigenous literature.  Currently she is teaching Indigenous Literature at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie. Lesley enjoys writing fiction, essays and poetry and is the author of The Colour of Dried Bones, a collection of short fiction published by Kegedonce Press, as well as other publications both nationally and internationally. Lesley is currently awaiting the release of her second novel, Sweat, a full-length fiction novel, due to be launched in September, 2013. Currently, Lesley resides in Peterborough, Ontario, with her four young children. 



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  1. Gail Taylor
    February 8, 2013

    Poignant words that fall like persuasive petals on the heart and mind…hauntingly beautiful.

  2. Kenneth Tomlin
    February 8, 2013

    I’ve encountered your words via my raucous world of twitter: the rough and tumble of mamouth tarsands construction machinery, the callous legalism and illegalism of politicians and business-as-usual-men. And you led me back to the silence of the waters of the womb. I became a baby awakened from that silence by mother’s sweet lullaby.

    Within the last few days I watched a video of Russell Means during which he explained how linguists have come to the view that Turtle Island indigenous languages are among the most expressive in the world. You demonstrate–even in the English language–the truth of his assertion.

    Thank you for breaking your silence and transferring to our sensibility both the tenderness and the torment of your “pathway so incessant, the small whispered conversations, the people shaping people . . .”

  3. Kenneth Tomlin
    February 8, 2013

    On my first reading, I was so charmed by “the soft sounds of our voices,” that create “a humming and drumming along the edges of people’s consciousness and awareness” that I failed to absorb the full impact of Lesley’s ordeals; the rape by a fellow churchgoer, the daily mockery from the good settler kids, the obscenity of treating her newspaper writings like the door of a men’s public bathroom, and the threats if she returns to “SOO” Sainte-Marie. Even though wishing to understand, I managed to escape what is “unwelcome and troublesome to the colonial comfort zone.” I did not take into my heart the repeated raw violence.

    Fortunately, I have a habit of reading to my wife writings that make an impression upon me. As I read to her, I blushed at my insensitivity to Lesley’s real message.

    Thank you for revealing the depth of my colonialist reflexes. It is one thing to cut down the tree; but quite another to dig up the roots.

    • Lesley Belleau
      February 9, 2013

      Kenneth. Thank you for all of your observations and beautifully crafted language that at once made me see your own world of technology (twitter) and a hard reality of machines and world of business and legalities. Your way of writing is so honest and truthful and so observative that I really felt like you understood the very story that was underlying and present inside of my writing (even though you share and grow with your wife to a deeper understanding). I just want to thank you for diving under the surface and taking the time to shift through the multiple stories within this writing and to uncover the many pressing issues that are plaguing Indigenous people as individuals and as a collective whole. Your response touched me deeply and I need to thank you for taking the incentive to be honest and revealing within your own writing and for sharing your reactions to myself and to the readers. Your words mean a lot and the admittance to a “colonial reflex” is not one that many people would readily admit to. Miigwetch Kenneth. It is my pleasure to write back to you. Thank you for having eyes to see and for placing your strong heart inside of this response.