Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall describes Two-Eyed seeing, or Etuaptmumk, as “To see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing, and to see from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together.” In A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliott delves into the borderlands between her Haudensaunee and White heritage to explore what it means to navigate between the two worlds. Her mother is a white American woman of Hungarian heritage, her father is Onkwehon:we of the Six Nations. Elliott recounts their turbulent relationship – her mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder, her father’s struggle with racism and the history of colonialism in North America – in a debut that cuts to the core of what it means to call yourself Canadian in the twenty-first century.
In Elliott’s writing, the political is intimately, viscerally personal. Her memoir is like reading the diary of someone who has conspiratorially slipped its leather-bound pages into your hands. You feel slightly guilty, uncomfortable, you feel the tugging on the rope around your ankle that ties you to your colonial ancestors, the ones who sailed from Southampton, England in 1635 and found themselves on Pennacook territory. There is no escaping the responsibility of that history. I feel that I am peeking over Elliott’s shoulder as she writes, seated at the table next to mine; we are separate, and I am curious. Over three centuries have passed since the first of my family stepped foot on Turtle Island. Innumerable crimes have been committed. My own bag rattles with criminal bones. Elliott reminds me that I need to take those bones out, one by one, and lay them on the table in the light of day. Inspect them without mercy.
“A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” is the Anglicization of a Mohawk phrase to describe depression: Wake’nikonhra’kwenhtará. Elliott has her sister translate the phrase for her, her sister and niece being “the first members of our family to speak the language since our paternal grandfather a handful of decades ago.” Finding the words to describe her depression is a reclamation. It is also a good phrase to describe the shape that her book takes, a series of interconnected personal essays that lay out the contents of her mind before the reader. Each chapter is picking up another fragment of a mind that is whirling ferociously with love, hatred, passion and criticism.
In “Not Your Noble Savage,” Elliott investigates ‘literary colonialism’ in Canadian Lit. A grievous example being Margaret Atwood failing to reference a single Native-author in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, considered to have near-Bible status in the world of Canadian literary criticism. There is a consistent theme of white, settler critics defining what makes a Native author the ‘real thing.’ As Elliott puts it,
“There is an insidious undercurrent driving critics to question a Native author’s identity, written content and success, directly calling to mind the Indian Act and the continual dehumanization of living, breathing people into historic artifacts.”
Elliott pushes back against these representations. In telling her own story, she asserts her agency. She owes the reader nothing. “If we aren’t allowed to give consent or allowed to refuse consent when it comes to recounting our own trauma, what is left for us?” How does the self assert its boundaries within the genre of memoir? How is representation tied up with exploitation? Within a national literary lineage that has erased and eroded Indigenous identity, Elliott comes bursting forth with a tale of vulnerability and perseverance, imperfection and resilience.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground draws you in and makes you listen. Elliott explores mental illness, poverty and abuse with a grace and insight that warns against pity. She sharpens her intellect like a weapon. She draws the line where empathy should end. Whitman wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Elliott bites back that this is an impossibility, that identity is ancestral, that the wound cannot be appropriated. With a Two-Eyed perspective that is as sharp as a hawk’s, Elliot has brought an essential new critique to Canadian literature while delivering a heartbreaking narrative on family, trauma, and survival.