One might watch a YouTube video of Tala Tootoosis showing how to make a ribbon skirt and assume she had always been surrounded by culture and had lived a life of ceremony since childhood. But that’s not the case, in fact, Tootoosis’ story is quite different from what you might expect. Almost two decades ago Tootoosis was under the hold of crystal meth, crack, and alcohol, and her daughter had been taken from her. It was when she reached that bottom that she knew she had to make a huge change.
“When I sobered up, I had an opportunity. A very privileged opportunity.” Tootoosis says. “Because my mom, who is an addictions counselor, and my grandpa, who is a NNADAP (National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program) worker, and my grandma, who is a NNADAP worker, all agreed to help if I did come home to sober up. And gave me that opportunity, that choice.”
The stipulation to coming home was to get sober. No partying, borrowing money, or trying to see her daughter. Tootoosis then realized that sobriety was entirely up to her.
“When I was out there it was like, I had to realize it was me who put myself out there.” Tootoosis said. “And it was me who had to bring myself home. And realizing that, it took me maybe about four or five months, being out there, just partying. But when I did come home, my mom had called my grandpa, my grandpa came and he brought his pipe bag and my mom sat down with us and she asked me like, “is this your time? Are you ready to sober up now?” And I was like, “yeah, I don’t wanna be out there no more.” I was feeling like I was schizophrenic because I had lost my mind, I had lost my car, custody of my daughter, my house, my job, I was homeless, I had nothing left. No clothes, no belongings at all, and I thought I was crazy because I was hearing and seeing things because of the crystal meth.”
What Tootoosis is describing is drug-induced psychosis. Which is any psychotic episode that is related to the abuse of an intoxicant and is not uncommon among drugs like crystal meth. It can happen during withdrawals, taking too much of a drug, or having an adverse reaction. People who don’t other psychoses, but abuse drugs, can have these episodes.
When Tootoosis was sitting with her mother and grandpa, her grandpa asked her how she started doing drugs.
“I told him how I got addicted.” Said Tootoosis. “How I just started with little bits here and there and how it spiraled and I lost everything and how I became homeless and how I felt like I was crazy because I was hearing voices and seeing things, and I didn’t wanna feel like that anymore. And when I was telling him this story, he was listening to me and he had his eyes closed, and he kept nodding his head. And I thought maybe he was tired, y’know, he was a grandpa. Maybe he wasn’t listening to me, maybe I was just ranting. ‘Cause that’s what kinda what addicts do, also, is they just self-sabotage and get pitiful. But I got angry when I was done talking. I was like, “Grandpa, how come you weren’t even listening to me, I was telling you my story. You told me to tell you what happened.” And he was like, “Well, I’m gonna tell you something that’s really important, you need to remember is that it’s not about me hearing what you have to say. It’s about you learning to tell on yourself, because when you want to heal a wound you have to expose the poison, and part of that poison is holding your story inside and being ashamed of it. So, you have to talk, you have to tell your story, you have to talk about what happened that was bad that hurt you. The more that you talk about it the less power it will have, and the less power it has, the less need and urge you’ll have to run back to that life.”’
Tootoosis’ grandpa then told her that they were going to smoke the pipe and pray, and she would ask to forgive herself and ask for a different life. And what she wanted was a ‘normal’ life.
She wanted job, house, a car, food in the fridge, an absence of bad people, and to no longer “feel crazy.” Her emotions were up and down, she was constantly itchy, and she couldn’t sit still. Her grandpa said all of that was possible, ceremony is powerful, but she had to be willing to do whatever it takes.
“People are going to come into your life who are going to show you things,” Tootoosis said of her grandpa’s words.
“Things you don’t like about yourself, you have to pay attention, it’s all lessons. And eventually one day, you’re going to understand all of those things and how they help you to know why you’re sober and how to stay sober.”
Tootoosis’ path to sobriety was a daily struggle, but she had the help of her family to support her and guide her. Her grandma went into the woods and prayed to the plants, or the medicine, she spoke about Tootoosis’ problems, including drug-induced psychosis. Her grandma made tea out of traditional medicines.
“She said, ‘When you drink this, you have to pray to it, you have to talk to it, you have to ask it to help you with whatever it is that your struggling with,’”’ Tootoosis said of her grandma’s words.
“And that ceremony of talking to it will wake it up and every time you drink it, you have to pray to it.”’
She was given a gallon of tea every day and the itching stopped, her hands stopped shaking, her body felt calm, and her mood evened out. Tootoosis’ grandpa would also take her to a sweatlodge, where he encouraged her to tell her story, and he would take her to elder’s gatherings, and she would her story there as well.
“The more I told (my story) the less it became scary to tell,” said Tootoosis. “The more it became a learning lesson, the more it became reflections, and the more I started to think about, y’know, “I did that, but it’s over now. It’s not happening anymore, I’m somewhere else now.” And the awareness really encouraged me to keep going forward, and I ended up going to a treatment centre and after treatment I went to ninety days, ninety meetings, AA, and then I moved to Saskatoon and started going to meetings there and I joined the Saskatoon Native Theater Company and I did a play called Crystal Clear. And it was all about Crystal Meth.”
Tootoosis also helped all of the participants at the Circle of Voices program, where she helped a playwright write about her and others’ personal stories. Tootoosis was cast as a character based on her own story. She says it was like telling her story on stage, which was really hard initially. She was given a prop to use as a crystal meth pipe, but it became easier as it felt like exposure therapy. She felt like the drug had less power.
Tootoosis then went on to get her grade 12 diploma and then applied for University while pregnant. Following the advice of her grandpa, that there will be people who could use the help of someone who had been through the throes of addiction and who could use the knowledge of traditional medicines in their treatment.
Her doctors told her that she wouldn’t have a long-term or short-term memory because of the effects of crystal meth.
“But my grandpa said that medicine helps you to redevelop and regrow everything, and you become healthier and you heal,” said Tootoosis. “He said, “Don’t worry about what the doctors are saying because they’re going based on tests. Tests that were done without Indigenous people who have been using medicines.”’
Tootoosis graduated University, on time, with grades in the 80s and 90s, while having two more children and going through a cancer scare.
It was around this time that she had met a medicine man who had a family that made ribbon skirts and was about to begin another story.
Part 2:From addiction and homelessness to ribbon skirt maker and motivational speaker; a tale of resilience
During Tala Tootoosis’ last year at University, she met a medicine man whose family made ribbon skirts, and although she felt quite drawn to them, it turned out they were quite different than what she expected.
“It was really exciting for me because ceremony had saved my life,” Tootoosis said.
“Ceremony had taught me how to sober up, grounded me. And I was really drawn to this family, and I didn’t understand a lot of concepts that they followed. But through the relationship I had with the leader, of this ceremony family, ‘cause it was a Sundance family, it became really toxic and really abusive. And in the beginning, it seemed really, uh, Brady Bunch.”
The ‘Brady Bunch’ idea and ceremonial ways were quite intriguing to Tootoosis, so she joined the family. But she would see that their outward appearances were not at all what they were actually like.
“I was being groomed for the first two years,” said Tootoosis. “And all we wore was ribbon skirts, this was in like, 2013, 2011, 12 ,13, 14. That was the whole time I was involved with them. I’d call it a cult. And when I decided to get closely involved with this circle, um, I noticed there was a lot of patriarchal and misogynistic perspectives of the ribbon skirt, of um, suppressing a women’s view of herself, her value, her strength, her power, was suppressed.”
These views were new to Tootoosis, who was raised around strong women. And some Indigenous families are more matriarchal or egalitarian, suppressing a person’s views, especially their strength or power, is not something you would normally see in a household. Tootoosis was experiencing this for the first time.
“I was raised in Akwesasne, New York, around a bunch of matriarchal grandmothers, clan mothers, in Mohawk territory,” said Tootoosis.
“And I was taught to have a voice. And I was raised by a single mother, who taught me to always be independent. I felt like this was going against traditional values and I questioned a lot and I got in trouble a lot. And towards the end, he (the leader) sexually assaulted me in a tipi around bundles on Bear Butte, South Dakota. And I wasn’t the only one, there were hundreds of other women. But I didn’t know, and I had gotten scared, and of course I was scared of like, bad medicine and all this crazy stuff. So, I didn’t want to like openly just leave, so I just quietly tried to leave. And when I did leave, I found out he had done this to other women. And a bunch of other women had left, and so we all chose to leave. And I put away ribbon skirts, quilling, I learned to quill. I had learned to sew, bead, and quill while I was in that circle.”
The women in that circle weren’t allowed to laugh loudly, or look at men, they were encouraged to keep their head down, to be quiet and subservient. When Tootoosis left she had to condition those behaviours out of herself because that’s not who she was.
Unfortunately, Tootoosis’ bad experience with the cult-like family left her associating ribbon skirts and ceremony with the man who had abused her, and she stepped away from making ribbon skirts and began to question if she could ever trust ceremony again, but then she met a respected man who gave her some wise words.
“He said, ‘Now you know what grooming is, now you know that there are medicine people there who are human. We’re all human, and not to put any medicine person or elder on a pedestal. Always know you can question them, especially when they’re inappropriate or when they talk about women in a sexual way, or any kind of inappropriate manner,”’ Tootoosis said of the man’s words.
“But I still felt like I needed to be present to my rage.”
Tootoosis’ father had then passed away after battling cancer and her aunt encouraged her to get back to sewing, but Tootoosis felt uncertain and afraid. But she had more support from some unlikely friends.
“Then my dad passed away and my aunty had come, and she said ‘you should sew, we should make stuff for the funeral,”’ Tootoosis said. “And I was so scared and had become friends with some gangsters, and some street people, and some other family of mine who are gangsters. I had completely strayed away from the ceremony life, I had started going to bars, I didn’t drink or do drugs, I just started going to bars a lot. Trying to like, completely get away from any spirituality or traditional anything, just because I felt like it was safer.”
The gangsters showed up at her house because she had posted a Facebook status saying she was giving up, and questioning the point of anything.
“They showed up ... with flowers and cupcakes and pizza and cards, and they came in my house and they said ‘You can’t quit. You can’t quit because when we needed tobacco, when we needed cloth, without judgement you told us what to get for our feasts. We need you. We need you to keep going to ceremonies. Don’t turn bad, don’t go relapse. We don’t want you to do that.’”
But beading, sewing, and quilling was an emotional trigger for Tootoosis. Every time she did one of those things, she felt like she was doing it for the man who had abused her. Another friend told her that she needed to think about those things in a different way, give them a different meaning than doing for someone else.
“She said, ‘I want you to change the way you think about it. I wan you to go back to beading and quilling and sewing and I want you to give back that teaching to the women, because ribbon skirts are not from a man. A man did not teach you how to sew, you taught yourself. He changed how you thought of it, because you allowed it, but you can also allow yourself to change how you think of it,”’ Tootoosis said of her friend’s words.
Tootoosis also went to sexual assault therapy where she learned about rape culture, how women are objectified, and about consent no matter the situation.
After Tootoosis told her friend what she learned at sexual assault therapy, she told Tootoosis to take what she learned there and put it into the ribbon skirts, to make those ribbon skirts for the women.
“I was so scared,” Tootoosis said. “I was so scared to do it, because I know how many elders are affected by misogyny from residential school, how many grandmothers shame our own young women, y’know, and our young men who get told, ‘you’re just being a boy, you’re just being a man, you can talk sexual like that, it’s okay.’ They’re taught to victim blame, they’re taught that it’s okay to be sexual. Especially in those spiritual places. And there’s so much insensitivity… And there’s so much pretending that there’s no sexual childhood trauma for our people, that they allow men to make gay jokes to each other and they’re not even gay or talking to women in a sexual way. Saying these old men can’t help it but telling women that they better cover up because men are going to look at them. That’s misogyny, that’s patriarchy, and that’s rape culture. That’s teaching women that it’s their fault if they get raped. And I now knew the answer, I now knew the truth, that that was wrong, and I wanted to somehow find a way to teach our women. And so, I made this ribbon skirt workshop at the library here in Saskatoon and I asked Kathy Pruden from the sexual assault therapy center to come, Lindsay Knight (AKA Eekwol) to come do a rap about Indigenous women, and a few other women to come and read poetry, and I had made some skirts to give to audience members. To teach about giving, to teach about passing on whatever it is I talked about, to get them to pass it on to someone else.”
Tootoosis taught the participants how to make ribbon skirts and also about rape culture. She filmed it and put the video onto YouTube, which she says was very powerful.
Since that workshop and video, Tootoosis says she’s had probably over 1000 women who learned how to make ribbon skirts and who also learned about rape culture, some who have heard the words for the first time.
Tootoosis made a workshop where she would go to First Nation communities and teach about the balance of men and women in ceremony, rape culture, and making ribbon skirts on the side. Not only did it help other women, but it proved to be a form of therapy for Tootoosis as well, for herself and for her sobriety. It reminds her of why she’s here and to keep going.