Amber Bracken: Generations

2020 professional grant runner-up

Aimee Bellerose is a lot like her mother—she looks just like her, especially when she laughs, which she loves to do. Like her mom, she is creative, kind and independent. She, like her mom, has had to be tough to survive. The young Indigenous woman has followed in her mom’s footsteps, to survival sex work.

Now, Aimee worries that she could be murdered, just like her mom.

Deanna Bellerose and her sister Ginger are among the 1,724 confirmed murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada since the 1990’s. Ginger was murdered in 2001, Deanna went missing in 2002 but her remains weren’t discovered until 2012.

Their mother also died too soon.

Elsa Bellerose is one of 150,000 children who was taken from their parents and sent to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, where many suffered and died. Elsa committed suicide when her daughters were still teenagers.

So Elsa was stolen from her parents and traumatized in school. Deanna was left behind by her mother’s suicide and traumatized on the streets. Aimee was left motherless by a predator and traumatized in foster-care. Now Aimee’s own daughter, conceived when Aimee was an under-resourced teenager, is being raised by adoptive parents.

Elsa was the last in her family to attend the schools, yet three consecutive generations have also been separated from their Indigenous parents—the ongoing consequences of Residential Schools.

Along with Aimee, since 2015 I’ve been documenting Dylan Cardinal, who has spent his entire life in the pursuit of a functional family, and Danielle Lightning, whose family offers a hopeful example of how healing can also pass through generations. I’ve been culturally adopted by the Lightnings, and my relationships with Aimee and Dylan have also grown beyond the traditional editorial boundaries. The work has evolved in collaboration with each of them.

These stories are painful, but placing them in historical context and including complexity also allows them be humanizing.

The realities of intergenerational trauma are truths we all need to confront. The immediate benefits for Indigenous people are to feel represented and for their non-Indigenous counterparts to better contemplate the contemporary impacts of Residential Schools. Beyond borders, these stories of intergenerational trauma have implications for nearly every colonized community in the world.

To complete this project, I will document the final critical milestones in each of their lives, such as the coming birth of Dylan’s fifth child. I will also work with each family to gather and document the archival evidence of their ancestors experience in Residential Schools. Support from the grant will allow me to fully engage and defer freelance assignments.

This work will culminate in a book and exhibition rooting the lives of Dylan, Danielle and Aimee, within their family history, to offer insight into the ripples of trauma and healing through generations. True reconciliation for our shared colonial history can’t occur without fully acknowledging the harm—including the contemporary harm.

Aimee Bellerose

Aimee signs her mother’s memorial, in the place where her body was found, after visiting it for the first time since it had been discovered there in 2012. Her aunt that she isn’t on good terms with has her mom’s ashes and, without a grave to visit she feels disconnected from her mom.

A line of teepees at dusk

The brightest teepee holds the sacred fire that is tended and remains lit for the duration of the culture camp. Culture camp provides an opportunity for youth to experience culture, language and teaching that their parents may have lost. Danielle’s dad is a prominent elder and leader of the camp.

The Lightning family on a bed, laughing.

The Lightning family rests together after a feast in memory of their sister, who died from suicide.

A black and white photo of a Cree family.

A historical photograph of a Cree family in front of the original Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis. The Roman Catholic school was open between 1916 and 1973, though the building was enlarged twice and eventually replaced in the 1950s. Abuses within the residential system that aimed to destroy indigenous language, culture, traditions and identity are well known and the school left deep and lasting trauma in the community.

A man holding up his shirt, exposing a slash on his chest

Dylan removes the bandage to a stab wound. He was assaulted with a friend while walking home late at night.

Print cloth is tied to poplar trees, carrying prayers, near the sun-dance grounds in Maskwacis.

A woman in a pink top lies back on a bed, a burning cigarette in her hand.

Roxanne smokes in Aimee’s room before they all went out for the night.

Graffiti-style writing in a steamy nightclub window

Someone tagged in the condensation inside a club during Aimee’s CD release party. 

A young boy standing in front of a teepee in a field.

Albert grew up mostly in the city but is getting more comfortable in his home community of Enoch. During a hiphop workshop at the University of Alberta.

A man stands at the edge of a dilapidated cement wall covered in graffiti, looking out over a river.

Albert looks over the edge of “The End of the World”, a popular hangout spot for youth in Edmonton river valley.