Peter Morin Interviews Vera Manual
I met Vera Manuel a couple of years ago when we were both asked to sit on a committee to discuss Aboriginal resource issues. It was from that time I learned that Vera was a writer, and worked at facilitating healing workshops in communities around the province, workshops that dealt with things like surviving and healing from trauma. When we talked about her writing, I was inspired by her voice, and I asked her if she wanted to be a part of the special Redwire CD* issue, to which she replied with the poem “Justice.” So, for this issue on health and wellness, it seemed like a natural fit to ask her for an interview. On September 1st , we met at Finche’s coffee shop to talk about healing, writing, working with the Choices program, acting, and the next steps for Vera Manuel.
PM: Here we are. So, I never know how to start these things, hmmm... Let’s start right at the beginning...
VM: My name is Kulilu Palki. My English name is Vera Manuel. I’m Secwepemc and Ktunaxa, and I was born in Kamloops, grew up on the Neskonilth reserve until I was 15.
PM: Tell me what led you to start doing this healing work?
|National Native Association of Treatment Directors|
PM: Can you talk about the workshops?
VM: I do lot of work around sexual abuse issues, family violence, anything to do with trauma. It seems that’s where I’ve ended up. ‘Cause before I used to do more family oriented work.
PM: Are the workshops geared towards one on one?
VM: No, I do more group work. I do one on one sometimes, but I think it’s more powerful to work with groups of people, because you really get to help each other.
PM: I guess it’s because the support you need is right there.
VM: Yeah. I think our greatest learning is through our storytelling, when people sit around in the circle and start talking about their lives and other people learn from their experience, and it’s very, very powerful. I love doing group work.
PM: Can you talk a bit about why you started your writing?
VM: My first play emerged right when I first started my own healing work. I was asked by Spirit Song to write a play about family violence for youth and this story just came out, and of course it’s like pieces of my own story, but it just came out, and that was called “Song of the Circle,” and since then I continued to write plays, work with plays, work with theatre. And in between I was traveling to different communities doing healing workshops, working in healing lodges, taking part in conferences and ceremonies and things. And then I would come back and I would be working on these plays. So they were like two separate things I was doing and it kept me really busy, and then all of a sudden they both started coming together; it felt so natural, such a natural fit for me to start taking my poetry into the workshops. And I would get to see what a strong impact it had on people to get them to open up about their stories.
PM: I find that people are really intimidated to do stuff like that. But once you can get them to move in that direction, very amazing things can happen.
VM: I really feel that I was born a poet and a writer, but I never started working on it until I was almost 40, and I feel it was buried really deep under all that garbage. And the little bits of journals I kept through the years tell me why I wouldn’t bring it out, because my whole life was spilling out through my writing and I was really invested in keeping all these secrets back then. There was just so much shame about the things that happened in my life that I didn’t want it to come out; and I remember the first play and seeing all my secrets on the stage and thinking, “I wonder if these people know that this is about me?”
PM: How was the play received?
VM: It was really well received; because it was so well received, I’ve continued to write. I remember attending this conference in Kamloops. It was the 20th anniversary of the UBCIC conference, and my father was still alive then, and they were going to honour him at this conference. They asked me to bring this play and they didn’t really know what it was about. So, I managed to bring this play. And they brought him out, and put him in the first row. I was really nervous about that. And I remember that one of my brothers left the theatre, well, he said that he had to go do something, but I think it was opening up stuff for him. During the break I went to go talk to my dad, just to see what his reaction was. He told me, “My only regret was that your mother wasn’t alive to see this. She would be so proud of you.” And I thought he really understood, part of him really understood.
PM: That’s a really powerful moment to go through.
VM: Yeah, so it served as a real powerful tool for healing in my family. The Strength of Indian Women is really totally about the stories my mom told me, and other women, but mostly my mom. Things that just really helped me in my life, because of her telling me those things. I never knew what she had gone through and I never knew she was also a sexual abuse survivor, and she had gone through a lot in her life. So when she told me these things and it came out in The Strength of Indian Women, that was just like pure therapy. So I could really see how useful it was in the work that I do.
PM: Is there a need for more creative and expressive programs in the health service industry, like if I wanted to write as a way for me to deal with what abuse was, is there spaces for this?
VM: I think there are a lot of ways to do that that haven’t even been explored. I am always thinking of stuff like that, because I think that, although there’s a lot of services out there, there is still room to be more creative and come up with services. Especially with our people, because we come from a history of oral tradition and we’re very visual. And that’s why I got really excited with this project with Choices.
PM: What you are doing with them?
Choices is a bridging and pre-employment program. The women that come there, for various reasons, have not been in the work market, so they are looking for employment. They are looking for life skills. They are looking for ways of being employed and need to do some healing work on themselves, so they need help. Some of them are separated with children, or their children have been taken away and they are working really hard to get their children back. So for various reasons, like we mentioned historical trauma, their lives have been turned upside down many, many times. So they come there trying to get in to the work market, get their kids back, get their families back together, get their lives back together, get out of abusive relationships if they have to do that, get into healthier relationships. They are not actors but they all have a story, and that story is spilling out every day in their behaviour. You know, the stuff that gets in the way when they go to try and find a job. So when I start with them I ask people to keep a journal, I’ll even go out and buy them a journal, and give them little things to put in it every day, and then I will introduce them to poetry writing. And then what I do is I ask them questions like— the play is supposed to focus on family violence in some way, so I ask them to report in story and tell about family violence. So they write all these stories, and I don’t just get them to write it, we have to share them. And I ask them, “How do you think a person finds their way out of that? What is the greatest thing that helped you find your way over here to Choices and come out from where you’ve been?” And they write about that story. It’s like we’re putting together a script.
PM: People like to hide their pain...
VM: Oh yeah, they really do, and their pain is part of their whole identity. They really have a hard time seeing themselves outside of their own pain. With the play, there’s a short time span in there where it’s unbearable: they’ve written the stories, there’s tears, there’s a lot of anger, grief, even to the point that the staff kind of worry, how are they going to do this? I tell them not to worry cause once they get through this part of it they are going to be so powerful. So they write the story, then we start acting it out, decide who’s going to do what. We start acting it out and those people might not show up for a couple of days, because it’s opening up stuff, so we choose another couple of people and they start acting and it gets too painful for them, and then we just keep acting it out. The whole time I am talking with them about, “How can we change it? How can we shift it? What does this person need to do to move from this place?” So by the time we are in the rehearsal they’ve worked it all through in the rehearsal and they are just talking about it like it’s something that’s manageable, because they’ve worked it through.
PM: That play was really great.
(Choices premiered the play that the participants worked on with Vera Manuel at the Arts Club Revue. It was a very powerful play about the effects of family violence and its link to the effects of historical trauma on our lives today. The play was created using drama therapy. )
VM: The most powerful thing for me was when they came backstage after the first big cheer, after they got a standing ovation, the looks on their faces. They just could not believe that they did it and that people love it.
PM: It seems to me that you are in a very special place because you get to be a part of the changes that are happening in our communities and you’re very humble about this.
VM: I feel so lucky to see the shifts and changes. I just feel so lucky. And when I run into people on the streets and they tell me their lives have changed, “I got my kids back, my husband and I got back together,” good things happen in their lives, and I just feel so lucky to be a part of that.
PM: What is healing?
VM: To me, the bottom line about healing is when you’re able to shift behaviours that are destructive in your life to healthier behaviours. When you’re able to, first of all, identify that they’re even there. Then you do some work to be able to shift it, and I think that in order to heal, to be able to start this process, grief work is huge. And that’s why people don’t go there. They slam on the brakes when they are feeling vulnerable and the tears come, but I think that’s really key in healing. Remembering things that have happened from the past and allowing ourselves to have those feelings, tears, anger, and grief about what happens, so that we can move past it and we can start changing those behaviours.
PM: What can healing mean for our community?
VM: I think healthier communities where we are not tearing each other down or where we are not afraid to come out of our homes, where our children can feel safe and they can grow up with a better experience of childhood than we had. I think for our communities, it’s every bit as important as aboriginal title and rights— they go hand in hand— that we need to have healthy people to lead our communities.
PM: Is there anything that is missing, or anything else you want to say?
VM: I think that healing doesn’t happen in isolation from the things going on in our lives. I think it’s all totally connected, but I haven’t been able to make that connection. I think that maybe I have to explore that. That’s something to explore for the future, to explore how to connect that, because historically I think they used to be connected. We didn’t just have just the political, just the social, they weren’t all separated like that, but now it seems like we’ve got this group of people, the spiritual people, these are the political people, these are the healing people, but they need to all be connected. I think the healthier we get, the more we will see some possibilities, and I think the youth will figure that out for us.
PM: Well, maybe we will end this off by asking, what’s the next step for Vera Manuel?
VM: To finish my novel. I want to move into writing novels and books. I love writing plays but they have a limited life. I want to write a novel, and it will be hanging around here after I’m long gone, that teaches people something; passes on some of the knowledge and information that’s been given to me. I think that we do need more novels and books written by our own people. I want to move more into writing, get into doing more of this creative kind of work, rather than doing workshops that are just workshops, or presentation workshops. I want to move more into incorporating drama and poetry.
This interview was originally published in Redwire Magazine, Vol 7 Issue 1 (2004)
*Our Voice is Our Weapon and Our Bullets are the Truth, Redwire Native Youth Media Society
**In the Spirit of the Family: Native Alcohol & Drug Counsellors Family Systems Treatment Intervention Handbook by National Native Association of Treatment Directors (1989); writers: Vera Manuel, Elaine Story, Mahara Allbrett, & Bea Shawanda
For more information about the magazine and further archives, see:
Thank you to Peter Morin for a very insightful interview with Vera, and for permission to share it.