Home > Letting Go of Trauma On and Off Stage
Vol. 7 Issue 1

Letting Go of Trauma on and off stage

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 ? t to ask her for an interview. On September 1st, we met at Fincheís coffee shop to talk about healing, writing, working with the Choices program, acting and the next steps for Vera Manuel.

Here we are. So, I never know how to start these things, hmmm... Lets start right at the beginning

My name is Kulilu Paltkey. My English name is Vera Manuel, Iím Secwepemc and Ktunaxa, and I was born in Kamloops, grew up on the Neskonilth reserve until I was 15.

Tell me what lead you to start doing this healing work?

I started to do work on families, writing about families. I wrote a training manual for this national organization for treaty directors, it was called In The Spirit of The Families and as I was writing it I started to really realize how much work I had to do in relationship to my own family. It was a really revealing piece of work. It just opened up so much for me, because I think up to that time I was just running, trying to get as far away from my family as I could get and not really knowing why. I was uncomfortable being at home with my family and when I started doing that writing, doing that work, I just realized what it was. And since that time Iíve gone through and took the responsibility to work on all the things I needed to work on, especially with sexual abuse, I needed to work on, especially with sexual abuse, incest and the violence that I grew up with, just to face it and do some work on it. I put myself in therapy, in group therapy, and worked with my younger sister Arlene. We worked a lot together on this stuff and then it just naturally led me into the work that I do today. I think that what happened was that I came to realize that weíve all had rough times, that there are a lot of people out there that could bene? t from this knowledge.

Can you talk about the workshops?

I do lot of work around sexual abuse issues, family violence, anything to do with trauma. It seems thatís where Iíve ended up. ĎCause before I used to more family oriented work.

Are the workshops geared towards one on one?

No, I do more group work, I do one on one sometimes, but I think itís more powerful to work with groups of people because you really get to help each other.

I guess itís because the support you need is right there.

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 itís very, very powerful. I love doing group work.

Can you talk a bit about why you started your writing?

My ? rst play emerged right when I ? rst 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 itís 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 ? t 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.

I ? nd 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.

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 wouldnít 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 didnít want it to come out; and I remember the ? rst play and seeing all my secrets on the stage and thinking,Ē I wonder if these people know that this is about me?Ē

How was the play received?

It was really well received; because it was so well received Iíve continued to write. I rememember 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 didnít really know what it was about so, I managed to bring this play. And they brought him out, and put him in the ? rst 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, ďMy only regret was that your mother wasnít alive to see this. She would be so proud of you.Ē And I thought he really understood, part of him really understood.

Thatís a really powerful moment to go through.

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 thing 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.

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?

I think there are a lot of ways to do that that havenít even been explored. I am always thinking of stuff like that, because I think that although thereís 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 weíre very visual. And thats why I got really excited with this project with Choices.

What you are doing with them?

Choices is a bridging and pre-employement 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 everyday in their behavior. You know, the stuff that gets in the way when they go to try and ? nd a job. So when I start with them I ask people to keep a journal, Iíll even go out and buy them a journal, and give them little things to put in it everyday, 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 donít just get them to write it, we have to share them. And I ask them,ĒHow do you think a person ? nds their way out of that? What is the greatest thing that helped you ? nd your way over here to Choices and come out from where youíve been?Ē And they write about that story. Itís like weíre putting together a script.

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, thereís a short time span in there where itís unbearable, theyí ve written the stories, thereís tears, thereís 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 whoís going to do what. We start acting it out and those people might not show up for a couple of days, because itís 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, ďHow can we change it? How can we shift it? What does this person need to do to move from this place?Ē So by the time we are in the rehearsal theyíve worked it all through in the rehearsal and they are just talking about it like itís something thatís manageable, because theyíve worked it through.

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. )

The most powerful thing for me was when they came backstage after the ? rst 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.

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 youíre very humble about this.

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, ďI got my kids back, my husband and I got back togetherĒ, good things happen in their lives, and I just feel so lucky to be a part of that.

What is healing?

To me, the bottom line about healing is when your able to shift behaviors that are destructive in your life to healthier behaviors. When youíre able to, ? rst of all, identify that theyíre 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 thatís why people donít go there. They slam on the brakes when they are feeling vulnerable and the tears come, but I think thatís really key in healing. Remembering things that have happed 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 behaviors.

What can healing mean for our communitiy?

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 communites its every bit as important as aboriginal title and rights, they go hand in hand, that we need to have healthy people to lead our communites.

Is there anyting that is missing or anything else you want to say?

I think that healing doesnít happen in isolation from the things going on in our lives. I think itís all totally connected, but I havenít been able to make that connection. I think that maybe I have to explore that. Thatís something to explore for the future, to explore how to connect that, because historically I think they used to be connected. We didnít just have just the political, just the social, they werenít all separated like that, but now it seems like weíve 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 ? gure that out for us.

Well, maybe we will end this off by asking whatís the next step for Vera Manuel

To ? nish 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 Iím long gone, that teaches people something; passes on some of the knowledge and information thatís 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.

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