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
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
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
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
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