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I come from strong women

After losing her mother and grandmother in short succession, author Helen Knott steps into bigger moccasins.

May 30th, 2024

Author Helen Knott was the co-winner of the 2024 George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature for "Becoming a Matriarch."

Knott delves into themes of mourning, sobriety through loss, and generational dreaming, taking the reader on her journey of self-discovery from the depths of grief to emerge as a matriarch herself.


by Odette Auger

With clear eyes and a strong heart, Helen Knott (Prophet River First Nation) continues the story of her path in Becoming a Matriarch (Penguin Random House $32). Knott’s voice shifts perspectives, allowing former self, in-the-moment self, and becoming self to reflect and participate in the story-sharing. In her debut memoir, In My Own Moccasins, readers were introduced to Knott’s unflinching truth-telling skills, measured by the warmth of her personal voice.

Intergenerational trauma can be a catch-all phrase—a nod toward acknowledgment, yet one that avoids truly seeking all we carry as Indigenous people. Knott’s brilliance is in communicating the weight while describing the way forward. Her writing doesn’t feel like the polarized ranges of dark/light, then/now. Rather, the two memoirs share a riding note that builds a feeling of being able to hold all possibilities.

“I crafted a voice that would be listened to… aware that it took a long time for our voices to be carried into places where they would be heard,” Knott writes. She is humble about her accomplishments, seeing them as the tool rather than the goal. “I can leverage what I’ve learned from the white world and tell their stories.”

Helen Knott with her grandmother, June Bigfoot.

She keeps the why central to how she uses her voice. “I come from a line of ghostly women. Women who were sometimes apparitions in crowded rooms. Women who have often existed on the peripheries of larger society.” With the passing of her mother, Shirley Knott, and her grandmother, June Bigfoot, within a couple of seasons, tried and love are one as Knott mourns. Losing family matriarchs means losing “women who carried families and communities on their backs.”

“I come from a line of women who will not be overlooked, because I can write their memory into the pages of a bool. I can make people see them like I saw them—as the sources of everything. Here you are, finally seen.”

Helen Knott and her mother, Shirley Knott.

Knott’s structure includes a rhythm, a rise and fall between warmth that made me smile, to sharing “the waves of stinging tears held in.” A memory of a family trip to a zoo floats up, where Knott notices Grandma is standing in the hot sun, her eyes fixed on a bear: “She pointed her finger at the bear, who was repeating a pattern of movement. Two steps forward, a circling of the head, two steps back. Two steps forward, a circling of the head, two steps back. ‘His mind is gone,’ she said sadly… Grandma was raised in the bush and was not unfamiliar with bears. She traversed land all alone as a young girl, often taking a kettle and tea into the middle of nowhere for an afternoon. The bear did not break the sequence. People ate ice cream while offering their kids the first glimpse of the wild, a big black bear with a lost mind, stuck in a small man-made home. I wonder if Grandma saw herself in that bear—something wild, something trapped, something committed to pattern and memory, something that longed to be free but never would be.”

We know from In My Own Moccasins that Knott has the bravery to show the “precarious places’ she’s walked through: trauma, sexual violence, addictions. There’s no pretending with Knott. She acknowledges when “Numbness, my old friend, seemed to beckon to me in the distance.”

The memories of old coping mechanisms are replaced with her new mantra: “I come from strong women.” This is the pulse of the memoir, reminding readers of the universal need for sources of truth, guidance. Facing the rite of passage that death brings is to step out of certain family roles and into new ones. Readers witness Knott stepping into the full understanding of her purpose as a living memory keeper, “yetchay kay nusgee” (I remember things from the past). Acquiring the understanding in a short period of time is the hallmark of this passage for her, including learning to hold memory without carrying the weight of it.

The book jacket of Helen Knott’s Becoming a Matriarch.

The multiple lenses needed to understand her journey are reflected in Knott’s choice to blend memoir, poetry, interludes and dreams.

I am the black bear.
I am the spectator.
I am the oblivious child eating ice cream.
I am all these things.
I am Helen, after my kohkum who raised my dad.
My middle name is June, after Asu.
I carry the names of the women who came before me.
I was aged with memory the day I was born.

Interlude #2 introduces readers to dream maps—dreams drawn out on animal hides. “The dreamers would travel outside of their bodies to see what was to come,” Knott writes. She then shares a family story in which her grandmother’s grandmother is praying on a rooftop with a dream map in hand. It’s a view into the power of her matriarchs, and what continues. Careful protocols are required as “the dream map is so powerful it can drain the people who care for it.”

The maps held spiritual strength to assist the dreamer into the next world and were usually buries with them. “Sometimes, though, they would leave pieces of the maps to help those they left behind.” This is the beauty of Becoming a Matriarch—a glimpse of a map to those of us still finding their heart strength. 9780385697774

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Odette Auger, award-winning jour- nalist and storyteller, is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother and lives as a guest in toq qaymɩxw (Kla- hoose), ɬəʔamɛn qaymɩxw (Tla’amin), ʔopqaymɩxw (Homalco) territories.

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