"IT'S A SWEET LIFE"

By Charleen Touchette

See her new book: 
IT STOPS WITH ME 
MEMOIR OF A CANUCK GIRL
by CHARLEEN TOUCHETTE 
June 2004 
Touch Art Books, Santa Fe

also, hear an online interview with the author/artist at University of Colorado, "What Follows" 
 

   When did it begin? It was not the moment when my first screaming breath echoed in the slick tiled delivery room unheard by both my mother and father that began the saga of my life. Nor was it the touching moment when my nineteen-year old mother awoke from an ether-induced fog in Woonsocket Hospital to gaze lovingly into the wide eyes of her newborn baby girl. 
   No, the destiny that would be mine was rooted far deeper in the past. It was rooted in my parents', grandparents', and great-grandparents' experiences. It was rooted in a culture and a community rapidly changing and dying right before the childish eyes I opened to the world. It was rooted in a history of oppression and suppression, a mixed heritage that held both good and bad starkly contrasted side by side. With my coal black eyes, Indian hair, French language, and woman centered culture I also inherited a legacy of dysfunction, alcoholism, and abuse.
   When did it begin? How did love and cruelty become so inextricably entwined, so connected they were like right and left hands or even right and left sides of the same face? How did cruelty become such a natural part of the family that love was used as the excuse to hide it? How did loyalty become defined as refusing to tell? It would be so easy to say it started with my father's drinking, but that would be too simplistic. The roots go far deeper.
   Was it when my mother opted to exchange the cruelty of poverty for that of my father's drunken rages bartering our child's souls for the gilded cage of a suburban tract house? Was it when her mother, Mimi, encouraged her to marry the tall handsome up and coming dentist ignoring all the warning signs of his violent temper? Or was it even earlier when Mimi, desperate for a better life for Colleen than her own as a millworker's wife, painted her fresh and lovely daughter's thirteen-year old face and entertained her suitors? 
   More likely it was when my dad's mother, Mémère Louisia, was overwhelmed by childbirth and never quite recovered, leaving my father emotionally abandoned and unable to bond. A crazy cold lady, she never held or hugged my dad his entire life. It could also go back to Pépère Touchette, his dad. He was a kind and gentle loving grandfather to my sisters and I, but my dad always seemed afraid of him. Perhaps when Pépère was a young powerful man looming six foot three inches and nearly three hundred pounds of solid muscle, he lost his temper with his odd only son and exploded with rage. Maybe his fist crashed down on Little Archie's scrawny body the way Archie would release his rage on my tiny frame decades later. 
   No, that is highly unlikely because my Pépère was the most loving, tender man I ever knew ˇ he truly was a gentle giant. More likely, it was crazy Mémère's bony fist that battered Archie's skinny form. Mémère Louisia was nervous to the point of pathology. She was always on some kind of medication for her "nerves". Maybe she had a bad reaction to the many different types of pills she popped, or the bottle of red wine she drank alone in the dark every day. Maybe she lost her temper, and turned her rage upon her only son relentlessly without cause or warning. 
   Or it may have been something else, something even darker, and more sinister. I think the roots probably go even deeper, further back. Chances are it could go back to my father being sent away to boarding school when he was barely twelve years old alone and left to the mercy of the brutal brothers. Perhaps my dad's vehemence against sending children away to school was rooted in some horrible memory of his experiences at Assumption with the brothers or the upper classmen who persecuted and teased the gawky boy. 
   Or maybe it goes back even further to my paternal great-grandparents, Mémère and Pépère Touchette. They immigrated to America for a better life. Despite their struggles, my Pépère, Archie Joseph, was born in a dark damp cell in one of the grim stone tenements housing the millworkers that lined the swift river in North Grosvendale, a dirt-poor French Canadian mill town in the northeast corner of Connecticut. Pépère, his sisters, and cousins all had to work from the time they were little children alongside their adult relatives in dank noisy mills where they breathed wool fiber day in and day out. They often woke up coughing wool and blood in the icy mornings as they left for work before dawn. Desperate to escape the dead end drudgery of a millworker's life, Pépère seized the opportunity to apprentice with a plumber at seven years old for a meager seven dollars a week. Despite the dreary monotony of their oppressive lives, my North Grosvendale relatives refused to lose hope. They struggled, suffered, scrimped, and saved hoping that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer and work so very hard for so very little.
   Certainly, it must be traced back on my mother's side as well. Perhaps to Mimi's father, Alphonse Lavallee, the philandering barber surgeon who sexually molested his daughters and some of his grand and great granddaughters until Mémère Philomêne finally left him and showed up on my grandmother's doorstep one day with her suitcase in hand. 
   Chances are it goes back even further than that to Philomêne's mother, Mémère Philomêne Lambert who married Pépère Antoine Hébert and struggled with him to till the rocky nutrient depleted New England soil to feed their large family. When she became blind and died in 1914, my grandmother was only ten years old. Or even further back to David Lambert's Trading Post situated among the Kainah , the Blood Nation, in the shadow of the craggy Canadian Rockies on a bluff overlooking the Kootenay River. And to Pépère Lambert and his Pied Noir Indian wife who packed up her belongings on a travois and tearfully left her tribe to follow her Frenchman to the East. 
   It could also go back to the Indian ancestry of Pépère Touchette's family who emigrated from Canada to toil in the mills of North Grosvendale. They inherited all the physical attributes of their Indian blood along with debilitating blinding diabetes, and the insidious predilection for alcoholism, but through cultural genocide lost the direct ties to their tribal heritage. I may never know for sure whether they were descended from the Mohawk, or other Six Nations tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy from Montréal and New York State, or the Ojibwe from the Northern Woodlands, or the Abenaki of Québec, or even the Micmacs of Acadia, or perhaps the Pequot and Nipmuc who were indigenous to the land they lived on in northeastern Connecticut. Still, some of their blood runs in my veins and has in part made me who I am. 
   And it must go back to the generations of mixed blood immigrants who left hunger and persecution in French Canada and trudged down into New England to find work in the dangerous mills in the early 1800s. They had tired of the unbearable religious, economic, and cultural discrimination imposed upon them in Québec Province. They sought a country where they could speak their beloved language freely and raise their children with their religion and culture without suffering subjugation. 
   Or maybe it goes even further back to the explorers, horse traders, and trappers ˇ the rugged adventurers who trudged and portaged the uncharted forests, rivers, and woodland lakes trapping and trading with the Abenaki, Mohawk, Iroquois, Ojibwe, Lakota, Cree, and Blackfeet people who inhabited this ancient land. These voyageurs met and married for love, seduced, or raped the Indian women who bore their children. Sojourning in tiny towns throughout French Canada along the Rivière Saint-Laurent, they married and birthed their babies in places with mysterious names like Yamaska, Sorel, St. Robert, St. Damase, and St. Hyacinthe. 
   Perhaps it can be traced to young Martin Aucouin who left Cougnes in France and braved the cross-Atlantic voyage to settle in Port Royal in Acadia, the home of the legendary Evangeline immortalized in Longfellow's epic poem. And to the five generations of Aucoins who strove to create a peaceful life in Nova Scotia in little Acadian towns with poetic names like Cobequid, Grand Pré, and St.Charles aux Mines until the Expulsion of 1755. 
   And it could be connected to the tragedy of my Acadian ancestors who refused to deny their heritage and were forced to leave behind their homes, cherished belongings, and mementos - the irreplaceable physical traces of our family history lost to their descendants forever. And to the homeless families who were scattered throughout the British colonies unwanted and despised wherever they were deposited. And to the wretched refugees who were left without a home or country seeking justice and compassion on both sides of the Atlantic - but finding it nowhere. 
   Or maybe it is rooted even further back to the starving ancestors in Haute-Pyrénees, Anjou, Poitou, Champagne, and Bretagne who tired of trying to pull nourishment from that land and took their chances sailing to New France. They sailed on ships over the treacherous stormy Atlantic seas, seeking cultural and religious freedom, adventure, and economic opportunity. 
   And always it goes back to the women struggling to put food in the stomachs of their many, many children, to keep warm clothes on their backs and shoes on their growing feet. And to the men, the Pères, who labored incessantly with no relief to bring some meager nourishment to their large families. And to the Pépères, the grandfathers, who broke their backs tilling the infertile lands they tried to settle, trapping and hunting in the unexplored wilderness of the Canadian forests. Or to the ones who drowned or caught pneumonia pulling Atlantic salmon, cod, Arctic char, and haddock from the frigid maritime province seas. And to the Pépères, who hunted seals, froze to death on ice floes, or were lost at sea in Atlantic storms on fishing boats like "The Fairy Queen. Or to the Pépères who laid lobster traps, pulling their snapping captives from the frozen North Atlantic for their factories at Wolf Cove and LaDique. Or to the Pépère who built a flourmill above the Platin River, or to the cousin who raised minks in the piercing solitude of the towering pines of Québec province's deep forests. And especially to the fathers who were so downtrodden by political oppression and poverty that every vestige of their self-esteem was destroyed. Feeling powerless, emasculated and beleaguered by the wailing of too many hungry mouths to feed they tried to dull their anguish with alcohol and gambling but often ended up venting their frustrations by abusing their wives and children. And ultimately, it always goes back to the Catholic Church that gave them all solace even as it created, supported, and benefited from the deplorable conditions that oppressed them. 
   Patterns - patterns of oppression and reacting to oppression and internalizing oppression until men are drinking, raging, and beating their women and children to forget the humiliation of their lives and women are manipulating and sacrificing their children to have some semblance of control over theirs. This is my complex legacy.
   How did it get to the point where men and women are at war, and their children are the swords they wield against each other? I don't know, but I do know it's not just about my family and my ancestry. I don't know when it started but I do know where it is ending. It is stopping right here with me. I know I was not the first girl to be abused in my family. But I will be the first to say, "No more! It stops here!" I will remember and I will heal. I will release it from my life and through my healing, all the woman of my lineage will be healed too. 
 
 

My Complex Legacy
   The women of my lineage connect me to five hundred years and twenty generations of French Canadian culture in North America, countless centuries and lifetimes of Indian wanderings on this continent, and innumerable ages of peasant life in France. My ancestors, who faced challenges, overcame adversity, or became crushed by oppression, endowed me with a complex challenging legacy. It is impossible to discern whether the violent character of my inheritance goes back through all my genetic lines or perhaps to just one or two whom history battered especially relentlessly. 
   What matters is that along with a legacy of dysfunction, I was also blessed with the gift of the rich cultural traditions of all my ancestors ˇ French, Blood, Eastern Woodland Indian, and Acadian. Each had a strong tradition of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. Though rife with struggle, each strand of my peoples' history was also a tradition of fortitude, which endowed me with the tools to be a tenacious survivor. The blood of all my ancestors runs in my veins - genes from each one spin in the double helix of my DNA. My birthright is a diverse cultural heritage that made me who I am and determined the fate into which I was born, but also gave me the necessary skills to prevail. 
   My forebears journeyed to Canada from nearly every province of France. On my mother's side, the Lavallees originated in the 
third century, B.C. in Armorica in ancient Brittany and the Héberts issued from Provence in the south of France in ancient times. The Lamberts came from Dauphiné in the Rhone Valley in the picturesque Alps of southeastern France. On my father's side, the Touchettes were anciently seated at Notre Dame du Touchet near Mortaine in the coastal province of Normandy. The young captivating daughter of the magistrate of Orléans, Marie Touchet was the favorite courtesan of King Charles IX in the sixteenth century. The Aucoins first originated in the province of Anjou, the region of the Hautes-Pyrénées, the mountains that separate France from Spain's Iberian Peninsula, and were later awarded lands in St. Croix in the province of Burgundy. 
   Our ancestry can be traced to Pierre Aucoin's ancestors who were originally from the parish of Cougnes, Charente-Maritime near the Port of LaRochelle in France. And to Pépère Nicholas Sylvestre, Mémère Touchette's maternal ancestor, who was born in Pont-sur-Seine in Champagne in the northeastern part of France, and traveled to Sorel, Québec where he was overjoyed to see his son, Nicolas born a Canadian in 1644. My Aucoin, Hébert, Lavallee, and Lambert ancestors were among the three hundred "picked men" and engaged bachelors" from Brittany who were recruited by order of Cardinal Richelieu in the 1600's to settle Acadia because of their reputation as strong, hard-working, religious people. 
   Historically, our communal heritage goes back to the explorer, Jacques Cartier who made his first of three voyages claiming eastern Canada for Francoise I er, Roi de France in 1534. And to the voyageur, Samuel de Champlain who first explored the St. Laurent seaway in 1603, made twenty crossings to bring settlers to Lower Canada, founded Québec in 1608, and served as the first governor of French Canada. And to Louis Hébert, the Parisian apothecary, who sailed with de Champlain and was the first true migrant to New France with his family when he arrived in 1617. And to the fifteen thousand commoners and nobles captivated by the fur trade who left Montréal in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to explore the Canadian wilderness. These Voyageurs learned the native languages and shared their own, giving French names to the waterways and mountains they "discovered" for the French king. Intermarrying with native women, they became a new people ˇ Métis ˇ half-breeds, who created their own culture incorporating elaborate French swirling patterns into Native beadwork on exquisite Bandolier bags, hand-tanned buckskins, and sewing warm wool hooded Capote coats made from prized Hudson Bay and Pendleton trade blankets. And our story is fundamentally linked to the arrogance and destructive force of the Jesuits and Catholic missionaries who began their forays into the Canadian wilderness at the very beginning of the seventeenth century changing everything forever for its indigenous people. 
   Although merely an unrecorded footnote in the bigger history of the meeting of French and indigenous people, my lineage can not be complete without considering the intimate personal moment when my Pépère Lambert met his Pied Noir beauty and convinced her to be the mother of his children. Her Indian name is lost to us, but Pépère christened her, Suzanne. Through her, I am linked to her mother and grandmothers who foraged and cared for children and valiant horse stealing husbands while they set up and broke camp season after season, year after year, in their strenuous nomadic life following the buffalo across the Northern Plains. And back through time from daughter to mother to grandmother in an unbroken line of mothers who faced the same struggles birthing, nurturing, and protecting their children through centuries of wanderings. They began on foot by the woodland lakes and steadily migrated west until they reached the vast plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains during the "dog days" when they had only dogs for moving camp. Once on the plains, they hunted the sacred buffalo on foot by creating corrals from the women's travois poles then driving them into the traps. Grouping en masse shouting men, women, and children rushed the stampeding herds into the funnel shaped chutes, warriors slew them with lances, and the women butchered the huge beasts reserving the prized liver for their favorites. When Spanish explorers brought Arabian horses to the New World, they acquired swift steeds the men rode to hunt buffalo and become the fiercest raiders of the Northern Plains. The mothers and grandmothers were relieved to finally have powerful pack animals to lug their heavy tipis and provisions. 
   Certainly the sorrowful part of my legacy goes back especially to those women of the Blackfeet Confederacy who were kidnapped and raped stolen far from their territory as spoils of war in the continual battles against the Cree, Flathead, and Crow. And to those taken as prisoners of war who were traded into slavery to warriors from other tribes or to the French Voyageurs. Or to the wives whose dignified faces were mutilated when their husbands cut off their noses to punish infidelity. And it can be traced to the pitiful mourning of the clan mothers and grandmothers who wept and keened cutting their hair and slashing their flesh and clothes repeatedly throughout 1819, when the "Coughing Epidemic" killed a third of my Blackfeet ancestors. And to their daughters who mourned inconsolably in 1837 when smallpox brought in by the whites with infected trade goods wiped out two-thirds of the people as well as any hope of retaining their territory and resisting Western Expansion.
   But it is also connected to those proud women who helped create a society where a woman could divorce an abusive husband simply by removing his belongings and placing them outside of her tipi. And especially to those virtuous holy women who fulfilled their vows to put up the Medicine Lodge for the Sun Dance Ceremony. And of course, to the caretakers of the ancient Beaver Bundle and the Beaver Men entrusted to carry out its ceremonies, and the grandmothers who danced the sacred Beaver Bundle Dance. And to those who gathered sweetgrass and sage on the endless plains for the ceremonies and trudged deep into the steep mountain forests to find flat cedar and herbal medicines. And it goes back to the powerful spiritual leaders of the Motokiks Women's Society who erected their unusual Medicine Lodge the third night of making camp. And especially to the Snake members of that Matoki, and of course to the Pipe Lighters who take the smoking pipes to the lodge fire and light them for the People. And perhaps it is linked spiritually to Snake People Woman who solemnly wore the horned headdress of the Scabby Bull. And to the humble ones who took on the grave responsibility of caring for the Medicine Pipe Bundles and their painted tipis. And ultimately to the brave girl who married Thunder and patiently learned the songs and ceremonies of the Pipe he gave to her as a gift to the People. And certainly, to those visionaries among my people who dreamed the form and shape of the Medicine Pipe Bundles. And to those who heard new songs for the Pipes on the wind or in their dreams. And even to those animals who offered their skins and medicine songs to be remembered in the ceremonies. And ultimately everything goes back to Oki, the Creator ˇ Old Man who together with Old Woman made the people from lumps of clay, determined how they would live, and taught them what they needed to know to survive. To Oki, who decided that they would not live forever so they would learn compassion for one another.
   I am also descended from the settler Martin Aucouin and five generations of peace-loving Acadians. My lineage is tied to these industrious, deeply religious, pastoral people who were much like the Amish. And to the Pépères and Mémères living together in self-sufficient communities, who fished, trapped, and cultivated their fields communally sharing equally the fruits of their work. They toiled to reclaim the marshlands for farming and became experts at building and repairing dykes. Although only a few knew how to read or write, all were well practiced in living cooperatively and in peace. Their poverty did not embitter them. They welcomed the orphans into their modest but clean homes and provided dignified care for the needy and elderly. Records show that for many years, their communities were free from crime, theft, debauchery, and illegitimacy. A profoundly moral people, they abided in a simple state of innocence and equality totally opposed to acts of war or violence.
   So naturally, to understand, I must also remember my gentle Acadian ancestors and that fateful day, September 5, 1755 when they were ordered to congregate at the Catholic Church at Grand Pré at exactly three o'clock in the afternoon. Huge transport ships were moored ominously in the harbor. British soldiers surrounded the church to prevent escape. Those who refused to take an oath of allegiance to England were herded onto the waiting transport ships with bayonets at their backs and deported immediately ˇ permanently banished from their beloved L'Acadie. 
   I am descended from the Pépères and Mémères who stood helplessly as the British deliberately separated families; tore children away from their mothers, wives from their husbands, grandparents from their many grandchildren, and brothers and sisters from their siblings, and took them away forever from each other and their tranquil homeland. And to those whose eyes stung with bitter tears when they saw the glow of the flames and great billows of black smoke rising from their church, mills, and hundreds of homes and barns burning to the ground on the receding shore as they reluctantly sailed out of the sheltered harbor. 
   My ancestry goes directly back to Pépère Pierre Aucoin who fortunately was among the two thousand Acadians who escaped into the woods. He survived by hiding in the brush by day starving on what little he could forage in the Canadian forest in late September. Pursued doggedly by the soldiers who hunted the fugitive Acadians like animals, he fled. Pépère traveled swiftly, bushwhacking through the dark forest at night until, his clothes in tatters about him barely concealing his nakedness, and his feet frostbit and bleeding, he finally found refuge at the village of St. Pierre Les Becquets in Quebéc. But I am also linked to the so many unlucky Acadians whose genetic lines and family names were terminated forever as they expired alone in the frozen forests leaving no children of their own to tell their sad story. 
    And I am tied to the broken hearted ones, who cringed when British soldiers marched throughout the Maritime Provinces for nearly a decade after the Expulsion of 1755. They watched powerless while the army imposed the loyalty oath brandishing saber tipped rifles to brutally confiscate lands, animals, property, and businesses from the Acadians who remained loyal to France. To those who stayed behind hidden in the deep forests protected by their Indian friends. And to those secreted ones who watched heartbroken while everything that was left behind was burned by the soldiers or greedily stolen by British settlers. They stood by impotent, forced to witness while their enemies plowed the land they had painstakingly cleared of boulders, harvested the fields they had reclaimed from marshland, left the dykes they had strenuously maintained crumble into ruin, pulled the nets they had made in from the abundant sea, and slept in the beds where they had conceived and pushed out their babies. 
   My heritage is also connected to the ones who were shipped back to exile in France, unwelcome and shunned in their motherland as well as abandoned and betrayed repeatedly by the French government. And to the countless cousins like Ann Aucoin who drowned when the unsafe overloaded ships sunk with their wretched cargo. To those tragic souls whose dreams of returning to freedom in their cherished L'Acadie were destined never to be fulfilled. And to Ann's husband, Pierre Henry who died of a broken heart in St. Malo, France after his truelove perished at sea and his hopes for a better life in Canada were destroyed by the forced exile. 
   I am also tied to the even unluckier cousins who were sold into slavery in the West Indies. And to the ones who died in the unbearable heat of Santo Domingo where they emigrated after the colony of New York refused to welcome them. And to the one hundred and thirty-eight who left exile in France only to perish in the tropical inferno of the failed Acadian colony of French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. And to the ones who fled slavery in the Deep South with the blacks on sugar and cotton plantations in Georgia. 
   And I am connected to the two hundred and thirty seven Acadians who died of smallpox when they sat captive aboard transport vessels for three months in Philadelphia's harbor who have no descendants to tell their story. When the so-called "City of Brotherly Love" refused admittance to the seven hundred and fifty-four émigrés who had been exiled to Pennsylvania by the cruel Governor Lawrence, nearly a third of them perished. And my history is tied to those brave ones who were taken as prisoners of war to England and held in concentration camps in port cities like Liverpool. And to the more than two thousand Acadians who were deported to Massachusetts and labored under the harsh treatment of the Bostonians who treated them like slaves. And to the sixty brave families who left Boston and marched the eighteen hundred-mile journey back to Acadia on foot ˇ pregnant women, children, and all. And to those few broken souls who survived the grueling trek home, only to be forced to continue wandering like ghosts of a quickly fading past from village to village ˇ finding refuge in none.
   My lineage can also be traced to the lucky ones who were taken to Connecticut, the only British colony where the Acadians were treated charitably. And to the ones who were transported directly or who later escaped exile with just the tattered clothes on their backs to settle in parishes like Lafayette and Opelousas in the fertile bayous of the Spanish colony of Louisiana where they were welcomed and aided by the Acadian commissioner. Though the Spanish began their naturalization by Hispanicizing their names, Louisiana was one of the only places where the Acadians were treated humanely, given freedom, and their choice of lands. They thrived in communities like Lafourche, St. Landry, and St. Martinville where they came to be known as Cajuns. My lineage can be directly traced to those cousins who sailed on some of the seven ships carrying Acadians back to the States, like LeBon Papa with Francoise Aucoin tightening sails and swabbing decks as a seaman. And it is also connected to the Aucoin, Touchette, Lavallée, Lambert, and Hébert cousins who were carried from exile in France to Louisiana to rebuild lives that had been shattered by their exodus from Acadia. And to their numerous descendants whose names now clutter the phonebooks of Lafayette and other Louisiana towns.
   But understanding my heritage would not be complete without also considering my Woodland Indian ancestors' contribution to my gene pool. The genes my voyageur Pépères' Indian wives passed down had no defense against the smallpox, influenza, diabetes, and alcoholism that decimated indigenous people after the arrival of the Europeans, and we inherited these problems. But we also benefited from the priceless positive aspects of their genetic legacy that was also handed down to their descendants. Their distinctive facial structure is echoed in my children's' faces, as in mine. And their legendary fierceness in battle is reborn in my son Sage's fearlessness as a wrestler. My father, son Jacques, and I all wear the classic hawk-like nose upon our faces just as my grandfather and father did before us. Although the trail linking us to our woodland ancestors has been blurred and nearly erased by cultural genocide, who we are and who we would become is also determined by these indigenous ancestors who etched their legacy onto our genes. 
   So, my lineage may also be traced back to the Abenaki and Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy whose matrilineal structure and Council of Clan Mothers selected the chiefs and kept them accountable to the tribe. And to the clan mothers who raised strong capable girls and taught them to make every decision guided by the wisdom of the previous seven generations always considering the impact it would have upon the next seven generations into the future. And to the families who were entrusted with caring for and feeding the False Face and Corn Husk entities. And to the shamans who danced and sung their complex ceremonies bringing the world into harmony for healing; ensuring the return of spring, the success of the harvest, and the proper sequence of the seasons. And to the mothers and grandmothers who cultivated the fields, carefully planting the Three Sisters together as their ancestors had taught them so the bean's vine would wind itself around the sturdy corn stalks and the broad squash leafs would shade the roots. And to the women who tanned deerskin and fashioned moccasins so their men could move noiselessly through the forests and return home safely to the longhouses. And perhaps even to the Ojibwe who made birch bark canoes paddling silently throughout the woodland's lakes and rivers braving mythical creatures to bring huge lake trout and sturgeon home to their wickiups. And naturally, it is linked to the fierce warriors who allied with the French and unsuccessfully fought the French Indian Wars from the late 1600's until 1763 to try to expel the British invaders from their ancestral lands. But it is also tied to the healers who gathered medicinal herbs in the forests and the beadworkers who beaded the secrets of the plants into decorative patterns to teach their daughters and granddaughters herbal medicine.
   On my mother's side, my ancestry is linked to Mimi's grandfather, Antoine Hébert who married the mixed blood beauty, Philomêne Lambert. He was a trader and salesman who traveled all over Canada and New England with his rickety weathered wagon buying the remnants of farmers' harvests and selling them on his next stops down the dusty rutted post road. Pépère Hébert's stock changed constantly depending upon the season, the produce of the area he passed through, and the laws of supply and demand. Late summer might find his cart filled with pints of wild blueberries, blackberries, and summer vegetables. In the fall, Mohawk black ash splint bushel baskets overflowing with golden Maine potatoes, multicolored gourds, and the Three Sisters ˇ corn, squash, and beans from the harvest would be crammed between crates of crisp Mac Intosh apples and crockery jugs of pure maple syrup tapped when the sap in the trees began running. When Pépère Hébert passed near the coast, scarlet lobsters with snapping claws, succulent velvet crabs, hard gray oysters, scallops, littleneck clams, and translucent shrimp packed on huge slabs of ice and piles of briny seaweed became the ingredients for a New England style clambake for lucky families farther down the line. In winter, the wagon might be piled high with stacks of velvety Indian tanned deerskins, beaver pelts, and other hides. Fresh greens, chicken and quail eggs, newborn lambs, and wild asparagus shoots would replace them in the early spring. Moving from town to town and one homestead to another, Pépère would sell the overflowing contents of his cart as he made his way from Canada down through New England. But there must have been too many times when the rains, or snows, or pestilence destroyed the harvest and left no surplus from the farmers leaving his buckboard and belly empty. He must have tired of the blizzards that nearly froze him solid as he coaxed his half-starved horse to drag the wagon through the biting snow during interminable New England winters. Eventually, he settled in Woonsocket with Philomêne to make an attempt at farming. 
   On my father's side my lineage goes back to Mémère Touchette's father, Pierre Aucoin, who was born in Ste. Victoire in the Notre Dame Mountains of Eastern Canada south of Quebéc City. He and his hearty wife, Delima "Sylime" Sylvestre, traveled throughout Quebéc Province where their first eight children were born. They continued journeying through all the New England states, then trekked all the way down south to Louisiana where they spent time with extended family in Lafayette, returned to Québec for a while, then moved south again to Natick, Rhode Island where my Mémère Louisia was born. Eventually, the hardy travelers settled in North Grosvendale, Connecticut where Pierre and Sylime raised their fourteen children in a big white house with black shutters, a wide wrap around porch and steeply gabled roof on a homestead where extensive Indian stone ruins were excavated. 
   And to Pépère Gustave and Mémère Caesarie Touchette who also emigrated to North Grosvendale to find work in the mills. Their Indian ancestry made them highly susceptible to diabetes and they lived and died painfully because of the disease. Mémère lost her eyesight and passed on the life-threatening disease to my Pépère whose wounds on his legs from his hard labor as a plumber would never heal. Genetically, they didn't have the ability to assimilate the sugar, nor to process the alcohol ˇ so it wreaked havoc on their systems.
   My lineage became rooted in Woonsocket when Antoine and Philomêne Hébert settled there to farm. Their daughter, my maternal great-grandmother Philomêne was born on their homestead in 1875. She carried on their legacy of farming but after marrying Alphonse Basil Lavallee, she cultivated a crop of sorrow along with her haricots verts. A sturdy farm woman who endured her faithless husband pampering an endless string of mistresses, she finally fainted collapsing to the pine planked kitchen floor when the doctor came to tell her that yet another of her children had contracted tuberculosis. "Non, pas Florence, mon coueur!" she gasped overcome with grief. Just two and a half years before in the early 1930s, Mémère Philomêne had buried three children in eighteen months, two - Raymond and Loretta ˇ from the virulent contagious TB. The third, her charming artistic son Frank was working in the mill for his brother-in-law, my grandfather Romuald, when his hand was crushed in the frames. The doctors at Woonsocket Hospital performed surgery to amputate his hand under general anesthesia without knowing he had eaten a hearty noontime dinner and he expired on the operating table after aspirating food into his lungs. He was barely twenty. 
   My mother's oldest sister, Gértrude was only five years old when the first death occurred. She remembers the subsequent year and a half with sorrow. In a bittersweet way, she loved the chance to play with her many cousins at the wakes in her Mémère's farmhouse until she fell asleep amid a pile of babies corralled by stacks of winter coats strewn on the beds. The grown-up's grief while they sat with the dead young people in the front room distracted them, and gave her more freedom to explore. But then she would remember mon oncle Frank's smiling face when he used to take out his sketchbook to surprise her with a quick sketch of her face or of one of the dogs her grandparents boarded on the farm ˇ and she missed him. Or she would smell the toast daughty cooking in the kitchen and recall how her nineteen-year old ma tante Loretta had let her pour the most fresh-tapped maple syrup on her breakfast. Or one of the uncle's cologne would remind her of how mon oncle Oscar smelled when he used to raise her high above his head and pretend to drop her while she squealed in delight. Mon oncle Oscar was only twenty-seven when he died and had just married. Everyone had been so happy dancing at the fait dos dos at his wedding. Though the family was gathered together again, even little Gértrude could tell that this reunion was different from the joyous one celebrating mon oncle Oscar's marriage. Still, she couldn't understand why the adults said she could never see her uncles and aunt again. Then suddenly, the sharp gesture of a Mémère shushing her or the image of the ma tantes holding each other and sobbing in a huddle would shock her into remembering why they were all there ˇ and fresh tears would stain her little cheeks. 
   Three times, little ma tante Gert cringed when she saw the huge ominous black satin crêpe hanging on the front door of her Mémère's house signifying a family in mourning. Three times, Mémère Philomêne waked a child in the same farmhouse where she had birthed them. Three times during that interminable year and a half, the family stayed up all night sitting in the front parlor with the bodies of their children whose young lives were cut so short so tragically before their times. Three times, the Mémères and Pépères, the ma tantes and mon oncles, and the nieces and nephews gathered around Mémère Philomêne's hunched sobbing form. Three times, they rocked her in their arms trying vainly to comfort her knowing there was nothing they could ever say or do to soothe the pain of a mother losing three of her barely grown children. 
   Though the other mothers busied themselves bringing her mugs of warm milk, bowls of thick pea soup, and flaky pieces of pie, though they lent their bosoms and handkerchiefs to her tears ˇ they knew they could never ease her suffering. As they bustled around the kitchen feeding the men and looking after the many grandchildren running around preciously joyous despite the occasion, they felt the depth of her grief. They knew that as she wailed, she was thinking of each detail of her baby's birth, his first step, the way he ran into the house beaming with a bunch of daisies crammed into his muddy fist, and how grown-up he looked in his first suit. As they watched her keen, they knew she was thinking of sweet Loretta's little mouth taking suck and all the years they shared until Loretta was old enough to paint her bow-shaped mouth, and to carry her mother's stories and grandchildren into the future ˇ but still way too young to die. Swaying back and forth with a hole in her heart, Mémère Philomêne was mourning not only her dead children, but also the cherubic grandchildren they would never bring to her knee. The ma tantes drew their own children closer to them hugging them so tightly that they squirmed and ran away confused. The immensity of Mémère's loss made their own greatest fears concrete ˇ and they knew there was no bottom to her pain.
   When Mémère Philomêne heard the news about my grandmother's T.B., her youngest, preteen Oscar was already at Wallum Lake Sanatorium where he would be confined for four long years while battling the deadly lung disease. Hearing about my grandmother's illness was too much for the normally formidable Philomêne. She could not bear to lose her special daughter to this debilitating disease intent on decimating her family against which their Indian blood seemed to have no defense. Still, she stoically held back her tears as they drove Florence to the sanatorium where she stayed for an entire year at the beginning of my mother's life to take the cure while sitting outside in a wheelchair bundled up in blankets against the frigid winds. Florence's speedy recovery was phenomenal. It was unheard of for anyone to be released from the sanatorium after just one year, but the devoted mother was determined to get well to return home to her three little children, especially baby Colleen who the disease had forced her to abandon when she was just seventeen months old. So, Florence left the sanatorium despite the doctors' warnings predicting early death ringing in her ears. For ten years, the entire family would accompany her to Wallum Lake every Saturday where the doctors would insert a foot long needle into her back to collapse her damaged left lung. Despite their dire prognosis, Mimi lived to be nearly a hundred. She was a tall stately French speaking woman who was proud of her classic Indian beauty and of the ancestry that gave her striking high cheekbones and jet-black hair. Descended from people of substance, she walked with pride grounded by her complex family history that became my rich legacy. Though she lived the simple life of a homemaker, Mimi was not an ordinary woman. Her grace, compassion, and beauty were legendary in the Woonsocket of my birth.
 
 

Woonsocket - "Place of Many Falls"
   When I was born, Woonsocket was still one of the strongest and most intact strongholds of Franco American culture in the United States. Like many textile mill towns in New England, it was a magnet for desperately poor culturally oppressed French Canadians who fled Québec Province beginning in the 1830's. They came in waves. Hundreds of thousands of destitute immigrants flooded over the border searching for cultural and religious freedom. They came with their many children; ten to twenty in each family bundled up in threadbare homespun clothes that were scant protection against the Canadian Arctic winds. They came with hungry children and they came with hope ˇ hope that going to America would bring a better life for their children. 
   They came to Woonsocket ˇ located in the heart of the Blackstone River Valley - the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. These heroic men, women, and children fueled that revolution with their backbreaking toil in the unsafe textile mills for pennies a day. When they arrived they were exploited and oppressed by the Anglo Saxon mill owners who lived in mansions on the North End while their workers tried to subsist in squalid tenements that were barely inhabitable firetraps. 
   Despite the hardships they endured, the three pillars of our culture, "Foi, Langue et Famille" (Faith, Language and Family), kept our community intact and relatively untouched by mainstream America until the advent of radio, and later, television brought the world into everyone's homes changing everything inexorably. "Foi" was Catholicism, the faith our ancestors brought from France, or learned from the Jesuit missionaries, and practiced in French Canada. My ancestors were Roman Catholics and looked to the Pope in Rome as the ultimate authority of their beloved Mother Church. Any other faith was unthinkable. "Langue" was French, either Québecois, with its peculiar accents frozen in the style of the days when the ancestors began leaving France in the early 1600's, or Parisian, with its modulated refined accents learned from the French nuns at École Jesus Marie. Everyone was proficient in their first language and had mixed feelings when their children returned from school in the thirties and forties with English as their second language. Though the families stressed speaking French and tried to keep our native tongue alive, slowly the primary language of their adopted country became dominant ˇ even in Woonsocket. "Famille" ˇ were the large extended Catholic families, so large they became clans with grandparents living surrounded by their numerous children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren within a radius of a few blocks or miles. These three tenets kept French Canadian culture strong and it thrived virtually intact until the mid 1950s when mass media and economic depression relentlessly unraveled its seamless fabric.
   When I left home and would tell people I was from Rhode Island, they would say, "Oh that is a beautiful state!" I would laugh, "Well you obviously have not been to Woonsocket! Woonsocket, (pronounced "Woooooon soc két" by the natives), is a small industrial city in the very northeasternmost corner of Rhode Island. It is totally different from the quaint re-gentrified city portrayed on the new hit television show, "Providence", and a world away from the mansions of Newport, and white sand beaches of Narragansett that form most people's impression of Rhode Island. Woonsocket ˇ it is thought that the name came from two Indian words, "Woone", meaning Thunder, and "Suckete", meaning Mist referring to the majestic Woonsocket Falls. Woonsocket ˇ some historians think it derives from another Indian word meaning "Place of Steep Descent", but when I was little, I was told that the Indians called it "place of many falls" ˇ and it certainly is all of that. Woonsocket ˇ it probably was beautiful then when Indians hunted along the steep banks of the wide Blackstone River that flowed through rolling hills thickly forested with maples, massive oak, and weeping beech trees teeming with white-tailed deer, black bear, bobcats, and wild turkey. 
   But by the time I was playing in the forests bordering the river in the mid-sixties, the Blackstone was totally polluted with chemicals and solvents from the textile mills upstream. Giant rats the size of cats were the only wildlife visible on the river's shores. The mills spewed toxins directly into the river that contaminated our water supply as it wound past our neighborhood. These toxins grew my baby sister's cancer that would show up when she was eighteen as a tumor on her thyroid. Nearly every house on Clark Road would eventually have a cancer patient in the family. The victims were men and women of all ages from Mrs. Dextrase across the street who died riddled with breast cancer to little John, the Hopkins' precious only son at the top of the street who contracted Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was just a boy. When I begged my parents to investigate the water system to find the source of the extremely high cancer rate on their street, they refused. My father whined, "It's God's will. It's already been written, "Shaaleen Gail". There is nothing we can do". Their meek acceptance of fate revealed the insidious side of my ancestors' faith. Their obedience to the Church extended to most other authority figures making them resigned to their fate ˇ powerless to confront injustice and rectify the situation. 
   Though poisoned, the Blackstone River was still the economic and physical lifeline of our community. Running along its eastern shore, Mendon Road was the old Indian trail that became the main artery between our house in the insignificant suburb of Cumberland Hill and our school, work, families, and community in Woonsocket. There was nothing for a young girl to do on the short stretch of Mendon Road that was Cumberland's only center. The neighborhood hardware store, St. Joan of Arc Church, and Rowey's Drug Store, where my girlfriends and I would go to get cherry chocolate cokes and lime rickeys while twirling on vinyl stools at a real soda fountain, were not enough to keep me occupied. Woonsocket was bustling and fascinating by comparison and I loved following that winding road to its pounding heart. 
   As you left Cumberland and neared Woonsocket continuing down Mendon Road, it became congested with an ugly hodgepodge of shops, manufacturing factories, clapboard houses, tenements, as well as the increasingly omnipresent fast food, and retail chain stores. There was no urban planning then and the zoning control was corrupt, so pretty white colonial homes with their traditional black or forest green shutters stood next to used tire yards, mobile homes, strip malls, and trashed out tract houses. 
   When you approached Woonsocket climbing up and down hills and around curves as the road followed the Blackstone River, you could see the ubiquitous smoke towers of the many textile mills spewing gigantic billows of toxic fumes into the crisp blue skies. You could smell Woonsocket several miles before you arrived when I was growing up. From the crest of the hill as you entered town, you could see the mammoth French Worsted Mill down below where my Mimi worked thirteen hour days as a young girl, as well as several other woolen mills, and the Florence Dye mill that colored the wool for the textile mills that made up the Hamlet Mill District. 
   The mills and the river dominated the landscape. You could cross the Hamlet Avenue Bridge over the river at the beginning of Hamlet Avenue and see the falls rushing below that provided the energy to drive the massive looms. The red brick mills built by French and Belgian industrialists were enormous ˇ covering several city blocks apiece. Their thousands of frosted windows stared blankly over the landscape they were destroying. The foaming water at the base of the falls was a putrid pea green from the chemicals released directly into the water by the mill owners who cared for nothing but profit. It smelled poisoned and we would wrinkle up our little noses and cover our faces with embroidered handkerchiefs as we crossed the bridge. On summer days, the rhythmic banging and clanging of the machines could be heard through the open windows.
   On the other side of the bridge was Cumberland Street. It was the most squalid and poorest of all the streets in Woonsocket that housed the unfortunate mill workers. The tenements there were the worst in Woonsocket and the people were the dirtiest and most unrefined. When they wanted to teach me to act middle class, my family would often say, "Don't act like you are from Cumberland Street! Shaaleen Gail!" The filthy tenements were four and five stories high made of cheap clapboard with peeling lead based paint overflowing with impoverished families ˇ up to thirteen and even fifteen children stuffed into each apartment. These incendiary rat infested slums often burst into flames bringing more tragedy into the already tragic lives of their inhabitants. The huge rats crawled up from the Blackstone River and plagued the residents often biting the little children as they slept crammed four and five to a bed. At the end of narrow Cumberland Street was Social Coin (pronounced Quin) where street walkers and "sallops" offered their services and the poorest welfare mothers lived trying to make ends meet while forced to buy over-processed food and tacky overpriced clothes at the only shops within walking distance.
   Église Ste. Anne's sat in the middle of Cumberland Street surrounded by the squalor and dire poverty. It was an elaborate Gothic style church with a sumptuous interior embellished with gold leaf and intricate carvings of the Saints and the Holy Family. The people could be starving and suffering, but still they dropped their hard earned pennies into the collection baskets so the Church would be adorned and the priests would be dressed in finery ˇ well fed, and fat as turkeys. 
   But for our family, the church had a more personal meaning. The ceiling was covered with Rococo hand painted murals where an image of ma tante Gert's face represented one of the heavenly angels. The little hunchbacked fresco painter who had traveled from Italy to paint the church's ceiling was a boarder at Grandpère Ethier's house. He had taken a fancy to my mother's older sister, Gértrude whose fresh thirteen-year old face embodied his vision of the angelic. He also chose her infant cousin, Gerry Noël as the model for the baby Jesus. Gértrude sat and posed for him experiencing the special thrill of being seen as a beautiful angel for a few hours a week during the many months it took to complete the frescoes so long ago. She was amazed when he took the sketch he had made of her face and placed it upon the body of the celestial angel. Decades later, she would still get an awed look about her whenever she talked about it. Ste. Anne's Church became for us "the Church where ma tante Gert is an angel on the ceiling". 
   As you continued the drive around Woonsocket, the river wove in and out of neighborhoods, tenement slums, and cluster after cluster of textile mills and factories. The people breathed the cotton and wool fibers that would eventually give many of them Brown lung disease during grueling thirteen hour work days in the factories, then went home to inhale the chemical fumes from the factories' smoke stacks through their open windows, and drink the polluted water from the river. The falls could be breathtakingly beautiful with thousands of spouts of sudsy rushing water, but only from a distance. Close up, the fetid smells were overwhelming. All kinds of gross offal and detritus floated and roiled about in the murky chemical stew. 
   I often think of how amazingly beautiful it must have been when the Eastern Woodland Indians of the area first saw these incredible falls. A mix of Nipmuck, Wampanoag, and Narragansett Indians hunted in the lush forests surrounding the white water rapids and falls of the Blackstone River. It would have been a spectacular sight when they first entered the verdant river valley so very long ago. After surging over innumerable torrents and creating hundreds of waterfalls as it wove in and out of the valley at Woonsocket Falls, the river emptied into a basin as big as a lake with countless cataracts cascading into it. The spraying water would have refracted the shimmering light and made luminous rainbows everywhere. And the water would have smelt fresh then, and tasted pure and sweet. And they would have greatly valued such a miraculous place, honored it as sacred, and aptly named it ˇ"Woonsocket" ˇ place of many falls. 
   But soon the Europeans arrived, and the destruction of the magnificent wild river began. In 1660, Richard Arnold, an associate of Roger Williams who fled the repressive Puritan colony of Massachusetts and established Rhode Island as a colony championing religious freedom, arrived in Woonsocket with his sons and built a sawmill powered by the waterfalls of the swiftly moving river. Thus began the gradual deterioration and pollution of that superb untamed body of water. The first textile mill, Social Manufacturing Company, was erected beside Mill River, a tributary of the Blackstone in 1810, shortly after Samuel Slater had built his revolutionary spinning mill in nearby Pawtucket. The subsequent years saw the emergence of six bustling mill districts, Woonsocket Falls, Social, Jenkesville, Bernon, Globe, and Hamlet, each with several mills apiece lining the shores of the Blackstone River and spewing unfiltered untreated refuse directly into its formerly pristine waters. A complex network of canals, damns, reservoirs, holding ponds, and trenches connected to a series of gears, shafts, and belts in the factories was developed to turn the powerful wild river into one of the major industrial power sources of nineteenth century New England. By the time I was a little girl, these mills and men's greed had already destroyed the feral river's beauty and turned its water and air foul. The once sweet pool was now a cesspool. You could not walk by the river without covering your face against the stench. This was the world into which I was born just after dark had fallen on a cold icy February night right in the middle of the twentieth century.

CHARLEEN TOUCHETTE  © 2000, 2001
Santa Fe, New Mexico 
 

Biography

Born 1954, Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Education:  Wellesley College, Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, BA, Painting 1975, Bard College. 
Touchette, writer, artist, arts activist, consultant, educator, lecturer, and curator, resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and three sons and daughter from 20-10 years old. Her visionary paintings have been exhibited nationally and internationally in galleries and museums since 1975 including a 1999 two-person exhibit at the American Indian Community House Gallery in New York City. In 1998, Touchette was awarded the Women's Caucus for Art (WCA) President's Award for "her achievements as an artist, her leadership in the feminist art movement and her constancy and commitment to the Women's Caucus for Art." Touchette is an effective arts activist who has worked nationally to increase visibility and inclusion for women and multicultural artists. She has networked with Indian artists since 1978 and was the researcher for The Sweet Grass Lives On: 50 North American Indian Artists (Lippincott/Crowell). 
Touchette has curated many major museum exhibitions including "Native Abstraction" at the Museum of New Mexico's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, "Ancient Visions" at Willamette University, Oregon, the "Four Sacred Mountains Arts Festival" in Tuba City, Navajo Nation, which toured through the Arizona Commission for the Arts Traveling exhibition program, and a forthcoming exhibit at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum in Santa Fe scheduled to open in February of 2001.
Touchette's paintings and writing have been published widely, including in the Woman's Art Journal, New Directions for Women, Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage, by Harmony Hammond and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Creation's Heartbeat by Linda Leonard, Womanspirit Sourcebook, Women Artists: Multi-Cultural Visions by Betty La Duke, The Reflowering of the Goddess by Gloria Orenstein, A Gathering of Spirit edited by Beth Brant, Multicultural Reader (MCAE), Calyx, New Woman Magazine, The Magazine, a chapter in New Feminist Criticism edited by Arlene Raven, and many others. During 1991, she was the arts editor for Signals, a Santa Fe newspaper on women in the arts. Currently Touchette writes for The Magazine and Native Artist's Magazine. 
From 1988 to 1995, Touchette was an Executive Board Member of the Women's Caucus for Art, serving as co-chair of the Exhibitions Committee, on the Honor Award's Selection Committee as catalog editor and chair, and as a member of the Women of Color and Jewish caucuses. During her tenure on the Honors Committee, Touchette facilitated the honoring of the first Native American, Hispanic, and Asian artists. She founded the Spiderwoman World Arts Network in 1990, then coordinated and moderated a series of panels featuring multicultural women artists in 1992 co-sponsored by the College of Santa Fe.
As an arts educator, Touchette developed an innovative cross-cultural slide curriculum for the Minnesota Center for Arts Education (MCAE) entitled "Native American Art is World Art", and has taught extensive workshops, delivered countless lectures and keynote addresses, and has been a Visiting Artist for the Arizona Commission on the Arts and several colleges including the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She will be teaching at the University of Colorado in the spring of 2001. 
Touchette originated the project, Women Creating: Contemporary Artists of the West, and curated "O'Keeffe's Contemporaries: Our Honored Matriarchs", "Innovative Women Artists of New Mexico: The Undiscovered O'Keeffe's", and "Sacred Manifestations: Expressions of Spirituality". She has written a fascinating memoir, ItÝs a Sweet Life which that weaves her personal story into the complex tapestry of the history of her French Canadian and Indian people, and the mainstream story of baby boomers whose lives have spanned two centuries.

Charleen Touchette's fascinating memoir, "It's a Sweet Life", chronicles her family's unique history, her work in the feminist and contemporary Indian art movements, and her recovery from the latent effects of child abuse in Santa Fe's  healing community. She is presently seeking a literary agent and publisher. You may contact her by e-mail at Touchart@aol.com.
 
 

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