[Editor’s note: This story contains information related to the residential school system and intergenerational trauma. It may be triggering to some readers.]
“The first time my father saw an airplane, he thought it must be an angel. He was five-years-old, standing outside his family’s cabin deep in the bush, on Pukatawagan First Nation in northern Manitoba. It was before he attended residential school, but Catholicism was already very present in the community and he had heard about angels from the priest who lived on the rez. That day, he heard a strange noise and looked up. He saw a white cross flying through the sky, and he thought: This must be an angel, because what else could it be?
“He told me that story many years later. We were at the St. Regis Hotel in Winnipeg, and he was drunk out of his tree. It was one of the half-dozen times I ever spent with him. Even though I was only seven at the time, hearing the story triggered something inside me. I now know that the unsettled feeling I had was the sudden understanding that I’m only one generation away from living in the bush and being of the land. In only one lifetime, everything had changed.”
— Eecerpt from Life in the City of Dirty Water: A Memoir of Healing
Clayton Thomas-Muller is Cree from Treaty 6 territory, an influential leader, a climate advocate and now a bestselling author with a brave story that can speak to the souls of Indigenous peoples living in cities across Canada.
In his debut memoir and short documentary Life in the City of Dirty Water, Thomas-Muller not only writes about his upbringing in Winnipeg, which translated from Cree means “dirty water,” he unravels how he began healing by using prayer and participating in his culture.
From the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, also known as Pukatawagan, Life in the City of Dirty Water is Thomas-Muller’s testimony — a non-linear story he tells in the form of his people’s Oral Tradition. It is a deep account of survivance against systems of oppression, intergenerational trauma and addiction, and about finding healing and highlighting his Cree experience.
As someone who was a young father himself, Thomas-Muller lays out how his journey began after his mother left Pukatawagan, young and with child, in the hopes for a better life in the city. He recalls his relationships with his stepfathers, having been bounced between homes amid his mother’s healing, and journeys through his stories of street life and incarceration.
Life in the City of Dirty Water is a narrative relatable to countless Indigenous families throughout the country living within the inner cities, where Indigenous upbringings are far too often synonymous with lateral violence, substance abuse and a lack of opportunity.
Thomas-Muller’s memoir demonstrates how young Indigenous men can easily stumble into street gangs and dealing drugs, and end up serving time in prison — and that’s if they weren’t already born into the lifestyle.
But when Thomas-Muller realizes his calling, the sky is the limit. With the help of intervention, he heals, returns to his roots, advocates for his people and eventually works his way up to protecting the climate through frontline service with 350.org.
The Tyee recently chatted with Thomas-Muller about Indigenous culture, intergenerational trauma, and how he’s working to restore both himself and the planet — and helping others along the way.
The Tyee: What inspired you to write Life in the City of Dirty Water: A Memoir of Healing?
Clayton Thomas-Muller: About seven-and-a-half years ago now, I was living in Ottawa with my sons’ mother and my two boys. My sons, at the time, were four and six-years-old. Because of the nature of my day job, and of course, our collective shared experience, I go to therapy, and it’s something that I do on top of trying to get out to sweat lodges and ceremonies. It’s a part of my life and I really believe in it.
I was talking with my therapist about a thing that kept happening at home... I was finding it really difficult to do the basic day-to-day things with my sons, like playtime and reading time at bed. I found myself kind of going into autopilot, and it wasn’t just my kids, it was other people, too, in my life — my wife.
I found myself kind of blanking out at times. I’d be completely aware of it, but it would just kind of happen, so I asked my therapist about it. He said, “Well you know, that’s a very common thing for survivors of Indian Residential School, and for the children of survivors, to exhibit patterns of dissociative behaviour.”
He said, “When your fight-or-flight [response] gets triggered, you’ll just blank out. So, for a young parent like yourself, whose parents both went to residential school, and all the things you faced growing up — whether that is physical, emotional, spiritual or sexual abuse — whatever you went through, at the age in which your boys are at, they’re like mirrors. You’re going to remember all of the things you went through at that age, and that’ll trigger you to blank out and go into autopilot, or to want to reach for that drink, or reach for that hoot, or light a cigarette. Escape, you know?”
Then I said, “What the hell do I do about it?” Because I want to be there for my boys. I don’t want to be like this.
He said, “Well, you know, keep going to ceremonies, keep coming to therapy, exercise and lose some weight, make art, write a book... I don’t know, start journaling.”
So, yeah, I wrote a book. But it was way too fucked up to publish. It would re-traumatize like a shit ton of my relatives. I had to go back to the drawing board because, at that point, I knew I wanted to write a book. I wanted to put some of this out there, like some of the things that don't belong to me that I've been carrying for a long time.
I asked my bro who I worked with, we are filmmakers, and I was like, “Yo man, we’re out in the field doing films. I could fundraise and pay you some money to record me telling stories about what it’s like to grow up Indigenous in one of Canada’s inner cities.”
Winnipeg is the one that I’m talking about. And I’m like, “I want to do this kind of in an old way, as a storyteller. It is such an intrinsic part of our Cree culture, to have the ability to speak and to tell stories, that’s how we pass on knowledge, right?”
He’s like, “Yeah man, that sounds amazing!”
So, we did that for about a year and a half. We recorded all of these stories. Then we took that recording and we spit it through Google Voice to text. That turned into the manuscript. We edited that down, but we had all this video footage, too, so we decided to make a short documentary that lives on CBC Gem now. It’s a 20-minute short doc.
Then we had all of these unique vignettes, three- to four-minute stories on video, and so we decided to build not just a memoir, but a whole 3D trans-dimensional storytelling universe, a trans-media project basically.
COVID-willing, once travel and gathering is safe again, we are going to do a whole roadshow, where I do this whole multimedia presentation to audiences, followed by a question-and-answer period where we can talk about some of the heavy topics that the book explores.
It’s my hope that this memoir and the whole storytelling project will help the discourse in this country. I hope people can come together and normalize talking about some pretty rough topics and negative cycles of abuse that exist in our communities.
What are some of the things you are currently doing, as in your job, ceremony or grassroots work?
Well, it’s interesting. I’m not an old guy — yet — but I’m not young anymore. I’m a father, I’ve got teenage sons. When it comes to ceremony, I obviously help people out when they ask me to. I’m involved back home with our Sundance ceremony. I’m a singer, so I often get asked to come to community rallies and different things, and I’ll bring my drum to sing some songs.
It’s weird now though. I’ve actually gone to some places and young people will bring me a plate. And I’m just like, “Holy, settle down!” So, of course, I volunteer at my kids’ schools, and I try to be involved. Although I will be honest. I’m just coming out of my sixth career burnout.
The work I do in my day job is with people of the climate organization 350.org. It’s intense work when you’re supporting our communities to fight against powerful corporations and the governments that they work with to protect the land, air, climate and our water especially. You’re not just doing organizing and campaigning, right? You’re doing crisis intervention and peer-to-peer counselling.
I’m actually leaving at the end of December. I’m going to this Indigenous-run healing centre. They are internationally recognized for their work on post-traumatic stress disorder, which I am really excited to experience. I think that one of the collective experiences that we all have to deal with is the fight-or-flight trigger thing that comes with growing up with domestic violence or any form of violence. You’ve got to be very proactive about dealing with that stuff.
Over the years of my work in the community, I’ve had many peaks and many valleys. My goal, moving into this next phase in life, is to not have things be so extreme, but to be more level, calm, peaceful — especially now that my kids are becoming teenagers. I really want to be more present because they’re young Cree guys growing up in Winnipeg, you know? I really want to be there to guide them.
What is something you can say about Winnipeg today as opposed to when you were growing up?
Well, there’s a lot more gun violence. It’s a pretty frightening world for a lot of our young people that are growing up in the inner city. They’re falling through the cracks of the social safety net. We [also] have this huge influx of refugees coming into Winnipeg from war-torn regions, and we now have completely different world and cosmological views, and views into the realities of the inner city.
Of course, the influence of organized crime continues disproportionally to impact young people, youth of colour and Indigenous youth especially. It continues to impact women and girls, especially disproportionally from our community.
So, I think there’s a lot of various established social programs that exist in Winnipeg that have been here for decades, fighting the good fight. But I think there continues to be a huge gap.
I think that Indigenous young people, especially, continue to experience a lot of the highest percentages as far as negative statistics, whether it be a high school dropout, adolescent teen pregnancy or incarceration.
There continues to be a lot of big problems because of the cash poverty situation that so many of our families in the inner city face. And that’s been exacerbated by COVID-19. The food banks and everything are busting at the seams in this city.
I've been telling every media outlet that I speak to, one of the things that Canada needs to do other than just apologizing for residential schools is there needs to be a massive funding program of a pipeline to ceremonies, if you will, instead of a fucking pipeline to Asia.
Like a pipeline from the inner city to the bush for Native kids, so that we can have access to our language, our culture and our ancestors, because that’s what got me out of a lot of trouble as a youth.
I was involved [in crime]. My older brother started the largest Native gang in the country called the Manitoba Warriors, and that was my first job. My first job was working for my brothers, running a drug house.
Through some pretty powerful interventions by people I love, I was able to get away from that life and to get myself into a culturally relevant training program in the inner city. I found myself at my first Sundance at the age of 18. It was right from that point that I started to work in the community.
'Life in the City of Dirty Water,' published by Penguin Random House, was released in August 2021. Read an excerpt from the book here.