Shirley Turcotte Video: Indigenous Ways of Knowing a Felt Sense

Photo Credit: Unsplash User  Margo Brodowicz

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Margo Brodowicz

Shirley Turcotte, RCC, is a Métis knowledge keeper and registered clinical counsellor, working internationally with survivors of childhood abuses, torture, and complex traumas, including Residential School Syndrome, for the last three decades. She is a pioneering activist in the areas of complex trauma therapeutic treatment and program development for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. She has received many awards, including British Columbia’s Woman of Distinction Award in Health and Education. She is the lead instructor and clinical supervisor of two Aboriginal Programs with the Centre for Counselling and Community Safety at the Justice Institute of British Columbia.

Shirley describes a Felt Sense for her as being “a connection to all my relations, and to all my own personal territory and land and medicines”.  She talks about how personal story is the best way to express Felt Sense to make it accessible to others, how everything you are in relationship with has a Felt Sense connection, and that connection is inter-generational.  She says, “It carries with it all sorts of conversations, opportunities, and the information about why you are still here, and how it is you survived all you have survived”.  She talks about how the Felt Sense has a lot of inter-generational knowledge layered within it.

She talks about the difference between Felt Sense and feelings, talking about the experience of participating in the Missing Women enquiry.  For those who have had relatives go missing, and with the memories of those who were lost through the ‘Sixties scoop’, when those affected emotionally feel about that topic there is so much brokenness and sadness in the feelings aroused, that it can elicit feelings of despair.  Felt Sense is different:  it is a physical, bodily sensation throughout the body’s core. She talks about setting a mental space between herself and the enquiry, and her own family stories from the ‘Sixties scoop’, so that she can observe her body’s reactions in the moment. 

Shirley talks about how feelings can overwhelm a person and render them helpless in the moment.  When there is a mental separation of having one’s family story as a separate entity, so that one can connect with the body’s responses, it allows the personal power of not being overwhelmed by reaction, and gives space to stay connected to one’s body.  She describes her own bodily response to her personal story of family members missing through the ‘Sixties scoop’ as being “an incredible stillness … almost like a frozen iceberg”. 

Once one has been able to access that bodily Felt Sense, it allows one to speak to that, to where one is now as a consequence of one’s life experience, rather than having to stay in the emotional pain of re-telling, re-visiting the story of the experience from the past.  It allows one to get out of re-living the trauma of the actual story into the implicit story, into the bodily story that leads to the ancestors and to the medicines. 

She talks about ‘tracking a Felt Sense’, finding a way to look at what the conversations and knowledge are about the past trauma, and finding your identity about how you survived the trauma, rather than having to re-live the past experience.

She uses her personal story as an example of how her own Felt Sense connects her own story to the stories of the many children who were taken, an experience shared with every other child who had to stand in front of a judge and be separated from their family.

Shirley makes the point that becoming aware of collective experience is a critical step in de-colonization, for ‘therapeutic wellness’, for developing awareness that this bodily sense of experience is not just individual, but represents a collective experience.  As she goes deeper into the experience and into her family history, it takes her back to an inter-generational story of a particular ancestor who was one of many young Indigenous women who were taken from the villages to marry the men coming in off the ships from Europe.  She says, “Guy Turcotte, my great-great-great-grandfather, was one of those guys.”  She knows very little about her great-great-great-grandmother, other than the records say she was Carrier, but the Felt Sense in her body makes Shirley think that it is likely that she was one of these women who were taken from their family to marry a stranger.  Shirley’s sense is that the bodily experience of ‘frozenness’ is inter-generational, and that her personal response, out of her inter-generational cultural response, is to deal with challenging times by going to the water.  Even now, that is her instinctive response if she is having a really difficult day, to get to a river, to moving water as a connection to her territorial heritage.  That is her instinctive response to dealing with the ‘iceberg’ and of melting her sense of carrying something frozen inside her body. 

She talks, too, about there being a resistance to dealing with the ‘iceberg’, because it can act as a protection, as a way of hiding one’s medicines, one’s language, everything one holds of one’s culture, so it doesn’t get appropriated.  One of the values of the inter-generational Felt Sense is that it comes with the knowledge of what was so important and so good that it had to be protected by being internalized and kept private. That capacity to ‘freeze’ oneself, and protect one’s sense of self-worth and cultural value, may well have saved the lives of many stolen women.  By being able to not ‘thaw out’ and be emotionally reactive to the trauma they were experiencing, in many cases this may have been a key to their survival, and have protected their children.  Shirley says, “These are ancient ways of knowing, just like an animal freezes itself under circumstances.”

From this example, she talks about how a Felt Sense can lead a person to a lot of specific information that comes out of one’s own territory and one’s ancestral territory.  A Felt Sense can be a connecting point to all of life and land that is specific to the individual in relation to the issue one is dealing with, so, she points out, “It is way different than a feeling, and is maybe the most important part of how to have those conversations with one’s ancestors, and get to meet them”. 

Shirley ends by talking about how the Felt Sense is a key to finding out how not to re-live, but to know that, as an Indigenous person, one has always been in relationship with life and land, and “land has always been saving us”.  She describes the value of the ‘iceberg’ (of land, of water, an inter-generational survival tool) without which she might not be here today.  Her final note is to, “Respect and honour inter-generational knowledge and know that it makes a huge difference in making one’s way through complex trauma”. 

Nelli Agbulos