Theresa Harmon’s mother used to call her “the lost one.”
Separated from each other in Yellowknife during the Sixties Scoop, Harmon and her birth mother, Mary Crookedhand Thomas, spent decades and worlds apart.
Then, in 2008, thanks to some web-sleuthing and a lone NWT number listed under her mother’s name, they found each other.
Driven by a desire to rediscover what she’d lost – her culture and the mother she never knew – Harmon travelled with her two teenagers from California, where she’d settled, to the Northwest Territories. Mary, a longtime Lutsel K’e resident, met them in Dettah.
Harmon recounted the trip to Yellowknifer in 2008.
After the visit, Harmon returned to life in California. Her kids graduated, moved out and married. She became a grandmother. But she always made sure to give Mary, and her step-dad Eddy Catholique, a call up North.
Last summer, the call came to Harmon.
“(My cousin) said ‘you need to come up here,'” recalled Harmon in an interview with Yellowknifer earlier this week.
Eddy, her mother’s longtime husband, had died. In Lutsel K’e, there was no one left to take care of her.
Harmon was torn.
“I fought it,” she admitted. Harmon was still grappling with the recent death of her own husband when she weighed whether or not to leave everything behind.
“I had a good life in California. I had a good job, a nice place – great weather.” Her kids, Harmon said, called her crazy for even thinking about dropping everything to go take care of a woman she barely knew.
“One day I just said, ‘OK, I’ll go up there and I’ll get to know the woman I didn’t know,” said Harmon.
“And I did it.”
In August, Harmon packed her bags and flew more than 3,000 kilometres, trading in the hustle and bustle of America’s most populous state for a Northern community of 300 plus residents.
“It was like learning to walk again,” said Harmon.
‘It’s all about mom’
The land was “beautiful” and “peaceful.” Her mother was “very happy” to see Harmon. Mary joked she’d “kidnapped” Harmon, vowing to not to lose the “lost one” again.
But Harmon’s transition from California to Lutsel K’e – the latest chapter in a complicated quest to reclaim her identity and culture following the Sixties Scoop – hasn’t been easy.
After a harsh winter, Hamon was ready to throw her hat in and leave.
“I’ve decided to stay, to see this through,” said Harmon.
“It’s all about mom.”
Harmon plans on staying for the foreseeable future – but the challenges remain.
The little comforts of California are gone. Harmon sees the sadness and anger that festers in her community, passed down through inter-generational trauma – including the enduring wounds of the Scoop – and the lack of resources to deal with it.
But in leaving her life in California behind, Harmon says she’s gained a lot, too.
She’s learned, through new friendships with a group of women in Lutsel K’e, how to make a fire, how to dry meat and tan moose hide and how to fish – things she “never, ever” saw herself doing only months ago.
‘I’ve learned to kick back and breathe’
Some days, you can find her cutting wood or riding a Ski-Doo. “I learned that I love going berry picking – even ice fishing. It was freaking cold, but I still enjoyed it,” said Harmon.
Her new life is a far-cry from the “go-go-go” culture of California, she added.
“It feels great,” laughed Harmon on the change in pace.
“I’ve learned to kick back and breathe.”
As for reconnecting with her culture – Harmon is still working on it. But when she looks back on the Sixties Scoop, Harmon is “past the anger.”
When Harmon was separated from her mother at the age of one, after Mary contracted tuberculosis, she bounced between foster homes before being adopted in Ontario. She was told her biological parents were both dead.
It was the “isolation and lies” that hurt most, said Harmon.
Important to share survivor’s stories
Some Sixties Scoop survivors wishing to apply for compensation as part of the federal government’s $875-million settlement attended an information session in Yellowknife earlier this week.
For Harmon, a remedy to the lasting impact caused by the Sixties Scoop transcends any “monetary value” placed on pain.
“Money helps, but what Indigenous people really need is to be able to share their stories and talk about the isolation and trauma,” said Harmon.
By telling the latest chapter in her story, Harmon hopes to work towards breaking that “taboo.”
– In memory of Eddy Catholique.