I work at school that is not on a Metis Settlement or in a First Nations community. It has a majority of students that would identify, using school terms as FNMI, or First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. Our school is also very diverse with many cultures that are also strong in their beliefs and practices. As an Indigenous woman who went through the local school system it was important for me to support all students and especially “our” students. After having a student move from a remote Cree speaking community and hearing him preferring to speak Cree but not having people, including myself that really understood a lot of the language, I reached out to an Elder and asked her if she would be willing to come and just spend some time talking to him in school. Being able to build that connection for him. It was amazing to see how much his face lit up every time they would talk. Soon other students asked me how come he was the only one who was able to do that. I decided to go and speak to the principal of the school. This eventually led to us having a full time elder in residence at our school. I was asked by someone why it mattered and I answered it just does, which isn’t really an answer. So I had to ask myself “why is having an elder in residence good for the mental health of our students?” I thought a lot about it and this is the best way I could explain it.
I am an Indigenous woman and as such I explain things through story and the context of things relationally. This is how I will explain to you why having an Elder is good for the mental health of our students. As an Indigenous person it is important to me that we have cultural connections at our school. When I was a student going through the local school system there wasn’t always a good and accurate reflection of Indigenous people in our schools; as time went on that changed slightly.
I remember how in grade 4 we were offered a language choice but neither Cree nor Michif were offered at that time. I would have really liked to have had that exposure to my language. My parents did not speak Cree at our home because my mother could not speak it because she is English. My father is fluent in Cree as it was his first language. For myself I would hear it at church as the sermon was half in English and half in Cree. I would hear it when visiting family and friends. I would hear it when my dad would see people he knew up town so I was surround by it but did not speak it. I guess you could say my life was infused with it but not in a way that helped me to speak it.
In grade 9 we were offered Cree language but it was not taught by a Cree speaker. Rather it was taught by the French teacher and while she was nice, when we students would bring up cultural experiences she could not relate to us and we would often try to explain it to her. She would then tell us that we needed to move on and was not able to put those experiences we were talking about into a context. She would put on the tape so we could listen to the lesson and we would move on. It felt like our language and experiences weren’t important.
Throughout the grades we learned about Indigenous people as though we were dead, extinct and savage. We learned that people were crazy and bad; we learned that we were put down in the rebellions that were simply something minor and not anything big in the Canadian context; while my family taught me something else. My family taught me that one of my Mosom’s was killed in the great war and that his body was treated badly and we were not able to bring him back home. I was told we were not allowed to do anything and we were not allowed to ask questions or talk about our culture. If we participated in cultural practices we learned we were not allowed to let anyone know in case we would get in trouble. I heard from my family that schools were bad and that they hated us because we were “Indian”; that schools took away our language and our culture and were a place that mistreated us. In fact I heard stories from my cousins about how terrible teachers could be.
What I learned without knowing it was that this great war my family talked about, the one where we lost family, where people starved and died was not world war 1 but the 1885 north west rebellion. It was a war of survival and it was not actually a rebellion as much as it was about sovereignty. I was learning from my family a version of Canadian history. I learned that we had a way of life before colonization and that it was good. We had our own political governance structures, our own independence, our own revenue and that all these things allowed us to be who we were. I learned that when the Europeans came we lost that. I learned that there were treaties designed to allow the new people to share the land with us and I learned that did not happen. We lost a lot of our way of life through legislation that was imposed on us and through schools that were created to erase from our memories who we are. All these things have created legacies of both historical trauma and Intergenerational trauma.
So why am I telling you this, my children went through this school system trying to also connect with their identity, their culture and their language. They had a few opportunities, through a Cree language program, native arts classes and the opportunities given to them in high school. They had class debates where they were told by classmates that it was a long time ago and they should just get over it. My son asked me why his grade 7 social studies book called us savages and when I asked him what he learned he said that we are not very well educated and that our culture is mostly gone. This did not contribute very well to their positive identity. As my children are now adults one of the things that have discussed is the power of having someone who reflects who you are in the school.
The Elder at the school now was in the school when I was in high school. She did not have this same role and was not allowed the same conversations that she has now. We often talked and while I didn’t tell her anything personal it was really nice to have her there. She was around at the high school when my children were there. My kids knew that she would understand and that she would be a support if she could be. If she was allowed. These were not her roles at those times. We connected it because of cultural connections. She understood when I said I’m going to another funeral and didn’t say “how many funerals can you go to” making it seem like I was lying. She simply said I understand, that must be hard. She didn’t ask questions and didn’t say anything to my teachers.
In high school we also had another Metis lady who was good to talk to and when my cousin was murdered I tried talking to her about it but she wasn’t allowed to talk to me because again that was not her role. She told me that she was sorry but that she would get into trouble if she did talk to me about it. I could not talk to anyone else about it as there was nobody there who would understand. The two ladies that could have understood were limited by expectations surrounding their job.
Having an Elder in the school would have helped me. Having an Elder in the school would have helped my children because there are somethings that you do not have to explain why its happening they simply know. They simply nod and understand. Having that person who understands; that you are going to a wake, that you are having a rites of passage ceremony, that this is the 5th grandparent you have lost, is important. It allows you to be connected in a positive and healthy way, it creates comfort and safety and allows someone to explain the cultural aspect to your teacher when no one else can so that you do not have to. Indigenous people need those relationships, those connections and the understanding that it brings.
Having an Elder at the school allows staff to Indigenize the content and bring the curriculum into context through the oral histories and traditional teachings. It build a student’s pride in themselves, their language and cultural. It teaches other students that stereotypes that exist are not truths and it allows those students to connect with a culture that they might not otherwise be exposed to. It gives pride to parents and the community as a whole and it allows us to see that even though schools were a place that tried to make us forget who we were, that this school, our school is trying to help heal that wound. It helps not only the school, the students, the families but it helps everyone and that is why it is good for students mental health.