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Speaking my truth

I have had more people than I expected ask me what it was like to share my story at the TRC. I have to say it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It was scarier than anything I have experienced and at the same time it was very liberating.

I had considered, how much do you share when you tell the story of your experience. It is not just my experience but also the experience of my siblings, my parents, my aunts and uncles and cousins. It directly impacts them. It exposes things that you learn not to talk about. It is a fearful thing to break the rules of silence because it is not just our family rules but it is also societies rules of silence.

It is about shining a light on truth that people would rather not see and then giving them a reason to say they knew I was screwed up and now here is the proof because I just told everyone what happened in my family.

FEAR, it is so powerful. It can rob you of independence and steal your dream. It is the great silencer. Fear is one of the most difficult things to overcome. It is surrounded by what ifs and anxiety. It is why I had nightmares for years. The only way to overcome fear is to open yourself up to love and truth. Even miserable rotten truths are better than living in constant fear.

So my truth was spoken in a deeply painful and personal way. I cried a lot at the TRC. I cried because I felt alone, even though I wasn’t. I cried because my family wasn’t there. I cried and grieved my losses. I cried because of the shame I grew up with and I cried because in all those things I experienced were teachings. Some of these were not healthy and others well honestly gave me strength to endure. So as scary as it was, as painful and as difficult as that experience was, I am glad that I did it. I wish that more people would have been able to do it but to those who did, I am so grateful, they were able to share their stories. In telling the story we all gained a little more freedom. And if you really need to know more well, I’m open to telling you about it as long as you are open to listening without judgement.

We have an Elder at our school

 

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.

 

Lest we forget

My grandad was born in 1899 and was only a young man during World War 1. He served in the merchant marines. He did not serve long.

I created this a few years ago. It’s of my granddad and his service in WW1. He didn’t like to talk much about it, he only said he didn’t serve as long as others, mostly in 1918. He said where he was and that the Britannia sank. He signed up with his friend Chris.

My favorite picture of him at that time is this one with his friends.

They were all so young. We should always remember that it was young men who went to war.

He had a young family in WW2. He still wanted to support the effort so he fought fires in London during the bombing. He also didn’t like to talk about that. He said lots of people were injured and hurt.

I asked my mum about what she remembered about that time in her childhood. My mum remembers being carried down the stairs as bombs fell and the house shook. She said a bomb landed on a house down the street from them. She said that they were evacuated from London for their safety and was probably about 5. My mum remembers that they didn’t stay there long because a boy was murdered so her mother decided that they would be safer with her dad and they returned to London.

My mum remembers going to school and hearing the air raid sirens going. She remembers the gas masks they had to wear and running across the field holding hands with other primary school students and the songs they sung until the all clear was announced. She does not like those songs. The war gave her many scary memories.

I am grateful for those who served. I am forever grateful that neither myself nor my children ever had to experience that. I will remember and want my children to always remember.

Forgotten histories

Ive always been interested in history. I think it’s a family thing, my parents always told stories about historic events. One day my uncle Archie brought me a bunch of old papers he found at the dump. He asked me to look through them and see what I could find. They were photocopies of black files from the Saddle Lake agency. These records were of the interactions between the Canadian governments Indian Agent and the department of Indian affairs. They told a story of what happened in the community but are very one sided.

When I was researching the black files, I was looking for more records online and somehow became distracted by old photos. I began looking at these old black and white photos online and became increasingly annoyed by what I saw.

What bothered me was that the photographers took the time to take photos but not the time to know whose photo they took. Sometimes if there was a European person in the picture, his name was included. Most often the pictures of the indigenous people said “unknown Indian”, sometimes “anonymous indian” or sometimes they named the tribe. What bothered me was that these were someone’s family members. They lived, were loved and died.

It bothered me because my great great grandparents could have been in those photos and I would never have known. It bothered me because the history I had been told about my dads side of the family is a sad tragic tale. It is inherently one of loss, loss of land, loss of culture, loss of freedom, loss of language loss of life.

My mosom Mumstap’s father Memnook (sometimes spelled Maymenook) was killed in the great war. This isn’t world war 1, this is the 1885 northwest rebellion. Our family called it a great war. The story of his death is another tale. His father was named Witokan. He passed before treaty 6 was signed.

After the treaty was signed all the family members received registration numbers. Maymenook was number 9 on the Saddle Lake band list. He was killed in May of 1885. Not part of the Canadian history I learned. My mosom Mumstap was number 91.

They needed permission from the Indian agent to leave the reserve, they needed permission to sell their produce. It was illegal for them to buy stamps, hire a lawyer, to vote, and gather to practice their traditional beliefs.

This painting is my way of illustrating that we are always connected to the past. We are connected by stories and shared history. Mosom Mumstap was at least 106 years old when he passed away. I was 6.

This painting travels through history to connect with him with both the past and the present and ends with the photo of tipi’s. The tipi’s are a picture I took one morning when I was at the Saddle Lake cultural camp. To me, it shows that though much had been oppressed, much survived inspite of those who tried to erase Cree culture. It shows that those in the past are still connected to who we are today. This painting represents hope. That although society saw people and wasnt interested in them and wanted to forget about them, we are still here. It shows that the strength of our ancestors still resides in us.

Dreaming of spirits – the story of this painting

If you are wondering what Sakaw Iskwew means it means bush woman and is the name of my great grandmother. There are reasons and stories about why I named my art pages after her. I’ve also been asked about the stories of my paintings so I decided to start writing them. I was asked if my art is native inspired, it’s not. It is native art, there is a difference. My art is inspired by my Cree culture, my experiences and often my dreams.

This triptych is of a dream I had several years ago. I dreamed of 3 women, these are grandmother spirits. They were old but didn’t look old. Each of these women had a different gift that to share. after I had the dream I spoke to an Elder and asked if it was alright if I painted these women. She told me that I could paint it as long as I didn’t paint all the details. So I tried paint a vivid experience with less details. That is not an easy thing to do.

I painted the dresses and some of the spiritual landscape and I also decided to hint at the fact that they were in ceremony and passing the pipe.

I was also asked about why they didn’t have faces. This is because of a conversation I had with one of my kokoms. I was talking to her about beadwork, traditional dolls and paintings. She said to me to consider how in the old days people didn’t include the face because of their teachings. We talked about how people have a spirit and the only person who can create a spirit is Creator. So now I try not to paint faces on people who haven’t existed here. Sometimes I still paint faces if it feels right but most of the time I don’t paint them anymore.

If you want to check out my other paintings you can check out my Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/sakawiskwewart/

Reflection

Have you ever looked in the mirror and then realized that you look like someone. That one person in your family that you didn’t expect to look like?

I had that happen to me the other day. I was camping. As usual when I camp I braided my hair. As I stood looking at my reflection I suddenly saw one of my Kokoms looking back at me. I was so shocked that I stopped braiding my hair and really looked at myself. I saw Kokom Agnes looking at me. I’m not sure what exactly it was, maybe it was the curly hair sticking out of my braids, maybe it was the glasses, whatever it was I was surprised.

Kokom Agnes was my grandmother’s aunt, her husband was my grandfathers brother. As a kid I remember visiting them and eating cookies and drinking tea. When Mosom Morris passed we didn’t really go visit anymore.

She has been passed for at least 25 years now maybe even longer. I hadn’t really thought of how she looked for years. In fact I hadn’t really thought about how she looked until that moment. As I looked at myself I was reminded of how her hair looked and how it was frizzy even though it was braided. I’m still not sure what it was in that moment but I did see our connection in that moment. I was grateful and surprised all at the same time.

Silence

Silence,

It is deafening in its stillness and quiet

Kista?

Awina?

Neya.

I am silent.

I am mute.

What do I say?

These words are lost to me.
These words I should know.
Tapwe.

I should be able to speak but I am silenced.

The nuns and the priests they took away the language.

I heard it in my youth.

My father’s first language. He learned not to speak and to remain silent.

It is spoken to others, who also spoke…those not totally mute, not totally silenced but still they did not speak it to me. I am silenced.

Sometimes words want to come, not lots of words only some. Then fear takes hold and they go away.

I do not know enough language to get by.
I know a few words but still fear gets in the way so I remain mute.

Silenced.

The silence is deafening in its stillness and quiet.

Thanks to that school I am silent. I am mute.

#sakawiskwew

Walking

I am walking, feeling the rhythm, I hear the distant beat of drums. They call to me, telling me to come home.

I try to find my way, I stumble and fall, I rise and follow the sound, growing stronger like a heartbeat. I hear the voices of my ancestors calling me, “Nosim, you will be ok, granddaughter do not be afraid, you will find the way.” 

I walk closer to the earth, feeling more grounded and connected as I stand barefoot on the earth. I search, sometimes stumbling as my walk gets closer. I feel the heartbeat of the earth as I walk under the sky. I know that Creator is showing me the way. I am walking back to myself, back home, finding comfort in the old ways. 

Ceremony calls. I let go of my pain. I let go of my fear. I am walking a new yet old road.

I am walking, feeling the rhythm, I hear the not so distant beat of drums. They call to me, telling me I am home.