I was brought into the world by four senior women of the village; my grandmothers. That piece of knowledge has always been significant for me. It carries me through many obstacles I face, knowing that I am on this world for a reason.
It is true that one of the effects of residential school incarceration, at a formative age, is that it minimizes an adjusted adulthood. There are many ingredients that can be ingested to bring back those feelings we had during childhood; self-loathing, isolation and feelings of inadequacy that prevents the survivor from moving forward.
As we recover the drum, the sweat-lodge, shaking-tent and ancestry feast ceremonies (to name a few) as well as sing our songs and dance the many expressions of honour, we recover a lost pride in ourselves. It has been a slow climb back. Our confidence and hope is on the rebound. As we become aware that bad things still happen to many other tribes; black, white, yellow and red, we can focus on the resilience of humanity. Now let’s all create wonderful things; books, plays, movies, art.
Today I take youth on a three-hundred kilometre Rafting Excursion to fight the effects of Nature Deficit Syndrome. As the Ipod batteries run out the youth begin to hear, see and feel the varied expressions of the natural environment. Management of a large raft, measuring 60 feet by 16 feet, has many teachings. You have to be aware of the river current, identify the shallow areas, anticipate rapids and work with the wind. This need for constant vigilance makes everyone move all the time and that’s good for the physical health.
I used to ask students how far back Mushkegowuk history goes. Their answers were in the hundreds and echoed the history texts in front of them. Not too many said that we have been on this land for several millennia. As the legends, oral stories and area land marks come to their attention, they realize our people have been on Turtle Island for thousands and thousands of years. As we uncover a landmark and express our curiosity, the elders have begun to fill in the blanks. The reason why it was hidden is a story in itself, a story to be told at a later time.
Our stories need to come out. We can help each other realize that experience, no matter how difficult, can be a teacher. I will advise youth (of all Nations) to speak to their old people and uncover their past – from those that lived it. You will have your story and the elder receives companionship and attention from you. For them that is a priceless exchange.
I'm a former Chief of Fort Albany First Nation, a Cree community on the shores of James Bay in Ontario, Canada.
I'm a writer, educator, poet and activist. The river that flows by my home has been in my family since time immemorial. To protect the river is to protect our culture, history and being.
As a residential school survivor, I assisted the founding of the The Peetabeck Keway Keykaywin Association (PKKA) shortly after the first reunion of the residential school in 1991 as a way to assist fellow survivors navigate the trauma they had suffered and be part of a larger voice. .
I own a sawmill and also work as a consultant, speaker and researcher.