I had the honour of participating in an Elders and Youth Conference at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto on July 26th, 2019. This conference was put on by the NCCT to restore and rebuild relationships between youth and elders due to what colonization: residential schools, the foster-care system and intergenerational trauma has done to our families.
When I was younger, I had misinformed ideas of what it meant to be native.
I thought being Indigenous meant experiencing intergenerational trauma and pain and since I am an urban Afro-Indigenous youth, I felt as if I did not experience enough trauma to identify as native.
Both my paternal grandparents are residential school survivors and my dad was taken away from his community through the sixties scoop. I grew up rather privileged compared to some of the stories I heard from my father and from my cousins.
At the conference, Jeremiah shared his story with us and something he had said, resonated with my experience, “it does not matter if they are sober, or if they are Christian and do not practice traditions, elders are to be respected because they lived through the pain and the trauma”.
The border crossings project, initiated by Sharada Eswar who is the Community Activator at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, has taught me that It takes strength, humility and compassion to be able to listen to someone else’s stories.
When I was 21, I decided that being in T’karonto (Toronto) was not grounding me in terms of being Woods Cree, I needed to know my community that my dad was scooped from. I needed to meet my family, relatives and grandmother who still lived on the reserve.
I met my kohkum (Nehiyawewin for grandmother) that year.
I have seen her another time since then, and in August of 2019 I will see her for the third time. I am privileged that she is still alive and a fluent Woods Cree speaker. More than that privilege, I have a responsibility to get to know her and rebuild those connections. I visited my late uncle’s grave the last time I was there; Isaac Roberts had died in 2008 by suicide. I have not had the strength to ask how, or what he was like when he was alive.
Centre for Suicide Prevention has concluded that the leading causes of death for first nations youth and adults up to the age of fourty-four is suicide and self-inflicted wounds.
In the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the reserves within my band, 6 girls committed suicide in 2016. None of them were older than 14.
I have not had the strength to ask about the traumas my father faced in the foster-care system. I am scared of the responses, I am scared of digging up unburied yet hidden wounds that have not healed. Most of all, I am frightened that I will not be able to emotional support my loved ones and to hold their stories.
I proudly identify as Nihithaw now, as someone who is reclaiming their language, traditions and place in their community. As a nihithaw iskwew, decolonization means unpacking what colonization, the canadian state and the media has forced down my throat. My identity and journey as an Indigenous person is as valid as anyone else’s. It comes with responsibilities to my community and to my ancestors, past and future. I can not speak on the traumas I did not experience, those are not my stories to share but being Indigenous comes with much more than just those traumas. It is more than the status cards that the government of canada ‘provides’ us.
Today If you were to ask me what It means to be Indigenous, I would say: It is more than our traumas and it is more than our resiliencies. My purpose in life is not to resist a system that is impoverishing, underfunding and killing my people. Being Indigenous, simply means that, being Indigenous.
What does it mean to be Woods Cree and a community member, well that is a whole different story and that story begins thousands of years ago.
I will leave you with this:
“We can choose to continue to think of ourselves as victims and always look to justify our own fears and inadequacies and our own failings by blaming colonialism, or residential schools, or government paternalism, or other realities of our past.
We can also decide, if we choose to do so, that this is a way of thinking that no longer is useful for us as we look to the future.
These factors were certainly part of our past, but it is a past which we have struggled to overcome, and the reality is that we have overcome them.
It is no longer useful for us as individuals, as communities, and ultimately as a Nation to remain stuck in a way of thinking which does not reflect the possibilities for the future”
- Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief, Grand Chief Council of the Crees.
This is not for non-Indigenous people to minimize and invalidate what we have experienced, collectively as nations and individuals.
Indigenous people: This is for us.
Keisha Erwin is a staff member at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. They have been hired to work alongside the Community Activator and the amazing human being who created the border crossings project, Sharada Eswar. Keisha is an non-binary urban Afro-Indigenous youth (Afro-Caribbean and Nihithaw, Woods Cree). They are a band member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. Their father is Woods Cree from Treaty 6 territory and was put into foster-care at a young age (scooped during the sixties scoop) and raised in Sarnia, Ontario. Their mother migrated to Canada from Jamaica in her late teens, and tried to make a living here in this society in which, people of colour particularly Indigenous and Black peoples face many systemic barriers.