It has been over a year since Cowessess First Nation announced 751 unmarked graves had been found at the site of the former Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan.
Rallies and movements calling for Canada Day to be cancelled, or at least tempered with serious reflection on the way the country has treated its Indigenous population, were heard across many social media platforms leading up to July 1.
Now, many of Manitoba’s Indigenous, Inuit and Métis peoples are turning back to the spirituality of their ancestors and their land as a way to cope with the trauma of their shared experience.
Books like “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and “Returning to Ceremony: Spirituality in Manitoba Métis Communities” by Chantal Fiola are finding their place among bestseller and must-read lists. Summer camps are gearing up throughout the province, aimed at teaching Indigenous wisdom to the new generation.
Frank Tacan, an elder and knowledge keeper at the Brandon Friendship Centre, was raised in Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, and is a residential school survivor. He attended Pine Creek Residential School for four years.
He said the discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites across the country is causing many to question what they were told about spirituality and religion growing up.
“People are thinking, why would churches do that when they work for God?” Tacan said. “People are frustrated and confused because of this, so now they’re trying to turn somewhere for spirituality.”
It’s not an easy thing to do for a residential school survivor, or their children or grandchildren, to find their way back to faith. It’s a journey, but one that Tacan said is important to undertake.
“They’re asking how to heal their trauma. It could take a lifetime, it could take an hour. It depends on the individual. They’ve got to find who they are in this world as an Indigenous person, as a Métis person, as an Inuit person.”
Many people on the road to healing get frustrated when they’re met with others from outside their communities who don’t understand — or don’t care — about the trauma Indigenous Canadians have been through, dating back to colonial times. Discouragement, Tacan said, can easily turn inward into shame.
“A lot of people get discouraged because non-Indigenous people say, ‘get over it,’” Tacan said. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of who we are, but colonization is still going on.”
Intergenerational trauma is something that’s at the core of healing through Indigenous spirituality and wisdom. Tacan recommends starting simply, by having the courage and commitment to identity as Indigenous and reconnecting with the earth. Going to a sweat lodge or smudging ceremony can open up further opportunities.
“Take your shoes and socks off and plant your feet on Mother Earth and get that connection that you lost when you were taken from your home to be put into those institutions. It brings back that connection to who you are in this world as a human being.”
Turning to elders, such as Tacan himself, can open many doors.
“Our elders are very compassionate. They talk about the seven sacred teachings: love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth. The churches don’t teach that. They teach ‘love thy neighbour’ — what the heck does that mean? People are confused and frustrated. But when they look at our traditional way of life, they’re getting that ‘a-ha’ moment.”
Susie McPherseon Derendy grew up along the banks of the Churchill River in northern Manitoba. She currently lives in Brandon, and sits in a sharing circle on reconciliation once a month at Knox United Church. She said it’s important to acknowledge the worldview that was in place in the Americas prior to European contact, a view that included ancestral truth and wisdom.
“I hope that personal reconciliation will help us to be part of the collective work of reconciliation for all communities,” Derendy said. “There is a western worldview knowledge system and an Indigenous worldview knowledge system. We would all do well to learn from both.”
For Derendy, spirituality involves seeing herself as part of creation as opposed to having dominion over it, something that she said is often taught in Christian churches.
“Life can be seen as ceremony. You can connect with the sacred anywhere, anytime and it’s also within us. To me, that’s a real key piece. When colonial Christians came and taught our people to dismiss their Indigenous way of knowing, it disconnected them from themselves.”
Derendy said she’s happy there’s a resurgence in the Indigenous community to connect with creation and find out who they are as part of it.
“Our people are born into this challenge, where the message has been ‘you’ve got to be like us, the white way is the right way,’ and so I think Indigenous spirituality is to resist that, and to ourselves as part of the sacred, part of creation.”
A return to Indigenous spirituality, Derendy attested, is for Indigneous people to see themselves as no less an important part of reaction than the trees, stars and waters.
With Pope Francis set to visit Canada later this month, from July 24-30, the National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors submitted a request to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). The group is asking the Pope to acknowledge that many students who were forced to attend residential schools died at the institutions and were buried in unmarked graves, with no word being given to their families and no permission granted to bring their bodies home for burial. It’s also asking the pontiff to admit that the church failed to let authorities know about the widespread abuse that went on at residential schools, choosing in some cases to transfer the abusers to other facilities.
Acknowledgment and apology, while important, aren’t going to heal people, Tacan says.
“We’re tired of apologies. I want to see action. That’s what’s going to heal us as First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.”
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun