The birth of the traditional wi’kuom at Mt. St. Vincent University

Being present and assisting in the birth of the traditional wi’kuom (wigwam) on unceded Mi’Kmaq territory, was a deep honour. Members from Apaji-wla’matulinej (Eastern Hub of Righting Relations) had been invited to support this work. In fact, it was brought about through our Advisory Committee member Catherine Martin, as her parting act as Nancy’s Chair at Mount St. Vincent University.

 

 

It was a two day labour and just like the journey of giving birth, it had moments of frustration, moments where some support people got out of harmony with each other, didn’t listen to the “being” being born. We had a grandmother huddle where we discussed what we saw happening and how could we bring back the harmony and working as one, so that the wi’kuom was welcomed into this world in a good way.

We had moments of deep joy and complete awe, when the poles were placed on the ends and the shape of the head emerged. At that moment elder, Lottie Mae Johnson remembered seeing this structure as a young child on Chapel Island. It is deeply moving how a teacher from another area can rekindle and bring back local traditional knowledge. It was an historic event.

 

 

Teaching that emerged, sometimes through pain and frustration were that the women are responsible for the home. The women have the say and are the ones who build the home with help from men. “We say where the sink will go,” explained Catherine Martin. It was, in fact, an Indigenous woman, Marilyn Francis who envisioned bringing back the traditional wi’kuom. She had contacted Tony Solomon, a well-known and respected teepee maker and teacher to create it for her. They did research and had many discussions. Tony often reminded us that he is Anishinabe. He did his best on the research but felt as the Mi’Kmaq used the wi’kuom and listened to her teachings, there would be adjustments and new understandings.

This was reflected in a comment by Sherry Pictou, who has just become the first permanent Indigenous Professor at Mount St. Vincent University, “ Thank-you to Cathy Martin and Tony Solomon for providing us with such incredible teachings and inspiring us to learn more about how our ancestral homes are our lifeways.”

 

 

It was an extremely hot and humid day to be working out in the sun. As we worked, some tension emerged as men who are used to just jumping in and doing, didn’t listen or argued with the women about how it should be done. Some women felt their voice was being denied and some moved a distance away. The grandmothers gathered everyone and spoke about the reasons this was important and how we needed to work as one, listen to each other and to the spirit of the wi’kuom. And the wonderful part was we all learned. At the evening reflection a man spoke emotionally about seeing what he was doing and learning to step back and let the women do it and then help where needed.

 

 

The next day, we did it all again! We wanted to make sure we would remember how to do it. Tony reminded us, “There are no mistakes. If something is not working, stop and listen. What is this telling us?” So we learned that the stakes need to be put in differently than a tee pee. She needed support along the middle first. We all learned to respect the time when we are putting on our grandmother’s dress. Just like when you are dressing or undressing your grandmother, you do not take pictures. Anyone who comes to the doorways is invited in. They do not stay standing in the door way as if they don’t belong in the circle. All our welcomed in and given a place to sit. Their voice is just as valuable as everyone else’s. In the western way of thought, the poles would be considered dead. The Indigenous way, they still contain spirit and can be our teachers.

 

Tony Solomon, Mukaw Tee pees

While we worked or took breaks, we talked about the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations. People felt so good that Mount St. Vincent University was listening to Indigenous voices and working with Indigenous people to create this legacy. Catherine Martin said some people have teepees in Halifax and N.S., which is the name for an Indigenous western home, as far as she knows this is the first Mi’kmaq wigwam on a university campus. That a traditional wi’kuom will be used as a class room and teaching space for both Indigenous and non-indigenous people just felt so right!

And we talked of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous people (UNDRIP). People were saddened and upset to learn that at the Grand Pre 150 Celebration a non-native person has been contracted to provide 15 tee pees. The celebration is to honour the 400 year old friendship between the Indigenous people and Acadians. Having a German make the tee pees flies directly in the face of UNDRIP which Canada has signed. It is deeply insulting when there are Indigenous people who can and should be doing this work. So while we were uplifted by what we were doing, we knew there is still much to be done. And hopes were expressed that the wider community will learn to ask the advice of Indigenous women. The women would have brought up the future generations – saying “what will our children years from now learn looking at a structure created by a non-native. They will think this is our way and will not be able to find their way to the traditional teachings that come from our authentic ways of being and living.”

We ended by celebrating the birth day of the wi’kuom. Tony shared how to make a traditional Anishinabe corn soup. During the morning it was cared for by two women. It was brought into the centre of the wi’kuom. Serving in the Indigenous way, rather than the western way of doing things, young men quickly gave out bowls and filled them with steaming soup, followed by Labrador tea while songs were sung.

Reflections were shared and everyone was so thankful.

“I feel like I have come home.”

 

 

The Virtual Talking Stick: Reflections on Apaji-wla’matulinej Women’s Gathering

May 2017

Apaji-wla’matulinej – When a Mi’Kmaq speaker translates this word for non-speakers, they always use their hands to show a turning over and speak of how it means returning to the right way of being, right relations. And as always there is a loss in translation as the depth of the meaning is hard to describe in English. In our four-day gathering near Elsipogtog on unceded Mi’Kmaq land, we saw it become reality.

We began with a Pipe Ceremony and a welcoming to this territory by Josie Augustine. She told us this work is long overdue, that the ancestors were happy we were doing this work and that it must continue. And that it will continue to grow and bring healing. We talked of how healing the women, heals the families and then the communities, bringing things back to right relations.

As we spent time together, we continued to listen, and be guided by Creator. And our trust grew. We each became more present. There was a beautiful, gentle opening and sharing of who we truly are as human beings.

The reflection below are a “virtual” talking circle shared through emails.

Greetings everyone.

As I hold the Talking Stick, I am reflecting on our time together.

As a woman who has been sitting in Circles for some time, one of the things that stood out for me is that the topics of concern for women is also moving through the circle.  Elders and youth have been the main topics of concern for some years now. This time it was on men. I am not sure why I was surprised by this.  Perhaps it is because there are huge gaps in services for men and so I have felt quite isolated in my work with them.   I was so grateful to be surrounded by women for  four days.  It is so nurturing and helps to give me the balance I needed to continue to do my work with men.  I think that in today’s fast paced world and with so many community concerns, that often we do feel isolated from each other.  I think too that perhaps because we often are existing in survival mode, we can’t always see the bigger picture.  That changes when we are able to gather together.  We are surprised and impressed at what others are doing, and that validates everyone.  As we begin to move back into our natural rhythm together, we also get the opportunity to realize how separate we have become from the original instructions of the land.

I went into the gathering wondering how I could manage to be away from everything that depends on my for four days.  Now i am wondering how it could have been as impactful to me if it was less than that.  It takes that long to decompress and to really move back into the rhythm that sustains us – that is life giving.  i feel stronger now since the gathering and wish to thank all the amazing women and the wisdom of those who realized how life-giving women who gather really are.

Welalio,

Cathy Gerrior

Participating in the gathering has deepened the urgency with which I do my work. Observing Trudeau’s government slither away last week from 6(1)a All The Way, an amendment which would have recognized Canadian Indigenous women as equal to Canadian Indigenous men under the Indian Act, brings home to me again that the colonial state is determined to lower the number of Indigenous women wherever it can, as a way of slowly assimilating First Nations people.

Right now, bringing scholarly attention to the central role of women in many Canadian Indigenous cultures is my contribution towards change in this country. I don’t know where it will lead, but I know that for mainstream society and elsewhere, having knowledge recognized and
documented in a formal way is respected and may be influential.

Personally, I came away from the gathering strengthened and inspired, and feeling deeply grateful for your warm welcome.

Miigwetch
Linnéa

I pass on the Talking Stick…

Being part of Apaji Wla’multulinej gathering at Richibucto Resort, was amazing. The stories of truth, struggles and inspirations filled the room with a spirit and the heart of one being in the four days we enjoyed together.

The women’s experiences and lives became entwined with each other’s stories, which brought an air of strength, courage, familiarity  and hope for a better tomorrow. The children’s laughter and footsteps as they came into the room and the sound of healthy crying from one amazing little gift from Creator, brought our women to attention with a smile, the baby’s fine, just waken up.

For me, when I got home having the opportunity to sit back and contemplate, left me with peace, happiness and a full heart of great memories. Two young Sisters shared the love of family and not to take family for granted stood out to me. It left me with an amazing feeling of unconditional love for my family and reflecting with memories of special moments with them. I expressed to my children, grandchildren, family and friends, how dear they are to me and I am blessed to have them in my life. Yes, it is important not to take your family for granted. They could be there one day and then gone the next.

I would like to thank each and every person who made this event possible. A special thanks to all the women who attended, you were all awesome thank you for allowing me to be part of your circle.

Much love, peace and acknowledgement.

Marilyn Standing Bear Francis

I have to say, it took me a while to allow myself the honor of being “in” the circle.  I hold such great respect for all the beautiful women I was so privileged to meet.  I look forward to the teachings ahead and will carry all that I have learned to every table I sit at.

Donna Smith, Tearmen House Shelter

What an amazing time…the organizers did a terrific job of pulling together a great combination of people, issues, and time together.

Gathering among women was much needed for all who made it.  It felt like a homecoming. The mix of participants was so important.  Listening to some women speak the truths of their painful experiences for the first time, in the same circle where we heard about initiatives addressing those violent conditions that are led by local Indigenous women, as well as learning of the international work being done on matricultural societies was incredibly visionary.  It gave us the necessary connections among the strands of the lived experiences, the capacity to build community woman based responses, and the global Indigenous societies that have been offering distinct social structures for centuries.

As a settler woman, I felt warmly welcomed, and supported.  As we agreed the first night, we were to spend the time with each other ‘being accepted unconditionally for who we are, as we are’.  This enabled those of us with different views and experiences to treat each other with respect and support.

In our evening activity, being taught how to weave a basket gave us the right image:  we started the basics of a basket, but did not have time to finish them.  We agreed that was what happened in those four days – we wove the beginnings of our community together.

How the weaving was taught reflected how the circles of women worked during our time together.  I do not have good eye hand coordination skills, and usually avoid such activities. This time, sitting with others who had a variety of ability to make a good looking basket gave me a sense that we were all accepted as we are, yet were encouraged to do better to build the best basket we could.  This was done by learning from a skilled patient Indigenous woman teacher.  We sat waiting for instructions, building caring community as we learned what to do next, being corrected and supported at the same time.   This was how the whole 4 days went – those from the community with the skills and knowledge leading the rest of us in such a variety of different aspects of supporting women.  Each of us had strengths that were highlighted at one point or another.  The leaders did a great job of weaving us into a basket. The objectives were achieved at our gathering.

We witnessed and experienced a model of women’s way of being.  It was a very empowering confirmation that we can find our way to using this experience in our lives after.  I have shared the incredible depth of care and support I felt and was able to give, with many others since. My gift of non-touch healing was accepted and appreciated in a deeper way than I’ve ever experienced.

The discussions I have had with others since the event have led to me becoming clearer about what it was I experienced, and how it affected me. Their questions and interest make it clear that the impact of the event will continue to have ripple effects.

I continue to reflect on the intricate interweaving of relationships that developed there.  Intense listening, responding, and learning led to deepening understanding and care as the event progressed.

Penni Burrell

As I think back on our gathering, I am in awe! I am in awe and humbled by how the Creator directed us all. It was such a gift to be shown how life should be. We were shown how when we open ourselves up as one hurt human to another, we learn how to support each other. We learn how to trust and how to share our gifts with each other. And each gift shared, helped someone else in the circle – whether it was dancing to a rock song to release the tension, or standing beside someone as they shared deep pain or sharing a Sacred song or an ancient craft. We shared our hearts, minds and spirit.

How has it changed me? How has it changed the way I do my work? I trust myself more. The inside my mind doubting self-talk has decreased and when it pops up, I replace it with faith and trust. I also see more clearly the link between healing and empowering women and healing and empowering men and our communities. I speak my truth much more often and am also mindful when to just listen. My hope has grown as I have witnessed the power of women to make changes in ourselves and I know this will continue and we will make healthy changes in our communities and the world.

Ishbel Munro

This gathering gave us a glimpse of the longhouse way of life. I am longing for the rituals that help us practice the longhouse way of life. Apaji-wla’matulinej – to build trust healing, celebrating ourselves and model women-centered ways of being We are wrapping each other in the healing blankets and love them to remind them who they are.

Miiga’magan

Thoughts from the closing circle below as the talking stick was passed:

It was an Amazing and Awesome gathering of love, strength and courage for Sisterhood & families. Welalioq

Where’s the hope? This is the hope, in gatherings like this – there’s no other space like it

Learning how to trust again

I’m allowed to be myself

Find ways of being more present to what’s happening around me and open to hearing what’s happening around me

It changes the way you see the world, being here

It’s a blessing to be amongst such powerful women

It makes me feel stronger because all of you are out there doing the same kind of work

It can get really lonely to do this work, when you’re called on to lead

Nobody listens when you have a need, they want you to fix their stuff

I witnessed healing within myself and others, I’m taking away teachings

This is what it’s going to take to restore our relationships as indigenous women – 500 years of colonization

Walking with Our Sisters Exhibit

By Ishbel Munro

Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) was a commemorative art project honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people, whose numbers exceed 2000 over the last 20 years. The project included more than 1800 pairs of moccasin vamps (representing those who were lost) decorated by contributing artists, and arranged on the floor in a winding formation. Visitors removed their shoes to walk alongside the vamps, on a pathway of cloth, to engage in reflection and show solidarity and respect. This decolonizing project, carried out by local Elders and volunteers, and guided by the Indigenous National Collective that organized the show, transformed the gallery into a ceremonial site of healing. Many of the visitors commented how unlike a conventional art exhibition it was.

Visitors to the exhibition were formally greeted by volunteers and guided on the protocols of walking the path alongside the unfinished moccasins and offering tobacco. The gallery provided an additional room where volunteers interacted privately with grieving relatives and friends. Volunteers also supported visitors who were emotionally overcome by the exhibition.

MSVU Art Gallery was the sole venue in the Atlantic Region, on the 29-stop national tour. The Gallery accepted the responsibility of providing assistance with travel to the many families and friends of the Indigenous “sisters” from this vast region who have succumbed to violence.

The opening ceremony was attended by Elders, including many from our Right Relations Hub and MMIW families from all of the Atlantic Provinces. We met the day before and our members and others planned the flow of the opening, discussed issues and shared stories. It was deeply moving. Representatives from as far a ways as Labrador and from across Atlantic Canada shared stories, teachings and songs with the more than 500 persons who attended the Welcoming Ceremony. It was inspiring to see how many non-natives came and were open to learning about Indigenous culture and the issues facing Indigenous women and communities.

Many of the MMIW families ceremonially laid in new pairs of vamps representing their loved ones. It was a powerful ceremony and took much longer then thought. It was moving how many people patiently waited for the ceremony to end so that they could through and view the exhibit.

Over the 2.5-week span of the exhibition, a further 3,000 visitors attended the exhibition. The gallery has never seen attendance like this. People lined up for an hour to get in. The exhibit brought the most media coverage that gallery has ever had, as well.

School groups were prevented from visiting by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union work to rule. However, volunteer engagement was intense, with about 150 volunteers donating their labour. Volunteers included persons of Indigenous, Caucasian and international backgrounds, aged 18 to 80. The volunteer WWOS Halifax Planning Committee was composed of about 16 individuals.

Two key objectives of the exhibition were to help MMIW families heal, and to raise awareness and cultural understanding in a very mixed public. The exhibit certainly increased the general public’s understanding of social justice issues through an experiential exhibit. It also brought healing to those whose family’s members are missing or murdered. It is hard to describe the impact and how it undermines a person when a loved one is gone through tragic and socially unjust circumstances. It can be crippling on so many levels. The transformation that comes from acknowledgement of your experience and sharing space with others who know just how you feel, helps a person to move forward in a good way.

This was also a community re-building event. In the past Indigenous communities were built on mutual support. Over time, through western influence people have become accustomed to being paid an honorarium to drum or paid as head dancer, or attending a conference or as an elder. This project was designed to re-kindle the spirit of community. Just like a wake, people were invited to do whatever they could to help out. People brought food, supported elders and family members and took care of each other. The full event was guided by the grandmothers who created a collective wisdom for how things would go. People became like a flock of birds, soaring together, checking in with each and adjusting the flight plan as they went. It was very organic and beautiful.

The surge of interest and good will from the general public also suggests that the presentation of WWOS in Halifax has advanced the national project of Reconciliation. We were proud and honoured to be a part of this excellent “teaching” event.

By Ishbel Munro

In May of 2016, 40 mostly Indigenous women gathered to talk about working together to create positive changes for their communities and beyond. Right from the start, there was a sense of hope and excitement. Drawing on the deep wisdom carried by the natural world and women’s connection to that, we quickly renewed living our values as women. We were all leaders, teachers and learners. There was strength in sharing our pain, our vulnerabilities.

“It’s being led by women and its going to end well.”

We shared our stories – stories of the impact of colonialism from Vietnam, Korea, and African Nova Scotian to the intergenerational impact of residential schools, the 60’s scoop and many community killing policies. And yet what shone was the astounding fact that women were still resilient, still looking for hope, looking how to move forward and make things better for their children and those to come.

“What is the story of Indigenous women? It is not the story of trauma. It is the story of resilience, power, hope and love embodied. I do not want to be defined by my trauma. It is time to change the story.”

We talked about the importance that this is a women led project. That is what drew people to it. Women are sacred. We carry life. And yet western society sends many messages causing confusion and pain for women and men. First Nations men are going against their natural grain. When women reclaim the language and culture, they are empowered and this brings a balance to our families and communities.

“I trust this circle, the process and the experience of women’s ceremonies because it’s not hierarchical, it’s collective, everyone has responsibility.”


“Change is happening, there’s a shift happening and it has everything to do with women, and I need that on a personal level, that is the thing that is keeping me going – connecting with strong women, believing that something else can happen and we need to make it happen.”

We all were working in very different ways to make the world a better place. When we thought of what we could do together, there was an overflowing of ideas. We soon came to realize that we couldn’t support a hundred different projects but we could support and strengthen each other. We are always giving to others, concerned for other. If we strengthen women, we strengthen our families and our communities.

“We’ve been divided – different cultures – we’ve been doing our own work in isolation. We need to stand together as sisters and walk together and do this work at the same time in our communities, empowering ourselves and each other.”


“Change is happening, there’s a shift happening and it has everything to do with women, and I need that on a personal level, that is the thing that is keeping me going – connecting with strong women, believing that something else can happen and we need to make it happen.”


“Developing a women-centered way of living.”

Through building an alternative; modelling what a women-led approach is, we are creating a model that is based on respect for all life; nourishing and strengthening our spirit. We are encouraging each other to overcome the “you are not good enough” attitude that we have internalized and to share our gifts with our families, communities and the wider society.

“The time is right for women to take the lead, especially our Indigenous communities – they are the carriers of knowledge of so much on how to take care of Mother Earth.”


“Rebuilding Canada from the ground up with right relations.”