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Naomi Potts

Finding Identity

By | 2016 - Aski Learning Tour (Ottawa & Timmins, Ont), Education for Reconciliation, Short-Term Trips | No Comments

[The fifth in a six part series of posts from SSU students participating in a First Nations Learning Tour, hosted by Mennonite Central Committee. The group is travelling in Ottawa & Timmins, Ontario from April 26th – May 8th, 2016.]

Driving into the Mattagami First Nation I was taken aback by how beautiful the area is. Situated along the Mattagami river, spruce and birch trees line the community while the lingering rain clouds add an air of mystery and green signs of spring to the forest floor. The houses were plain, two stories with trucks in the driveway. The buildings, small. As we drove in we kept turning left, up the hill to the band building. Our big group walked inside and was ushered through a small curved hallway into Chief Walter Naveau’s office, there he greeted us.


Only a few could fit inside the office and, as my attention turned, I heard him quietly tell Lyndsey, our MCC representative, that his own son had asked if the residential schools actually existed. Continuing on about miseducation, Walter said that after 150 years of learning someone else’s history, it was time the people learn their own. He said, “how can we learn someone else’s history and culture when we don’t even know our own.” His office has taken three years to develop a module curriculum in which the people of Mattagami are able to learn their people’s history. The people of Mattagami are now able to learn their own history and traditions in order to find their identity.

I have been learning that a result of residential schools and restriction of First Nation peoples to a reserve has resulted in a loss of identity. Symptoms of that loss include addictions to drugs and alcohol and most importantly; suicide. For generations Anishinaabe people have been told that their traditions, such as sweat lodge, smoking pipe, engaging in ceremony, and doing round dances (all part of their culture and spirituality) are evil. They adopt the mentality of the white man but at the same time are not accepted in the white man’s world.

Today elders in Mattagami do not approve of playing the drum, or performing ceremony. They are scared of the spirituality the actions bring because they believed the white man’s lie. The lie that their spirituality is wrong. Instead, ignoring and losing their traditions has resulted in loss of identity and brought on a reality of youth suicide pacts like those in Attawapiskat. Losing their traditions has brought more harm than good and Chief Walter is doing everything he can to bring back native customs by teaching their history and the real truth behind residential schools.

Once, in his youth, Walter was addicted to drugs and suicidal. The first moment he experienced a drum circle he knew who he was and his life turned around. Now he dedicates his life to rebuilding his community by giving his people identity through education and experiences like the one that changed his life. The admirability of his story impacted me. I believe that First Nations people can bring themselves out of their identity crisis as long as they can find who they are once again through the renewing of traditional practices.

Mr. And Ms. University 2015

By | 2015, All Things Travel, Asia | No Comments

Never in my life have I known what attending a beauty pageant is like. After this experience I cannot say the same. Northwestern University put on a “Mr. And Ms. University” beauty pageant. Why? I will never know, but I can speculate!

Filipinos love to perform in the spotlight. Normally, they are modest and shy but they love to put on a show when given the correct outlet. Naturally they are attracted to the glitz and glamour of a beauty pageant. It allows them to dress-up in rolls of sparkly sequins and seven-inch heels. They have the confidence to strut their stuff on stage and show the crowd how good they are at entertaining.

So there I was, one of twenty white people on campus being ushered to sit well near the front (the 2nd row to be exact) in order to see best because we are guests. The sound booming from the speakers pulsated in my ears and palpitated against my heart. I sat back to experience the show for what it was. A college organized Filipino beauty pageant.

The girls in the bleachers went crazy when their favorite male contestant gave them a twinkling shoulder, while the men waited for the swimsuit competition so they could gawk at the women they would never obtain.

When the swimsuit competition finally started I had no choice but to watch as fourteen 15 to 19 year olds strutted their stuff on stage. Luckily Ate Jonah, my host mother, sat next to me and used her uproarious laughter to help me see the humor in the displays of half-nude, half-legal collegiates. Together we chuckled at the young men and women who tastefully bared it all in hopes of winning the pageant crown. Several times we broke out laughing when the young men posed as if they were highly sought after hunky models.

Northwestern University used local celebrities as judges and gave away awards from sponsors. The pageant contestants received grants and prizes as round one of awards seemed never ending. The students who participate have the opportunity to receive grants and prizes from local and national businesses. Receiving such prestigious awards can be an enticing incentive for any student to join in the competition.

As the loud award ceremony came to an end my Ate told us it was time to leave. We would be unable to stay for the evening gown competition and second round of awards. It was only 9:15 and the crowns would not be awarded until midnight! Thankful to make it out of there with my eardrums still intact, I could not help but take the whole experience as a Filipino cultural event. That night I went to bed feeling like I understood Filipinos just a bit better.

Hotel Rooms

By | 2014, Europe | No Comments

For a week after the SSU gang broke up I was fortunate enough to visit my brother and his newly expanded family in Upper Frankonia, a region located in Bavaria, Germany. Unfortunately they did not have room for me in their home so they rented me a room at the small hotel down the street. Unexpectedly it turned out to be the most culturally difficult experience of the whole time I was in Europe. I was alone. Away from the comfort of English speaking voices. There was only Deutsch.

Every morning I got up to eat German hotel breakfast, a dining experience I am not at all foreign to. I brought a book as to not look awkward being alone. Every guest would great me with a friendly, “guten morgen” and I would reply politely with that or, “good morning”. Then, I would promptly get my meal and sit down to enjoy it while reading. I was the only single table there and everyone else seemed to be carrying on inter-table conversations that I could not understand. This was all a little isolating. On the first day a server asked me in German if I wanted an egg and I did not understand. I tried to tell her that and then promptly felt like an idiot when she came out with it. I could have taken the patience and tried to figure out what she was saying but instead I just said that I only speak English.

Though it was very difficult to be the only English speaker in the small hotel community for a short time I valued the cultural experience in such a way that I hadn’t been able to when I was traveling in a large group. I learned that I need to figure out how to communicate on my own in places where I am not understood. Also, words are not everything and I often just smiled pleasantly when others acknowledged me and went about my business. As hard as it was, I loved this experience and hopefully I can practice more patience in the future when faced with similar issues.




By | 2014, Europe | No Comments
In Vienna, I encountered the unexpected. Our group went to the wonderful Belvedere. The beautiful old palace was filled with 19th and 20th century art including an exhibit with works from Gustav Klimt. It was here at this art museum that I, surprisingly, fell in love.
Love is something that taps you on the shoulder and when you turn around you are amazed by the greatness of what creeped up and surprised you from behind. Only when you experience it can you know what you were missing.
The beauty of the piece was a diversion that was only realized when stared at for a long while. At first I saw the horse’s perfect curls, its locks flowing in the wind. Next I noticed the red, writhing cloak pushing the body forward.
It was the motion that really drew me in. The placement of the wind drawing the rider forward caught my eye. The strong assuredness in his eyes as he hails the calvary into battle is counteracted by the wildness of his horse’s frantic face as it rears; preparing for the push toward battle. Bright colors of red, gold, white, and blue are used on the rider with perfect strokes, made in great detail, to perfect the masterpiece.
Enough about the beauty; now for the sad part. Just as soon as I fell in love, I knew that it couldn’t last and the realization that we could never see each other again sunk in. I would have to leave and he would have to stay. If only I could find a way to move to Vienna in order to visit him daily; for surely we could never get tired of seeing each other. But alas, our time together had to end. We stared at each other for what seemed like hours but the entire encounter only lasted 30 bittersweet minutes.
There are no words that can express my sorrow when I finally had to leave him. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye let alone talk with any coherence. I knew that the moment was over and my life could never be the same again. I would have to search the world for meaning but never find it because nothing else will seem to matter.
I don’t think it will ever get easier to talk about Jacques Louis David’s “Napoleon at the Great St. Bernard Pass” because I long to go back in order to forever experience the painting in its fullness. Maybe someday I will be able to; but for now I just have to live with the memory of the impression that this Romantic painting left in my brain.