[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.