By Suzanne Keeptwo
TORONTO—“What is happening to Mother Earth is happening to our women”, says Elder Liz Akiwenzie, Knowledge Keeper from Cape Croker (Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation). She provided cultural education to a crowd of about 50 at the Ending Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls learning conversation in Toronto on June 13, hosted by the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Capacity Building Team, sponsored by the Ministries of Education and Training, Colleges and Universities.
Part of a learning series to create understanding of Aboriginal perspectives to public servants, this information session was organized to provide strategies towards ending violence against indigenous women and girls.
Keynote speaker, Liz Akiwenzie, emphasized her traditional teachings did not come from formal education, but from community Elders. They encouraged her not to lose her spirit while attending day school as a child, but it was not easy. She was told by school teachers that she was stupid and warned she would become a drunk, be on welfare, have too many kids, and never have a job.
“Not one day did I feel safe in that school or church, run by nuns who allowed the physical abuse of others,” stated Akiwenzie.
Young Liz was also told her mother was a sinner, but her mother never drank, did drugs, and “she worked so hard yet, the priest said she was lazy”. The Elder admitted the Indian Residential School her father attended taught him to disrespect women.
“Institutions don’t work for us, never have, and never will. Lateral thinking only keeps you connected to your mind. Circular thinking keeps you connected to your heart, mind, spirit, and body.” She illustrated holistic Teachings by way of circles within circles and explained how our young women need to re-energize their spirits towards developing a responsibility to grow in safety and build self-respect as Life Givers. Violence toward women has never been a part of traditional Aboriginal culture.
The Anishinaabe Elder was later joined by panelists Leslee White Eye of Chippewas of the Thames, Cyndy Baskin of Mi’kmaq and Celtic, Michael White of M’Chigeeng First Nation, and youth representative, Theland Kicknosway from Walpole Island.
When asked why the topic of violence is important to share with public servants, Dr. Baskin, a professor in the School of Social Work at Ryerson University—and mother of a murdered daughter—responds with “University students generally know nothing about Indigenous peoples. When they discover truths, their typical response is they have been lied to by their government and education system. The truth about colonization must come out. It can’t just start at the university level.”
Theland Kicknosway, the 12 year old youth representative, spoke about his 130 kilometre run last March to create awareness of our murdered and missing loved ones. He came up with the idea of an annual run after wondering about the plight of the children of women who disappear.
“When we step up as children, we are acknowledging our future role” stated the grade seven student.
Liz Akwienzie rejoices in Theland’s traditional upbringing and shares a prophecy that our children will wake up our Old Ones. She reminds the crowd that “young men are supposed to sit with older men to learn about respect towards women.”
Michael White, representing the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres and Kizhaay Anishinaabe Niin’s I am a Kind Man campaign, spoke about marginalization and persecution.
Using a Teaching inspired by the sweetgrass braid signifying the principles of self-determination, non-interference, and permission, he advised the largely non-Indigenous group to “allow us to process this for ourselves; don’t try to steer the ship for us and, ask permission to use these traditional Teachings”.
Indigenous women are three times more likely to experience violence and to be murdered than other women in Ontario.
For more information from Indigenous men’s perspective about the problem of abuse against women in Aboriginal communities, visit: iamakindman.ca.
For more information about the upcoming Ministries’ planned Summer Film Series: 2016, visit: Contact EDU/TCU First Nation, Métis and Inuit Capacity Building Team.
Suzanne Keeptwo is a freelance writer residing in unceded Algonquin territory.