The Life of an Anishinaabek Woman
Thank you to everyone here for having this opportunity to write a story about myself and our culture. Before writing this, I smudged and prayed with the four medicines we were given sage, tobacco, cedar, and sweetgrass, using my eagle feather.
Booshoo, aniin. Zhooniyaa iganebiik Dizhinikas, makwa doodem. My spirit name is Golden Eagle Woman, and the bear is my clan. Gaa wiikwe daawangaag doonje, ishkoniganing. I am from Sandy Bay First Nation. Ishkoniganing means leftover.
Our band originated from the south end of Lake Manitoba. It was called the White Mud Band, a place called Tootoogun, not far from Portage la Prairie, the richest farmland around. There were other Anishinaabek (the Ojibwe people) there who chose to separate, and their band was formed more south at Long Plains First Nation, Chief Yellowquill. The Sandy Bay members were relocated to the western side of Lake Manitoba with about 600 members, my ancestors.
Today Sandy Bay has about 8,000 members. About half are living off reserve. This relocation of our people was due to Treaty No. 1, signed at Lower Fort Gary in 1871. This treaty includes seven reserves Sandy Bay, Long Plains, Swan Lake, Roseau, Sagkeeng, Brokenhead, and Peguis. Most recently, the federal government gave them land on Kenaston in Winnipeg. Now there is an urban reserve there called Naawi-Oodena.
I am the oldest of 12 children born to my parents, Joseph and Sarah. Two little boys passed away at a few months old, Lawrence in 1954 and Edward in 1963. I was told it was SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome). My parents and grandparents were my first teachers. I learned the seven teachings from them Respect, Love, Wisdom, Bravery, Truth, Honesty, and Humility. I saw these teachings in writing in 1982 as I was studying to be a Child and Family Services worker and realized I had been given these teachings at an early age.
We grew up surrounded by family, grandparents kookum (grandmother) and mishoomis (grandfather), aunties, uncles, and cousins. We all spoke our language Anishinaabemowin. There was no electricity or modern things. Our days were spent interacting with each other working, playing, and learning all kinds of life skills. My parents were very hard workers. Dad fished, hunted, trapped, and built houses. My mom cooked, cleaned, and helped dad with all she could. My sister Lydia and I also became helpers with the children and learned so much stuff.
When I was seven years old, I had to go to a residential school on our reserve, only a few miles away. I came home on weekends and saw how residential school was a stark difference from our way of life. It was very rigid and not nurturing. We couldn’t speak our language, there was corporal punishment, and we constantly went to mass and prayed. Our people were very Christianized early on. Generations of us were baptized in Christian names. In Sandy Bay, there were some original French surnames, Richard, Beaulieu, Desjarlais, Levasseur, Houle, Roulette, also Spence, Mclouis, Cook, and Sutherland — colonization at its best. Despite all the Catholic influence, people still hung on to our teachings and ceremonies.
I was given my spirit name as an infant because I was so sickly with asthma. My parents tried hard to keep me alive. I believe my spirit name helped. Years later, my parents brought a medicine man or Elder to our home when one of my brothers was very sick. Mom cooked and had a feast arranged on the floor. The Elder doctored my brother, had his bundle beside the feast, tobacco pipe, smudge medicine, eagle whistle, and prayed in our language. My brother was better after. When there was thunder, my kookum used to send me out with tobacco to put by a tree and to say my spirit name and ask the Thunderbirds to take it easy on us. I would say nayegaach, which means take it easy. We were told to always carry tobacco and be prepared to pray with it or offer to an Elder for help or guidance. Also, to offer it when picking medicines or hunting.
Today there is so much resurgence of our ceremonies, sweat lodges, sun dances, pow-wows, regalia making, beading, naming ceremonies, drumming, language, picking medicines, doctoring, healing, and the shake-tent. There is now decolonization. At one time, all of this was not allowed. It had to be done in hiding. When a person in our family passes on, we have a sacred fire for four days and nights. Someone must watch that fire at all times, and usually, young men will take turns. There is tobacco by the fire to offer prayers. My son Jason usually sets up a tipi, and the sacred fire is in there. It makes it easier to sit there, especially in winter, to talk and share with each other. There will be a wake for about two nights. We have had hours inside the house where the casket with the body is set up. We visit and pray, mourning together. We still have a funeral mass at church and bury at the graveyard with a drumming song. A Feast follows. We have had memorial feasts for four years in our home. Cooking a feast is very special. There are rules for these sacred feasts, and I’ve had many teachings in that area.
When I married my husband, I lost my Treaty Rights. He was not Treaty because his grandma had married a Métis man. I did not have Treaty for 20 years, from 1966 to 1986, and my children were not Treaty. Then my husband’s father from the reserve signed paternity. Everyone had always known this was his biological father. He then became Treaty and myself and the children. Classification of 6.1 this can be passed on to grandchildren. 6.2 is another classification and cannot be passed on. Around the same time, in 1985, Bill C-31 came about due to a legal challenge which allowed Indian status to women who had lost it in marriage to men without status. So there was a lot of change then.
My life has taken many twists and turns. At age 16, I went to a private school for grade 10 as there was no high school on the reserve. I stayed only until January as I was lonely and was already going out with my future husband. We were married on May 21, 1966. I was 17 he was 22. He had a job and a car, and we were married for 42 years before he passed. We have had five children, niniijaanisag, and one son in heaven, Wilson. I have 15 grandchildren, nooshansag, and I now have six great-grandchildren, one in heaven, Kylie. Aniikonsag is the term for great-grandchildren.
We bought a house in 1972, and I still live there. We fill it up when we have gatherings. There have been many upgrades over the years, and it is over 100 years old. My husband worked in construction doing very hard manual labour. He passed away at age 65 in 2008. I worked on and off throughout the years, but my last job of 25 years was at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, where I retired in October 2020. I worked at Ethan’s, at the fish plant, as a nurses’ aid, on an assembly line, and as a medical interpreter at Health Sciences Centre. I did new careers training for two years at Child and Family Services and then worked at Ma Mawi Wi. My hobbies today are sewing, planting, and cooking. I babysit or be a taxi when needed. I make star blankets, ribbon skirts, quilts, cushions, and a ribbon shirt. I make very good bannock and raisin pie. When babies are born, I welcome them in our language and give thanks to the Creator for this blessing.
To survive in residential school, I had a wall or armour around me. This stayed with me all my life, even in marriage. Later on in therapy, I learned that having this wall prevented me from being hurt but also prevented me from experiencing joy. It just made a lot of sense. I’ve learned to let go of a lot of things that were hurtful. I have forgiven all those mean people in residential school, and I have also forgiven myself. I felt guilty for many things as a parent. No one is perfect. My biggest regret is not teaching my children our language. I try to use it around them now, especially at home. I was in residential school for ten years. My mother went there for six years, my grandma for two years.
I want to make special mention of my grandmother, nookumag, and I was very close to them. Emma, my maternal grandmother, was born in 1891. She was a very hard worker and had 13 children. She was a young widow at age 52 but continued to raise her children and be a support to all of us. She had cattle, two gardens, made maple sugar, picked berries in the summer, and had a smokehouse. She visited all our homes, and her home was always open to us. She would say the rosary in our language. She went to residential school briefly as it was open in 1904. She was married twice. An older sister arranged the first marriage. She married a white man who left her with three boys. She married mishoomis, and had ten more children with a set of twins. My aunties were born in 1921. My other nookum, Esther, was very poor, nomadic, and often lived in tents and shacks, dinner cooking outside in an open fire. Mishoomis worked for farmers. She had four children and raised three grandsons. Two of the grandsons they raised were not Treaty, so they were not allowed to live on the reserve. The chief and Indian agent told them to leave. Niibaaba, my father, was her baby, and she always called him her baby. He always helped them with anything he could. Nookum was very generous, kind and always happy.
In closing, I say miigwetch for this opportunity. I believe it’s important to share our stories.