On a cold winter morning, I’m on the phone with Mary Bell, my great auntie, a knowledge-keeper and a residential-school survivor. She’s practically a grandmother to me. I’m calling her 800 kilometres away from Toronto. I know she’s sitting on her rocker in Goulais Bay, the reserve my family is registered to. It’s with a bit of humour that my auntie reminds me, “every day is women’s day.” In my culture, our matriarchs lead our families. My auntie is our oldest surviving matriarch. She holds the family’s history – our stories, our trauma, our truth. That is the work that women have always done; they are responsible for carrying life, water – and our belief that it is sacred – and truth. We need women, now more than ever, to carry our truth.
In our way, we sit with our elders while they live. We sit with our dead when they leave. We take the time to hear their stories and honour who they are. My job, as the youngest in our family, is to carry on her ways, her stories and her dreams.
In my work lately, I’ve been on a deep dive exploring cultural resilience. Sometimes I see steps forward and sometimes I’m paralyzed by despair. Future History, the TV show I host, is all about the rematriation of Indigenous knowledge. My work with footwear maker Manitobah Mukluks is about advocating to keep traditional arts, such as mukluk-making, alive and to share warmth. At Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum with the TreadRight Foundation, we host Manitobah Mukluks’s Storyboot School classes every Sunday to allow Indigenous students to learn about their culture. When they graduate from these classes, they leave stronger than they came. They learn how to reinforce their stitches and decorate their moccasins with beads. They learn how our culture has survived all these years. It survived because we were willing to listen to our women and our elders.
My auntie worked in the trenches of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and documented the stories of residential-school survivors for our community. She carries a lot of truth and a lot of pain. I’m not sure how much reconciliation she’s ready for, but I think it takes a whole life to see things how she does. And now that she’s an elder, she’s only focused on how the story will carry on for us.
Sometimes the work doesn’t happen fast enough. I always feel like I could be doing more. I want my auntie to see our communities flourish before she goes. For that, I must hear her truth and absorb everything she can teach me while she’s here. She tells me Indigenous women must take up leadership roles. We must be willing to do the hard work and be dedicated to our communities to help them heal and grow. There’s an urgency within my generation to record what our elders have to say while we have them, hear their languages before they’re lost and learn the creation stories that brought us here. Most Canadians don’t live with these fears and the persistent tension of loss.
I believe it’s this deep loss, this sense of urgency that has inspired so many young women to stand up – to use their voices and to take action – to reclaim Indigenous knowledge and ways.
The urgency is about being present for what is still here. Caring for life, in our way, means tending to those things right now. We are people of the land and people of our stories. We didn’t record them; instead, we made the effort to listen. We carried water and kept fires. Women, like the late Josephine Mandamin, did extraordinary things to champion and protect our sacred water. She walked to remind us to take care of the water, to take care of life. We need more women, such as her niece, Autumn Peltier, who are willing to stand up and advocate for water rights and our truth, willing to listen to our elders, willing to speak up.
In my auntie’s last winters, I intend to listen and hold space for her. I’m calling our sisters and brothers to do the same. There’s a world of women like her, elders, who have carried life – and so much – for us. They carry life’s profound knowledge in their DNA. The greatest genius is that they share it and nurture others within it.
Women carry us and water the very seed of life itself. They bead our moccasins and make us tea. We need to take the time to hear them and to remember the stories they can share while they’re here.
Stand with them, or at the very least, just sit with them for a few minutes every day and listen.
CONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL PUBLISHED MARCH 8, 2019
Copyright, written by Sarain Fox and Tara Barnes