Category: Indigenization

Following in their footsteps

Dr. Anna-Leah King

The footsteps of ancestors, family, and mentors have guided Dr. Anna-Leah King in her life-journey. Anna-Leah is Anishnaabe, an Odawa on her father’s side, the late Dr. Cecil King, and a Pottawatomii on her mother’s side, the late Virginia (Pitawanakwat) King. The name stories behind these nations are outlined in Anna-Leah’s father’s recent memoir, The Boy From Buzwah: A Life in Indian Education: Cecil wrote, “My grandfather maintained that in the beginning, there were three biological brothers—Odawa, Pottawatomii, and Ojibwe. Over the years, they went their separate ways, and as a result, three separate nations were formed—the Ojibwek, the Odawak, and the Potawatamiik,” called the “Confederacy of Three Fires—the Anishnaabeg,” a word which means, “I am a person of good intent or I am a person of worth” (pp. 1–3). These stories form the core of Anna-Leah’s identity.

Like her parents, Anna-Leah spent her early years on Manitoulin Island (Island of the Great Spirit) in Northern Ontario, surrounded by family, culture, Ojibwe language, and history. Her early experiences have lingered and wafted throughout her journey, like campfire smoke in a sand plain forest, imprinting her worldview.

Anna-Leah’s father was a major influence in her life. He blazed the trail for many of the professional choices she has made. Even though teachers are part of her blood line—her great grandmother and father were teachers—Anna-Leah didn’t like school, and didn’t see herself becoming a teacher: “I never saw myself as a teacher. When I was in my younger grades I swore to God I would never be a teacher. I found schools unwelcoming places, aesthetically dead places, with ugly muddy green and orange paint,” says Anna-Leah.

Aesthetics aside, Anna-Leah’s early experiences with some teachers were not positive either. She recalls a confusing and frightening experience in kindergarten, when she held out her hand for a reward and was instead strapped with a leather strap by her teacher.

Despite her dislike of school, Anna-Leah’s father encouraged her to become a teacher. And once, when he returned from one of his many trips, he brought Anna-Leah a miniature brief case. “It was just like his. That was the first seed planted, that when I grew up, I could be like my dad,” she recalls.

In 1969, when Anna-Leah was 6, her Dad took a job in Ottawa, where Anna-Leah spent the remaining years of her childhood. But in 1971, when her father moved two provinces west, to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Anna-Leah determined she would follow in his footsteps: “I couldn’t wait to reunite with my dad some way, somehow.”

For her final year of high school, she (along with her sister Alanis) moved to Saskatoon to be with her father. Following high school, Anna-Leah decided to become a teacher and finished her teaching certificate in 1989 through the Indian Teachers Education Program (ITEP) at the University of Saskatchewan, where her father had been the founding director. Despite her early objections, she had become a teacher, like her dad. But the trail didn’t stop there.

Cecil was an Indigenous educator for more than 60 years. He had a tremendous impact on Indigenous education in Saskatchewan and impacted the lives of the many students he taught. His career took him from teacher, to principal, to professor, and into multiple leadership roles provincially and across Canada, mostly within the university context.

Cecil King’s Legacy: An Era of Indian Control of Indian Education
During the 60s, the political and social environment was developing into a storm following the adoption of a forced integration/assimilation policy, which threatened the continuation of Indigenous languages and culture. In his memoir, Cecil (2022) wrote, the Federal Government’s “Department of Indian Affairs was busy transferring education to local school boards…negotiating joint school agreements without the approval of individual First Nations” (p. 209). This colonizing policy resulted in more standardized and irrelevant curriculum and content in Indigenous schools that devalued and disregarded Indigenous worldviews and local Indigenous involvement. Cecil regarded the policy as responsible for the problem of, “Indian children achiev[ing] only limited education characterized by low education achievement rates, high failure rates, so called age-grade retardation and early school leaving” (p. 222). He maintained that pride in one’s identity was critical to success in life and education.

Cecil grew up in a bilingual, bicultural, multigenerational home where English was the only language spoken. His grandparents who raised him had been convinced by their Catholic schooling that English was the only path to success, and should be the language spoken at home. He had a well-rounded education at home: His grandmother who had been trained as a Victorian-era teacher, was a strict disciplinarian; his grandfather was a talented handyman, who taught Cecil how to do things but also transferred the Odawa history and worldview to Cecil; and Kohkwehns was his emotional support, who, Cecil says, “listened to me and taught me how to be a ‘good’ Odawa” (p. 323).

From Grades 1 to 8, Cecil was taught by First Nation teachers at the Buzwah Indian Day school and he learned to speak Ojibwe at school from his peers. He excelled at his studies: “At school we learned and communicated in English, and although what we read was foreign to us, we learned. … We didn’t read about First Nations history or heroes, but we lived among First Nations people and learned that part of our education from them” (p. 51).

When he had finished Grade 8, Cecil had to leave his home and community to attend a residential high school, St. Charles Garnier Residential School in Spanish, Ontario. Cecil, along with three of his peers, passed the entrance exams, and bid goodbye to their families and friends. Ominous black buses arrived each year to take the children to residential school. Cecil had mixed emotions about going, because he was leaving behind his family (and beloved Kohkwehns) and community and because he knew from experience that sometimes kids didn’t return home from residential school, but he was also excited and proud to be continuing his education.

At Garnier, he again excelled in his studies, despite being told that Indigenous culture was “quaint” and that students should not expect to rise to the pious level of the French Jesuits who taught them. Students developed a subculture where Cecil continued to learn and practice Ojibwe, and where they traded off items from their assigned work areas. “Recalling these things, I realize that this was our world. We created a culture within the institution’s culture. We found a way to circumvent the forces that dominated,” (p. 131) wrote Cecil. Cecil was valedictorian when he graduated in 1953.

After high school, Cecil took a 6-week course in order to take a teaching position at West Bay School on Manitoulin Island. The post-war baby boom was creating a demand for teachers. In 1954, Cecil married Virginia, whom he had met at residential school. He also took a second 6-week course and took another teaching position at Northwest Bay. At this stage in his career, he already had a drive to take on a principal role. The following year, he enrolled at North Bay Teachers’ College and became a qualified teacher by 1957, after which he was hired as a principal at Dokis Bay Indian Day School.

Cecil worked throughout his career to take back control of Indian education. He described this work as complex, involving the development of curriculum, teaching materials, lessons, and workbooks for teaching Ojibwe. Ojibwe teachers needed to agree on how the language would be written. Cecil wrote, “It became apparent that standardizing the written Ojibwe language was a necessary step in establishing a province-wide Ojibwe language teaching program. Here we ran into the debate over the appropriate orthography. Now we realized that to teach the language in the school we needed to have written language and material for the children to read. … Success in teaching Native languages in schools would be dependent on a teacher-training program specifically for teachers of Indian languages” (p. 182).

Working together with his cousin Mary Lou Fox-Radulovich, the two were successful at getting an Ojibwe language program approved for teaching in elementary schools. Trent University began offering a Teaching Ojibwe in Schools course that Cecil taught in 1970, delivering the course to non-Indigenous students.
There he met Dr. Art Blue who encouraged Cecil to enter full-time study at the University of Saskatchewan through the Indian and Northern Education Program (INEP). The decision was pivotal: “When I made the decision to go to Saskatchewan, I did not know that it was going to have a profound impact on my life” (p. 202).

The 1973 adoption of the National Indian Brotherhood policy statement on Indian control of Indian education, “sounded the death knell for the policy of forced integration policy and led to the establishment of on-reserve schools,” (Cuthand, 2013). At the same time, Cecil’s career was taking a dramatic turn—in his words, he was “joining the revolution” (p. 201). Little did he know that Rodney Soonias of Red Pheasant First Nation, who was the director of the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College (SICC), had selected Cecil to be the founding director of the ITEP: “The new task was to design, develop and implement a program that produced Indian teachers who received the same credentials as other Saskatchewan teachers but who were equipped to change the education of Indian children in the province in accord with the wishes of the chiefs, communities, and parents while preparing children for their place in society” (p. 209). His decision to stay in Saskatchewan and take on this role came at a great personal cost: the permanent separation between him and Virginia. By that time, they had five children.

As director, he travelled to various Cree communities in Saskatchewan to establish pilot Cree language projects. Others were also establishing Indigenous language programs. Cecil wrote, “Everyone …was on side and working towards the same goal: to take control of education for First Nations people in Saskatchewan. The power, the force, the energy that was released was incredible” (p. 224).

After finishing his B.Ed. (’73) and M.Ed. (’75), Cecil began his PhD journey at the University of Calgary. In 1983, he was the first Indigenous Canadian to receive his PhD from the University of Calgary. During the 1980s, he was head of the Indian and Northern Education Program, which positioned him as a faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan. Cecil served on multiple dissertation committees at multiple universities including the University of Regina. After the program he headed was folded into the Foundations department and Cecil was denied promotion, he left the University of Saskatchewan and took a full professorship at Queen’s University where he became the founding director of the Aboriginal Education Program.

Looking back to Cecil’s 1953 valedictorian speech, the seeds of the vision that would characterize his career can be seen: Cecil said, “We all realize how advantageous it would be to have our own teachers, lawyers, doctors and politicians, men and women who will work hand in hand with those who now are working for our rights and prosperity. We need men and women who will be exemplary leaders in our own communities …men and women of vision, initiative and energy” (p. 138). Cecil himself became that exemplary leader, and a man of vision, initiative and energy. He cleared the trail for many who would also follow in his footsteps.

When Cecil passed away May 4, 2022, Doug Cuthand eloquently wrote, “At 90 years of age, the final school bell rang and he began his journey to the next world. King may have moved on, but his work lives on in the hundreds of teachers whose lives he touched”.

Dr. Michael Tymchak, former dean in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina, and former director of the Northern Teacher Education Program (NORTEP) in La Ronge, says, “Cecil was a leader in Indigenous Education here in Saskatchewan, and across Canada. As Director of ITEP he broke trail for many other First Nation educators to follow. Cecil understood the corrosive impact of colonialism but his life spoke most eloquently to vision-casting and the creation of educational opportunities for First Nation students. He was a believer in self-determination and an advocate for the vital importance of preserving Indigenous languages and culture. Strong in his own Anishnaabe identity, he was unafraid of strategic ‘co-determination.’ Cecil knew that Indigenous peoples and their culture(s) had much to offer the larger society and he dedicated his life to manifesting this conviction.”

Dr. Tymchak continues, saying, “Cecil provided a role model for others to follow and was unfailingly supportive of the establishment of other Indigenous teacher education programs. During my years at NORTEP, Cecil offered enthusiastic encouragement, came up to La Ronge to teach courses and spoke to significant gatherings, such as the annual Graduation Ceremony. He was unfailingly eloquent and inspiring, a statesman and later a highly respected Elder. His passing leaves a void, but his legacy of accomplishments and the memories he leaves of kindness, educational leadership, and collegial friendship will endure as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow.”

Anna-Leah’s career path mirrors many of her father’s footsteps: She, too, chose to further her education with a Master’s degree and then her PhD (2016), which focused on reclamation of Anishnaabe song and drum in education. She was a recipient of the University of Alberta Human Rights Education Recognition Award in 2013. She served as the Co-Director of the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) at the University of Alberta from 2008 to 2010. And she now works as a professor of Indigenous education and core studies and has been serving as the Faculty of Education Chair of Indigenization at the University of Regina for the past several years.

Virginia King’s Legacy
While it is clear that Anna-Leah has followed in her father’s rather large footsteps, she also follows in her mother’s less visible but no-less-valuable footsteps. For instance, Anna-Leah recalls 3 days of cooking massive pots of soup and making heaps of sandwiches at her friend’s granddaughter’s funeral and wake. “I thought of my mom, she would have done the same thing. My mom was always bringing soup to the friendship center in her down time,” says Anna-Leah.

Throughout her career, Virginia worked with Indian Affairs, eventually working her way to the role of director, with signing authority on treaty cards. “My mom was really proud. When I was between about 6 or 7, I went to Parliament Hill and did a march with her. The night before, we were making a placard and I was to write: ‘Indian women are women, too.’ I thought how can people think Indigenous women aren’t women, too? Bizarre! I didn’t have that feeling myself. I always felt accepted, and there wasn’t a big cultural gap. We proudly marched. My mom wasn’t brave enough, but she made me hold the sign. And I knew there was activism to do,” says Anna-Leah.

As a residential school survivor, Virginia didn’t talk much about her experience until later in life, but, “she did realize the wrong that residential school did in trying to snuff out the language and the culture,” says Anna-Leah.

Though her parents could speak Ojibwe, they did not pass the language on to their children. Anna-Leah says, “My mom and dad had a conversation about not teaching us the language so we would be successful at school because my dad was seeing the kids come in to school and struggle and struggle and then get turned off and eventually drop out because they were always behind.”

Other Teacher/Mentors
Another woman was influential in Anna-Leah’s life, her auntie, the late Mary Lou Fox-Radulovich, a member of M’Chigeeng (West Bay) First Nation and founding director of the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, an organization formed to preserve Ojibwe, Odawa, and Pottawatomii Nations’ culture and language. Mary Lou was a teacher and language activist who also inspired, supported and worked alongside Cecil King. Anna-Leah had the privilege of spending a summer with Mary Lou at the Foundation.
“My dad must have asked if she could take me on as a summer student. I got to go there, and live with my grandmother at Wikwemikong. I would travel 45 minutes to M’Chigeeng each day. When I got there, Mary Lou came and gave me a warm hug and a kiss. I think the first day we went sweetgrass picking, and then we braided the grass. She joined us in braiding, and talked about how beautiful it was to be outside, to enjoy the wind, and to braid sweetgrass in the company of other women. I think ancestral memory was part of that day for her. I felt in an indirect way she was teaching us the power of that exercise. I really loved that. I felt in tune immediately with the practice and what we were doing,” recalls Anna-Leah.

The rest of the summer was spent in preparation for an Elder’s conference. The braids they had made were for the Elders. Anna-Leah says, “I was honoured to be making those braids for the Elders. Mary Lou was connected to Elders all over Canada, because she was trying to do something about the languages and cultures.”

Anna-Leah continues, “I learned a lot from her and the girls I worked with. I learned where the sweet grass grows. I learned to wear rubber boots, to not be afraid of anything that might be there. I learned smudging, and how to clean a porcupine with my bare hands. Delia Bebonang, an extraordinary quilt maker from M’chigeeng First Nation was there, so when the porcupine arrived, I worked with her. She showed me and I just followed and that’s what we did all day until we got the quills off. That was an awesome summer.”

At her first teaching job as the art teacher at Joe Duquette High School in Saskatoon, Anna-Leah met another teacher/mentor, the late Bowser Poochay from Yellowquill First Nation. Bowser recognized that they “were the same people,” honouring the braided ethnicity of the Anishnaabe and the Saulteaux peoples, which warmed Anna-Leah’s heart. The late Bowser and Maggie, his partner, adopted Anna-Leah and her daughter Tanis into their family, and in time they were also adopted into the community of Yellowquill, where she and Tanis participated in seasonal ceremonies.

Also during her time at Joe Duquette, Anna-Leah became friends with the late Elder Laura Wasacase, who also became her mentor. “An Elder, I had seen her here and there, and she smiled at me and said ‘Good morning.’ I was a little bit shy because I knew she wanted to converse with me. We became friends. Laura and her sister were instrumental in the formation of FNUC. She was inspirational. And open. She made me look up and smile and feel significant in the world. It’s such a cold place in the world. I try to be that way with younger people, I try to connect.”

Anna-Leah’s parents and mentors guided her as she navigated her way to the career in Indigenous Education that she has followed. Her father broke the trail.

Cecil King wrote that he had encountered many barriers in his career but because of his efforts, Anna-Leah has not experienced those same barriers. She says, “With all of his diplomatic movement and conversations and connections and how he acted in diplomacy, he created good positive relationships, and he had the backing of Indigenous people who needed somebody like him to do negotiations at the institutions. I think that he made White people Indian friendly.”

Anna-Leah continues, “He had to tolerate a lot—people weren’t as open, especially back then. He had a lot of hard people to deal with, to change their minds, to get them to accept, to not be fearful of preserving our language and culture. I know that he had good relationships. At U of S they said, ‘Your father walks on water.’ What they meant was that his words were profound to them. He was an orator, and University was a place where his oratory was accepted and appreciated. He would sooner speak something than write it. He loved giving a good oratory and he would always start his speech with his grandfather’s prayer and end with ‘Mii maanda didabaajimowin’ (These are my words) spoken in the language.”

Carrying Their Legacies Forward for Future Generations
Cultural and language revitalization, participating in ceremony, and building relationships through community involvement and service outweigh the academic, paper-writing side of Anna-Leah. Her current research projects reflect her interest in cultural reclamation. She also has a passion for Indigenous visual art, which has inspired her to develop a master’s course in Indigenous art. Becoming an artist herself is an as-of-yet unexplored path. She has, however, collected some art teachers, having taken a course with Degen Lindner (daughter of Artist Ernest Lindner) and Mina Forsyth, another renowned artist, and Lois Simmie, a watercolour artist, as well as taking a portraiture class. Anna-Leah may yet explore this path in when she retires.

As a parent, Anna-Leah has adopted her parents’ model of parenting. Her father was influenced most by his Kohkwehns, whom, he says, “taught me to encounter the world with joy and wonder. She taught me so many things by letting me experience that world, in contrast to the way Mama taught” (p. 160). Anna-Leah says, “I think about my parents and the subtle way they taught me—not a direct pedantic approach, more the suggestion of things, so I would come to the right conclusion. My dad was a mentor and a teacher, but not necessarily in a spoken way. One principle I value is to be the model for the kids, and hope that they will pick that up. That’s important.”

In a letter to her daughter Tanis, included in her dissertation, Anna-Leah described her understanding of her role in shaping future generations: She wrote, “Ever since you were born, I realized my reason to be. I had one important job and that was to see to your well-being and I can say I did my best. I may not have always been perfect but I sure did my best. You are my anchor in bringing me back to my purpose which is to see that you are loved and know you are loved. I always put your needs before my own as my parents taught me. And so I write this letter to once again centre myself as I look forward with you in mind to the task at hand in thinking about our future generations.”

Returning once again to her father Cecil’s valedictorian speech, about the advantage of having Indigenous teachers, lawyers, doctors … and the need for leaders, Anna-Leah is also fulfilling her father’s youthful vision: She is a teacher, professor and leader and her daughter Tanis is also following in their footsteps, having benefited from the trail her grandfather blazed, and will complete her training as a physician on May 24, 2023.

Footsteps left by her ancestors, such as the Anishnaabe seven grandfather teachings of love, respect, bravery, truth, honesty, humility and wisdom, and the oral traditions, songs and stories passed on from her grandparents to her parents have also served to guide Anna-Leah as she seeks to live inter-relationally, in honouring the earth and its creatures and all those who have gone before her and those who will come after her.

Anna-Leah says, “We always have one foot in the past, as that defines who we are, and one in the present, moving forward to the future. Ekosi! Mii maanda didabaajimowin.”

Improving health outcomes for First Nations communities through maternal care

Saskatchewan is experiencing a healthcare crisis, but this is not new for geographically isolated First Nations communities with limited access to healthcare services. In these communities, patients are evacuated to urban centres for treatment, traveling long distances, sometimes in inclement weather, to access primary and acute care services and diagnostics. Leaving their communities, they navigate the urban healthcare system, which is already running over capacity, while experiencing poor health, often compounded by language barriers. And, in Canada, Indigenous girls and women are disproportionately impacted by Indigenous-specific racism in the healthcare system. With these conditions in place, First Nation people living in these communities often delay healthcare until necessary. Indigenous people living in urban centres experience barriers to accessing healthcare, such as transportation issues (aggravated by the pandemic). Additionally, Indigenous people may experience distress due to institutionalized historical trauma and racism in the healthcare system. These factors contribute to the disproportionate poor health and well-being of Indigenous people in Saskatchewan.

Associate Professor Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose, an Anishnaabe (Ojibwe)/Quaker from Michigan and Ontario with membership in M’Chigeeng First Nation and active citizenship in Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, and alumna Dr. Mamata Pandey (MA, PhD‘13), a research scientist for the Saskatchewan Health Authority with worldwide knowledge of healthcare services (and former postdoctoral fellow with JoLee), have worked together for over a decade to remove barriers and improve the health of Indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan. With the Cultural Responsiveness Framework created by Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations communities, developed into a theory by JoLee, they use trauma-informed, strengths-based approaches to restore First Nations health and wellness systems. The researchers work with patient partners and healthcare providers, building relationships with First Nations and Métis communities to increase access to healthcare and provide culturally responsive interventions.

The Pandemic and a Shift in Focus to Maternal Care
Mamata and JoLee’s findings from an evaluation of the Indigenous Birth Support Worker (IBSW) Program, offered by the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Maternal Care Centre in Saskatoon, heightened their concerns about the experiences of Indigenous mothers in the healthcare system, causing a shift in their focus to maternal care. Their evaluation revealed that while the IBSWs were considered helpful, there is still need for better access to pre-and postnatal care and screening, better pain management, and more culturally safe and positive hospital experiences, including access to traditional teachings and spiritual care.

JoLee says, “It was hurtful to read how many birthing women were afraid to ask for pain management because they might be perceived as drug-seeking. If they did ask, they were perceived as drug-seeking. Often their pain was not being managed adequately especially when they were in fragile state of health.”

The need for access to the protective and healing nature of traditional teachings, spiritual care, and the support of an Elder during birth is reaffirmed by JoLee’s own birthing experience. Medicine man Eric Tootoosis and his wife Diane guided JoLee and her late husband from Poundmaker First Nation about restoring the birthing ceremony. JoLee recalls the importance of the teachings she received about maintaining a positive physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual environment because that had a direct impact on the growing baby. As a result, she gave up a research project to collect the stories of residential school survivors to protect her baby’s gestational environment and she was instructed to “walk away” if an argument developed between her and her late husband.

Still, there were gaps in her knowledge. During the pandemic, when cultural teachings were made accessible online, JoLee participated in a workshop on Ojibwe practices and teachings offered by a doula near her home community. JoLee says, “One of the teachings was about closing the birth ceremony. I hadn’t closed my birth ceremony. The doula told me how to close the ceremony and reminded me how forgiving our culture is, and it hit me as a deeply personal ceremony. Then, I thought, if that can happen 8 years after my son’s birth, why can’t we bring this to our community and support our women? That’s how organic it was. We wrote a grant proposal from there, and that’s how it all began.”

The researchers were awarded a grant from Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Research Foundation. Their study focused on improving health outcomes by supporting mothers from pre-delivery to birth to post-delivery. But the shift towards increased social and physical isolation during the pandemic, prompted a decision to prioritize the well-being of mothers over data collection. JoLee explains, “Mamata and I took a massive step back away from the Mama Pod (maternal peer support group) to give them space, so they did not feel like they were being researched; the data wasn’t the most important part, providing support was.” Mamata adds, “Doing research for the sake of research is useless, and we might even hurt people.” The researchers stand by their decision despite being called on to defend it in their respective Western institutions. “This is a pilot study for us to learn what needs to scale up and be locally developed, which informs our subsequent study,” says, JoLee says. “We learned that it wasn’t a good fit for a program that comes from the heart to be in a Western institution even though it was held in the Lodge. We have too many bureaucracies in both institutions that prohibit us from being culturally responsive. That’s just the reality.”

Further, with traditional Indigenous birthing being a hot topic of interest, the research team stayed quiet about their grant. They didn’t want media attention which might disrupt the vital work. “It was like a gestation period, and we’ve been cautious with the program to ensure they have space and privacy,” says JoLee.

The Mama Pod
The Mama Pod was formed to “train Indigenous peers to advocate [for] and assist Indigenous mothers through pregnancy, labour, and delivery to postpartum stages” while providing a culturally responsive safe space to support the mothers. The mama peer supporters incorporated and modeled traditional Indigenous birth practices and worked to gain the trust of new mothers, sharing their own stories and creating space for the mothers to tell their stories and experiences with the healthcare system. The stories informed the researchers about the maternal needs of Indigenous mothers and helped them to facilitate the timely provision of and access to maternal care services. The researchers were looking to identify what kind of training the peer supporters needed. The team also created mother care bundles that provide resources for support services, and essential mother and baby items along with traditional medicines.

The Mamas
The researchers were gifted with three mama peer support workers: Jolene Taylor, a doula and full spectrum birth worker from Okanese First Nation; Brianna LaPlante, an Indigenous expressive artist from Fishing Lake First Nation who was also pregnant and an inspiration behind this study, and Kristen Tootoosis, a registered psychologist from Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation, and a graduate of our Educational Psychology master’s program.

JoLee says, “We had this trifecta of First Nation mothers with significant traditional background and experience.”

To find new and expecting mothers looking for support, Brianna and Jolene met with community organizations that serve Indigenous girls and women, such as the Rainbow Youth Centre. Several mothers decided to be part of the program, even though the pandemic presented further barriers and challenges. The support group met regularly in the Nanatawihowikamik Healing Lodge and Wellness Clinic in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.

“A Beautiful Journey”
Over time, the mama peer supporters built trust, and the participants opened up and talked about their challenges and anxieties, though the journey was difficult. Jolene says, “We were doing the groundwork with the mothers, hearing their experiences, and facilitating the groups. Much of it was storytelling, and holding space for the moms cause they needed that space to be heard. It was really difficult to let them know that their story was safe with us, and many held back things when we went more in-depth, [for example, asking] how their personal experience was in the hospital and how they were treated outside the hospital.” Many new mothers had normalized the mistreatment they had experienced, so part of the work was building awareness. As well, many new moms from an urban setting also lacked a connection to the community and were “in survival mode,” says Jolene, “That’s why the work was so beautiful: We made a community for them. We did gain their trust in the end, and for the new moms that stuck with us for the last year and a half, it’s been a beautiful journey,” says Jolene.

Mamata adds, “I think an exciting and very wonderful thing happened due to the interactions between the team facilitating those groups and the mothers seeking support. The facilitators were able to see the scope and impact of their work in real life and that motivated them to then take advanced education while some of the mothers themselves wanted to become doulas to support others. I think it was very inspirational. It was a beautiful thing that emerged.”

This result motivated the researchers to look into various training for the peer supporters, finding opportunities for women to move ahead or take on a support role if they wish to. Thus, in the fall of 2022, Jolene was sent for Indigenous Lactation Consultant Training in Billings, Montana.

Mama Jolene Taylor’s Story
Jolene is a 25-year-old mother of five children, two of whom she gave birth to. When her daughter was born in 2017, Jolene dramatically switched her career plans, even though she was only one class away from achieving her Indigenous Communication Arts diploma from the First Nations University of Canada.
Jolene says, “My outlook on life changed for the better. I had this passion within me after my daughter’s birth. I wanted to be a support person with moms and become a midwife eventually; that’s my long-term goal.” Coming from a long line of midwives, Jolene refers to her career shift as “activating blood memory.” She explains, “I was taught that as Indigenous people, our ancestral blood memory is in our veins. … The DNA of our ancestors courses through our veins. Everything is passed on to us through the blood, and that is what it means to be a Nehiyaw person, to be a Cree person: We are born with the knowledge, the culture, and the languages, and it’s up to the parents to take on the responsibility of child-rearing, to reactivate the blood memory. Everything starts at conception. Everything. If you want to immerse your children in language, then be around people who speak the language, and go out and learn your language, a lot of that blood memory could be reactivated just by sitting in sacred spaces. I come from a matriarchal line of Indigenous midwives on my mom’s side.”

Jolene tells her mom’s oral traditions of growing up while settlers were coming to the West: “They were bringing their pregnant wives, and my great, great grandmother helped these families birth at home. They were creating their homesteads, yes; they were settling in the West, and yes, it was a scary time. But my kunshi helped these babies be born in a healthy way, even though there was a language barrier in the early 1900s. My kunshi shared her medicines and teachings with these settlers, and those are the gifts, and that’s what empowers me to carry on with this work to revitalize those things ’cause our medicines saved the non-Indigenous people; they wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for living amongst us. It’s that blood memory that I love to reactivate by being in these trainings by being in Indigenous spaces that I feel safe in.”

Cultural Revitalization in Birthing Practices
Jolene is revitalizing culture one birth at a time. She says, “That’s exactly what my role is as a doula, as a birth worker, as an auntie, to support first-time moms: It’s the revitalization and restoration of culture and teachings and protocols that come with being a First Nation woman. A lot of these ceremonies are very unique to each tribe. We are not all the same. We can’t just pan-Indigenize teachings and [call them] Indigenous protocols. We have five First Nations in Saskatchewan: the Cree, Dakota, Nakota, Lakota, the Saulteaux people, and the Métis people have their own teachings and protocols that they established over the years, too.”

Jolene was raised with, and is practicing, Cree/Nehiyaw culture and protocols around birth. “I always say, ‘I’m a privileged Indigenous woman’ because I can access cultural traditions and protocols. I realize that many people my age don’t have that. A lot of my work is just to revitalize and restore practices.”

Placenta Burial is One Such Practice. Both JoLee and Jolene buried the placentas of their babies. Jolene, however, did not know that taking the placenta home from the hospital was even an option for her first birth. It was upsetting for her when she first learned, through the non-Indigenous doula training she took, what happens to the placenta in the hospital:

“I asked the question, if you don’t take your placenta home, what do they do with it? They explained, ‘It gets incinerated, it’s another organ that gets incinerated.’ That made me burst into tears. I was the only Indigenous woman in this training, and I started to cry and I said, that was a part of me that I built, that was what kept my baby safe, and to find out that all they did was burn it. I knew that my blood memory triggered that reaction.” So, Jolene investigated the matter back at home, asking questions about what they used to do when women were giving birth in tipis.

“The question activated the blood memory of my kôkom,” says Jolene, “and she remembered the births that happened on the reserve and what they did. Just from asking one question, I was able to have a lot of knowledge shared with me, of how it was done back in the day. That was one thing that opened my eyes to [the benefit] of spending time with elders, spending time with people, asking those questions, that’s the revitalization part that I love to be in.”

Restoring Breastfeeding Practices. Breastfeeding is another practice Jolene is passionate about revitalizing. She happily signed on for Lactation Consultant Training when the opportunity arose. Jolene says, “I have such a passion for breastfeeding. I’m a full-spectrum birth worker, so that’s everything from when a girl first gets her moon time, her menstrual period, and menopause. That is the full spectrum. The space I love to be in is birthing, breastfeeding, and postpartum. To normalize breastfeeding has always been a passion.”

Jolene could talk for a long time about the benefits of breastfeeding, and she enjoys sharing her own positive breastfeeding story with other new moms who may need convincing that moms their age can breastfeed. She says, “Many new moms haven’t seen a breastfeeding mom. Their mothers didn’t breastfeed them, and my mom didn’t breastfeed me. It’s been a long-lost tradition because of colonialism, displacement of our families, and especially today with the high apprehension of babies.”

“I loved attending the Indigenous Lactation Consultant Training because I want to normalize breastfeeding. The first milk, the colostrum, it’s the first sacred food for Indigenous moms to give their babies. It’s been the first food of babies since time immemorial. It’s not foreign; it’s a natural thing to do,” says Jolene.

The Helper, not the Conductor. Jolene makes the important distinction that in her work as an Indigenous doula, she views herself differently than the non-Indigenous doulas: “What I was taught in the doula training was to be very hands-on and to be at the forefront, but for me, it is about stepping back and helping to create the space around the parents who are giving birth and to protect them. I’m the oskâpêwis, the ceremony helper; I’m not the conductor,” says Jolene.

Pride in Indigenous Identity
Residential schools have played a significant role in the dissolution of family and cultural ceremonies and traditions. But that isn’t the whole story, as Jolene points out: “Yes, we are born with trauma, but we are born with other beautiful things, and we don’t have to focus on the negative. We are born with culture, born with identity; we have things specific just for us.”

The Indigenous Lactation Consultant Training instilled in Jolene a sense of pride in her identity: “I walked away knowing, being empowered, of being prideful of being Indigenous, of being First Nation, being born First Nation.”

Science Catching Up With Indigenous Knowledge
Indigenous practices around birth are muskiki (Cree medicine) that Western science is only beginning to understand. For example, JoLee tells a story about the wâspison (Cree baby swing) they used for her son when he was born: “My kôkom asked what I would be using for our baby to sleep in. I said, ‘My husband built the wâspison over our bed with two ropes and a blanket.’ That swing sure wouldn’t have passed any SHA safety standards. My kôkom said, ‘O my girl, your baby will never have ear infections; that swing will keep your baby’s inner ear fluid balanced.’ Our medicine and ways of knowing have medicines, natural protective mechanisms, in them in ways that may never be understood.”

For over a year, JoLee has been studying with Gabor Maté, a renowned expert in addictions and trauma, and she has learned, “the science is clear: what occurs in the nervous system during pregnancy imprints the child,” says JoLee. As mentioned, JoLee’s medicine man had instructed her 11 years ago to keep her baby’s environment stress-free.

Maternal Care Key to Positive Health Outcomes For Future Generations
JoLee says, “Although the Harvard Center for the Developing Child has validated the importance of the environment for babies in utero and the role of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) for the past 25 years, it is still not widely recognized or practised in mainstream society. This underscores the need for increased education and awareness regarding the effects of stress on fetal and child development. Our team views maternal care as the key to reversing health outcomes. Supporting moms will have impacts for generations to come.”

Bringing Indigenous Lactation Consultant Training to Saskatchewan
JoLee and Mamata hope other Indigenous moms will be trained as lactation consultants. JoLee says, “We want to bring the training here and put it in the communities or have an Indigenous-specific urban one. Jolene can help inform what we bring here. … Whatever we bring here will be adapted because we’re different here: The urban must look different, and the Métis one must be different.”

Indigenous support, improved access to Western health services, and the revitalization and restoration of cultural birthing practices protect mothers and babies from preventable health conditions and promote wellness. This work is vital to reversing historical trauma and poor health outcomes for future generations. As Jolene said, “everything starts at conception,” so cultural protections, access, and supports must also be put in place before birth.



Whisperings of the Land Indigenous Speaker Series presentation

The Whisperings of the Land Indigenous Speaker Series invites you to a presentation by Dr. Kevin Lewis:

kâ-nêyâsihk mihkiwahpa Centre of Excellence- Cree Language Immersion Land Based Program

April 6, 2023
11:00 a.m. CST via Zoom

Register at

What would localized indigenous pedagogy look like? This session will cover topics of core subjects, projects, seasonal and year-round activities that the Immersion School has been piloting since 2018. Language learning assessments will be discussed as well as policy development. This will be a good look at developing our languages within the existing frameworks and how we can engage our communities to find out what is important for schools to teach. There will be time for Qs & As in this session.

Speaker bio:
Dr. Kevin wâsakâyâsiw Lewis is a nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) instructor, researcher, and writer. For the past 21 years, Dr. Lewis has been working with community schools in promoting land and language-based education and is founder of kâniyâsihk Culture Camps (, a non-profit organization focused on holistic community well-being and co-developer of Land-Based Cree Immersion School kâ-nêyâsihk mîkiwâhpa. Dr. Lewis is from Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 Territory.

Indigenous speaker series hosting Dr. Kim TallBear

Save the date for the next Whisperings of the Land Indigenous Speaker Series, Thursday November 17, 2022 @ 10:00 a.m. via Zoom. The presenter, Dr. Kim TallBear, will speak on Science v. the Sacred, a Dead-End Settler Ontology.

Dr. Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) (she/her) is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. She is the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. In addition to studying genome science disruptions to Indigenous self-definitions, Dr. TallBear studies colonial disruptions to Indigenous sexual relations. She is a regular panelist on the weekly podcast, Media Indigena.

Settler-colonial society works to separate so-called spirituality from the material. This worldview inhibits understanding Indigenous knowledges as knowledge based on centuries of observations and lived relations with other-than-humans. Instead, Indigenous peoples are viewed as “spiritual,” and the disciplines tend to implicitly denigrate Indigenous understandings of the world as beliefs rather than knowledges. The knowledge/belief divide stems from a hierarchy of life that the sciences share with major religious traditions. With this understanding of sentience and agency, some humans rank above others according to race or gender, for example, and humans rank above other life forms. More recently, “new materialists” and multi-species ethnographers have analyzed other-than-humans in less hierarchical and more “vibrant” or agential, if still secular terms. I bring such ideas into conversation with Indigenous ideas of being in good relation in ways that disrupt longstanding racial hierarchies of thought.

Spotlight on new Elder-in-Residence May Desnomie

Elder-in-residence, May Desnomie

Elder May Desnomie, a Woodland Cree from Peter Ballantyne First Nation, was born and raised in the northern Saskatchewan hamlet of Sandy Bay. Her family on both of her mom’s and dad’s sides and grandparents going back generations lived off the land, hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering. Before she was taken to the Catholic-run Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Manitoba at the young age of 6, May also lived off the land: “I was 100% immersed in my language and culture until I was taken away to residential school in 1956.”

If being far away from home at such a young age wasn’t enough hardship, residential school was made harder because of the parental visitation policies: “Parents weren’t allowed to visit in residential school. They had a room they called a parlor next to the principal’s office. The parents would come to visit there, and they were only allowed one hour,” says May.

Though attending residential school didn’t destroy May’s Catholic faith, it did affect the faith of some members of her family. “There are four of us that went to residential schools and two will not have anything to do with the church. I personally didn’t suffer any physical or sexual abuse.”

Still, May recognizes the damage done by the policies of residential schools, She says, “I have nothing good to say about residential schools. They destroyed our cultures, our languages, our families. For myself, I met many good people along my journey. Although I am not going to say anything nice about residential schools, I will say there were nice people. However, the policies were destructive: the residential school was trying to destroy our way of life. That is still their goal: They still want to assimilate us, to fit us into the Canadian multicultural dream, but they can’t forget that we were the first people on this land.”

May moved to Wilcox to attend high school at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame boarding school after 9 years as a student at Guy Hill. She says, “I was sent there as part of the integration policy. My aunt was a teacher/nun at the elementary school there, and I could see her because she was a supervisor.” The change in landscape from her northern roots was a big change for May, “It was a culture shock for me, being from northern Saskatchewan with the rocks and the forest. Honestly, Wilcox has the flattest land in Saskatchewan, I swear. And we didn’t have the water that we had up north. When I was a child, you could drink water right from the lakes up north. We drank the water from the dugout at Wilcox and it was bad.”

After being in an institution for 11 years of her life, May decided to move to Saskatoon to take her Grade 12 from E. D. Feehan Catholic High School. “I had to find some freedom. I don’t know why, but I ended up in Saskatoon. Indian Affairs put us in boarding homes.”

May decided to become a teacher after graduating high school because she wanted to help change the narrative of Indigenous people in Canadian society. She says, “When I was in residential school, I did not learn my Indigenous history, like the history of Indian people. We were told we were savages and pagans and I didn’t think that was right. I was hoping I could change that narrative in the classroom to some degree.” After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Education, May and her husband Gerry Desnomie returned to the North, moving to Red Earth First Nation where she taught Grade 1 students.

Changing the narrative has been the work of May’s entire career in education: “It’s coming along slowly, but now they teach treaties in the classroom, and now they have native studies in high school, but they still need to change the curriculum to have more of the Indigenous perspective in there.” To help with curriculum change, May is sitting with an elder’s group that is advising the provincial government on curriculum.

May also has a heart for reparation work. She belongs to three groups dedicated to this work: the Intercultural Grandmothers Uniting (IGU), which is made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women working toward building bridges of understanding, respect, trust and friendship; the Aboriginal Non Aboriginal Relations Community (ANARC); and a TRC committee, with the Catholic Church. “They are hoping to repair the wrongs done by the church to Indigenous people, so that is why I joined that group.”

In her role as Elder-in-Residence with the Faculty of Education, May hopes to continue her work of changing the narrative about Indigenous people. She says, “I hope I can tell the wider society about Indigenous people, that we are part of society and we feel the way they do: We have our joys and our sorrows, our hopes and our dreams. I want them to know about our history, our Indigenous history. Many of them wonder about and have so many stereotypes about Indigenous people, that ‘they’re lazy, they don’t want to work, or they are alcoholics,’ and those are the ones you see. The majority of us are okay, we are successful. This is what I want to tell the general public. The government has made us invisible in the past, through residential schools and restricting us from leaving our reserves, and they told the wrong story about us.”

Being made invisible damages Indigenous people; May says, “They don’t know the damage they are doing to our person; it makes it so you’re not proud of yourself as an Indigenous person. I always tell my students to be proud of who you are; I know you can’t be successful until you are proud of who you are. Otherwise you are always trying to hide who you are.”

“I want to tell the right story. But not just me, I will have a hard time trying to educate society. Canadians will have to go out and educate themselves, read books, and find about our history and they will know who we are and can be our allies, and help us move forward and walk with us.”

Elder May Desnomie replaces the former Elder-in-Residence, Elder Alma Poitras, who retired recently.








Indigenous games enjoyed by medical students | A new Interprofessional Health Collaborative event

Lamarr Oksasikewiyin of Sweet Grass First Nation, instructs students in Indigenous games.

First-year medical students from the newly formed University of Saskatchewan (UofS) Regina campus College of Medicine participated in their first Indigenous Health Experience, facilitated by land-based learning teacher (Kakisiwew School on Ochapowace First Nation), Lamarr Oksasikewiyin, from Sweetgrass First Nation.

Julia Billingsley and Whitney Curtis, first-year medical students, Regina campus

First-year medical student, Julia Billingsley, says, “I think this was a really great opportunity to experience Indigenous games. It’s a great way to experience the culture and it’s great that the games are being brought back and that they are being taught to this generation. I think this should continue and this event should be an annual thing.”

Student Whitney Curtis agrees, “Today was so exciting! It was a great opportunity to get involved and gain a better understanding of Indigenous culture. Like Julia said, it’s great that we are working towards reconciliation and learning more, and that there is a cultural resurgence. I’m very excited to be a part of this.”

Eriq Marleau, first-year medical student, Regina campus

“This was a great experience,” says student Eriq Marleau. “It was fun to get out on a nice day and learn a bit about Indigenous culture, about how there are similarities; some games that they played, we grew up with as well. Like the top game, Lamarr noted that it is similar among a lot of cultures, and some of the other games too, like double ball and lacrosse. It was super fun to get out and play these games and have a great afternoon.”

“Traditional games are a safe way to learn about Indigenous culture and are the foundation of modern medicine,” says Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose, Chair of the Educational Psychology and Counselling program at the University of Regina and Adjunct Faculty in the U of S College of Medicine, Regina Campus.

Dr. Sasakamoose and Amanda Crowe, the Indigenous Coordinator at the U of S College of Medicine Regina Campus, organized the inaugural event, which took place at the First Nations University campus, Treaty Four territory, on September 21, 2022.

Amanda Crowe, Indigenous Coordinator for the U of S Regina campus, and Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose, Chair of the Educational Psychology and Counselling program at the U of R and Adjunct Faculty in the U of S College of Medicine, Regina Campus.

Crowe says, “We are shaping the next generation of health care practitioners at both universities. Volunteer counselling students from the U of R education psychology program made swag bags for the new med students to welcome them.”

The event is part of the first stage of relationship building to develop the Interprofessional Health Collaborative (IHC), a partnership between the University of Regina, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, and the University of Saskatchewan.

Sasakamoose says, “During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, the Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina, along with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA), collaborated on the development of a partnership model to co-develop a community-focused medical school at the U of S Regina Campus, including programs to assist and address community health care needs within the Treaty 4 territory. The Interprofessional Health Collaborative (IHC) was formed to implement a model to increase access to healthcare, support and ensure better patient engagement with treatment, and provide health advocacy, education, and promotion focused on the region’s healthcare needs.”

Crowe adds, “The IHC mission is regionally specific and intends to increase the recruitment of Indigenous students into STEM (K-12) and health profession careers to enhance and expand preprofessional health education opportunities and training in advanced health and wellness research.”

The IHC is responding to the TRC Calls to Action for health care (#18-24). Sasakamoose says, “Indigenous people in Canada have had to deal with disease, sickness, and starvation. History shows that we can’t count on the federal or provincial governments to provide enough support. As partners, we work together to teach students in a wide range of interprofessional programs how to better help under-served people while developing social responsibility. We provide health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, medical students, counsellors, educators and community-based peer health advocates, continuing education and training in culturally responsive, respectful ways. Utilizing traditional approaches such as land and cultural-based programming and community and relationship building, we respond directly to the TRC’s calls.”

The IHC will produce a final report informed by consultations with Indigenous people in the province, centred on the Treaty Four region. When released, the report will identify essential Indigenous health concerns and make suggestions for the region’s future Indigenous health and research agenda.

Rethinking our science: Whisperings of the Land Series

You are invited to join us via Zoom for a presentation “Rethinking Our Science” by Leroy Little Bear, a Blackfoot researcher, University of Lethbridge professor emeritus, founding member of Canada’s first Native American Studies Department and recognized leader and advocate for First Nations education, rights, self-governance, language and culture. He has received numerous awards and recognition for his work, including the Officer Order of Canada, and the Alberta Order of Excellence. Leroy Little Bear’s lifetime of accomplishment includes some of the most important political achievements for Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. His dedication to education, leadership, community-building and advocacy has led to a United Nations declaration, changed the Constitution of Canada and influenced the lives of thousands of students.

Description: Every society, however it comes into existence, sooner or later, claims a territory. Within that Territory a culture arises based on the mutual relationships with the totality of the environment. This culture also comes up with an interpretive template on that reality structure. The interpretive template is what we refer to as metaphysics or paradigms. The metaphysics and paradigms determine the type of approach to science and scientific methodology. In this talk we’ll examine the metaphysics that underlie Western and Indigenous Science.

Meeting ID: 978 8760 1397 Passcode: 829580

Whisperings of the Land – Indigenous Science

The Whisperings of the Land Indigenous Speaker Series presents Wilfred Buck, a Cree astronomer and long-time educator, who will present on Ininiw Acakosuk (Cree Stars). Everyone is welcome to join us for this virtual event, 10:00 a.m., Monday, May 16, 2022.
Register in advance at to receive the Zoom link at

Whisperings of the Land series event

The Whisperings of the Land Indigenous Speaker Series presents Dr. Herman Michell who will speak on “Land-Based Education: Embracing the Rhythms of the Earth” as part of the 2022 Indigenous Science: A Spiritual Path series.
Wednesday, April 6, 2022
11:00 a.m. (CST)
via Zoom
Register by April 5, 2022 for this free virtual presentation at
Hosted by the #UREdu Education Indigenous Circle
Everyone is welcome!

Funding Announcement | Dr. Anna-Leah King

Congratulations to Dr. Anna-Leah King who is part of a CIHR-funded team that is researching “Takohpinawasowin: Knowledge Keepers’ Stories of Traditional Birthing and Child-Rearing Practices.” The team also includes Dr. Brenda Green (principal investigator), Dr. Kathleen O’Reilly, Dr. Elizabeth Cooper, Dr. Cassandra J. Opikokew Wajuntah, Colleen Strongarm (Touchwood Agency Tribal Council), and Debbie Vey (midwife). The project is based at Touchwood Agency Tribal Council and has been granted $512,546 over 4 years.

In the News:

Researchers and elders receive hefty grant to study birthing and child rearing | Eagle Feather News
takohpinawasowin: Indigenous Elders’ Stories of Traditional Birthing and Child-Rearing Practices | Newswire
FNUniv, UofR and FHQTC awarded a $512,546, 4-year CIHR Project Grant |FNUniv 
Research project studying traditional Indigenous birthing, child-rearing | LeaderPost