A Nakoda father taps First Nations traditions to parent in the modern city

Thomas Snow repeatedly punches a suspended leather heavy-bag that his trainer holds steady, while counting down.

Clad in a blue tank and long athletic shorts, Snow’s braid occasionally whips across his face, following the momentum of his right hook.

Sweaty, smiling and triumphant, he finishes the set and celebrates by crossing gloves with his trainer.

These are scenes from Warrior Fathers, a documentary that follows the story of Thomas Snow as he gleans wisdom from his upbringing in the Stoney Nakoda First Nation community of  Mînî Thnî, also known as Morley, west of Calgary, in order to translate that knowledge into parenting his children in the nearby city.

The premiere of Warrior Fathers — which is part of the CBC series Absolutely Canadian — takes place on Sept. 21, at 7 p.m. on CBC TV in Alberta and B.C. and a day earlier on CBC Gem.

“I think boxing and parenting are more similar than people would expect,” says Snow in the film.

‘When you get in the ring and the round starts you don’t get to say stop. You can’t say I’m tired, I’m sick, I don’t want to. That’s just like parenting,’ said Snow. (Chris Hsiung/Warrior Fathers)

“When you get in the ring and the round starts, you don’t get to say stop. You can’t say, ‘I’m tired, I’m sick, I don’t want to.’ That’s just like parenting … you don’t get to see immediately the results of what it is that you’re working on.”

“Sometimes you just kind of have to make it to nap time … that’s all you can do.”

More than a language

Snow and his partner, Shalome Hope, who is Cree and Métis from the Thunderchild First Nations north of North Battleford, Sask., share the duties of raising their two young sons together.

“In Nakoda, we don’t say ‘fatherhood’ and ‘motherhood’: it’s just ‘parenthood,'” said Snow.

Snow’s partner, Shalome Hope, carries their youngest. ‘Ultimately we hope to raise [our children] as Nakoda children, Nakoda speakers, Nakoda thinkers,’ she says. (Chris Hsiung/Warrior Fathers)

Snow spends the most time at home during the day with the children, speaking to them largely in the Nakoda Sioux language.

Sharing the Nakoda Sioux language is about more than linguistics. The couple say it’s a vital part of imparting their core values and beliefs.

“Ultimately we hope to raise them as Nakoda children, Nakoda speakers, Nakoda thinkers,” said Hope.

I want my children to be able to speak to other members of the community in our Nakoda language. I want them to grow up with a strong hold on identity.– Thomas Snow

“The challenge of living in the city is the language isn’t used the same. What Thomas is trying to do because of his fluency is to teach not only the children but me.”

They also hope knowing the language will empower the two children to be active members of their family and extended community.

“I want my children to be able to speak to other members of the community in our Nakoda language,” said Snow.

“I want them to grow up with a strong hold on identity. If I want to raise Îyethka children, I need an Îyethka community.”

Ways when away

Notoriously cold Alberta winters often prevent the couple from making the hour-long trip west to Morley with the children.

At the time the documentary was filmed, Snow and Hope lived in the city because of jobs and to be closer to Snow’s older children from a previous relationship.

“There are a number of challenges that came up and, you know, I think the hardest was isolation,” said Snow on The Homestretch.

“In our cultures, banishment was the ultimate tool of discipline…. Banishment was the same as death.”

In Nakoda culture, babies are not named until they are a couple of years old. Here, Snow and Hope hold a naming ceremony for their youngest. (Chris Hsiung/Warrior Fathers)

They travel into the reserve when they can, especially for important events like powwows.

But they’ve also gotten creative with ways to celebrate their identity at home.

For example, Snow and Hope held a baby-naming ceremony for their youngest at their home in the northwest.

In Nakoda culture, babies are not named until they are a couple of years old, and the name is chosen by the Great Spirit through an elder, says Snow.

“It’s re-imagining parenting, but at the same time, you know, re-shaping it … we get to make it as we go in a lot of ways,” said Snow.

Songs at home

In another scene, Snow beats on a leather hand drum in his Calgary living room while singing in the Nakoda Sioux language, as his mother, toddler and Hope sing and play along.

“[My older son] will hit in perfect time and then we’ll finish the song and he’ll start the song again and then I’ll have to think of another song right away,” said Snow.

Snow says residential schools, colonialism and intergenerational trauma have all affected Indigenous identity and language.

“Residential schools took away our parents’ ability to speak but also to teach and to teach in a nurturing and loving way,” said Snow.

Bringing music into the home in his mother tongue is one way to reverse this, he says.

“It’s something that we don’t want to carry on, and so we’re modelling … in our home,” says Hope.

Teach a child to fish

Often, Snow teaches his cultural heritage while he and his sons leave the house to explore nature — which can be tough given the urban landscape in Calgary, so different from the wild landscape that he hiked and hunted in as a child.

Here, Snow fishes with his older son in Morley, saying the boy ‘doesn’t get too much exposure to the river like this…. In the city it’s all blocked off.’ (Chris Hsiung/Warrior Fathers)

When he can and the weather’s good, he heads out of the city.

In one part of the documentary, he takes his older son fishing for the first time, sitting beside the jack pines under blue skies along a curve of the Bow River in Morley.

“I want him to get to know the water, get comfortable with the sound of it, the feel of it — how the line is different along the bank of the river as opposed to along the hill,” says Snow.

“He doesn’t get too much exposure to the river like this … in the city, it’s all blocked off, and here this one just flows naturally.”

Other days, he tries to find nature in the city — even if it’s just taking a walk through Bowness Park and showing his sons where the bush grows wilder.

“Open spaces where they can kind of run around are really important. I had them growing up,” said Snow.

Perceptions of fatherhood

Chris Hsiung, the producer and director of Warrior Fathers, says he wanted his documentary to add another lens to the way dads are often portrayed in films.

“When I did a look at what kinds of stories there were about fathers, they were either about absent fathers or about, usually it’s a comedic kind of character, the father doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing,” said Hsiung.

Chris Hsiung, right, is the producer and director of Warrior Fathers. He says that as a new father himself, he drew a lot of inspiration from Snow, left, including deciding to teach his son Mandarin. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

“And here’s my friend Thomas, who I found a lot of inspiration in the care and nurture that he took with his kids.”

A new father himself, Hsiung says the process of shooting the film taught him lessons about fatherhood.

“Thomas has inspired me to really teach my son Mandarin, which is something that I speak…. I saw a lot of similarities and connections,” said Hsiung.

Snow said this film is “dedicated to all the fathers out there, to all the warriors out there that never got the chance to be the father they wanted to be or that are doing the best that they can and those that know they can do better.”

His hope for viewers is that they “see the complexity and the challenges that … come from being an Indigenous person. First of all, the amount of forethought, the amount of discipline … and amount of strength and courage it takes to raise your children in a colonial society but also the similarities in parenting.

“I mean, parenting is really a universal experience. We all want the best for our children.”

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