Ojibwe grandmother thanks her father, elders who helped her reconnect with culture after residential school

CBC Saskatchewan, CBC Manitoba and CBC North embarked on a months-long project to speak with elders, ‘elders-in-training’ and youth from across their vast territories to learn how these knowledge keepers view their role today — and why they’re more critical than ever before.

Read other stories from the Walking With Elders series.

Reflecting on my teachers and elders throughout my life, my first teacher was my mother, as a mother she will nurture your whole well-being and protect you in all you do. She will instill and initiate a foundation within you. 

As you grow and learn, there will many teachers to follow who will come in your path as you journey in life. 

These teachers will help you learn and grow mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. 

I was fortunate to have three important teachers in my life prior to my attending Muscowequan Residential School from 1962-1971. They were my mother, my father and my grandmother. 

My teachers were both matriarch and patriarch, which created a balance within me going into residential school. The teachers in the school were priest, brothers and sisters, nuns. 

My spirit was broken from the genocide actions done to me by the residential school during those nine years.– Geraldine Shingoose

Their teachings differed on many levels. I learned to be ashamed of my identity. I learned that speaking my language was wrong. If I spoke my language, I would be punished with a strap and/or a ruler stick. 

My self-esteem was severely tarnished and broken from all the teachers in residential school. 

They taught me that loneliness, shame, hurt and pain were normal. 

Coming out of residential school at age 14, I had no self-esteem and no identity. My spirit was broken from the genocide actions done to me by the residential school during those nine years.  

Elder Henry (Keewatin) Shingoose helped his daughter, Geraldine Shingoose, reclaim her ancestry and identity. (Geraldine Shingoose)

Feeling a disconnection for many years thereafter, I connected with my father, Keewatin. I was 29 years old. He shared stories of our ancestors and how life was before residential school. 

He shared how the elders would put him out on the land and waters for survival and to fast as a young man. He spoke about his meeting with animals and birds. He spoke about how he listened and was able to communicate in silence with the land.

By doing so, the elders introduced him to one of the most important teachers: Dad developed a relationship with the land and waters at a very young age.

He took me to ceremonies and he showed me how to do ceremony. While I sat with him in pipe ceremony, in Sun Dance and sweat lodge ceremonies, I started to connect with my true identity and felt a connection with my ancestral knowledge.

When I sat with the elders, they woke me up through their knowledge. 

I had found my place in the sacred circle of life.

Geraldine Shingoose, left, with her daughter Billy-Jo Shingoose, after sharing her story with the CBC. ‘I’m so proud of her,’ Billy-Jo says. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

I no longer carried those teachings from residential school. I came to learn they were harmful to my well-being and they were not my way. I disconnected and decolonized those colonial teachings, and reconnected with that sacred foundation of learning that my mother, my father and my grandmother had once instilled in me.

Today the role of the elder has not changed. They still carry ancestral knowledge — a lifetime of knowledge — and are open to sharing with the young. 

They acknowledge the youth, as we are all in the circle of life together. 

We survived government policies that tried to extinguish our way of life and we are still here. Our ancestors always thought in past, present and future, where they considered future generations to come.

One of my current teachers is the youth. They inspire me by sounding their voice and speaking out for the land and waters.– Geraldine Shingoose

In my learning from elders, they encourage youth to seek out and connect with their Indigenous identity, by seeking out the elders.

One of my current teachers is the youth. They inspire me by sounding their voice and speaking out for the land and waters. 

We are in a critical time with climate change, and youth are taking lead on this matter. It is clear that elders need inclusion of the youth and vice versa, as both carry ancestral knowledge and a relationship with the land.

As one youth told me, “far as I’m concerned, elders are like bees: endangered and critical to the cycle of life and learning.”

This column is part of  CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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