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Relearning what it means to be Cree

Cree storyteller discusses his return to Indigenous culture and ways of learning

Cree storyteller, actor, musician and residential school survivor Joseph Naytowhow discussed his approach to “Cree ways of knowing” during a lecture held at Concordia on Nov. 2.

The lecture was organized by the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture, and was moderated by David Howes, a professor of anthropology and co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Sensory Studies.

Joseph Naytowhow performing a Cree song. Photo by Danielle Gasher

Joseph Naytowhow performing a Cree song. Photo by Danielle Gasher

In a packed conference room on the Hall building’s seventh floor, Howes introduced Naytowhow to the sea of attendees with warmth and pride. “One of our purposes this afternoon is to explore what it might mean to indigenize a university education,” said Howes.  “It’s precisely that idea of bridging the distance between the academy, Concordia University, and Cree ways of knowing that we are here to explore this afternoon.”

Naytowhow, who was born in Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, discussed his past and personal experiences of embracing and relearning his Cree culture. When Naytowhow got out of the residential school system after 13 years, he felt he had to relearn how to be Cree. “I was empty. There was nothing… I was basically Canadian,” said Naytowhow.

Residential schools were introduced in Canada as a means of assimilation.  The school system was put in place by the Canadian government in 1880, and the last residential school closed in 1986. The Catholic Church ran these schools, which aimed to assimilate aboriginal children into mainstream Canadian society, into the English language and into the Christian faith.

Naytowhow attended All Saints residential school in Saskatchewan. There, Naytowhow said he faced different forms of abuse, which made him feel detached from his culture and language.  The experience also affected his confidence and sense of self-worth.

“I’m still working on forgiving the Anglicans,” he said. “They really did a number on me and my people, my relatives, my family.”

Naytowhow said it was an elder he met at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was pursuing an undergraduate degree in education, who reintroduced him to what he lost during his time at All Saints. The elder, Solomon Mosquito, inspired him to re-embrace  his culture and language and to begin a healing process using the Cree way of seeing life.

Photo by Danielle Gasher

Photo by Danielle Gasher

“Something tweaked inside of me that I had to go and spend time with him. So I missed classes,” he said. Naytowhow described the Cree way of learning as experiencing things with all senses, with open-mindedness, with forgiveness and with an appreciation for the elements, living beings and nature.

Naytowhow recalled a comparison Mosquito made that helped him understand how expansive the Cree way of thinking, learning and being is. He said Mosquito compared the Cree way of knowing to the pharmaceutical aisles in a drugstore, because of how vast and diverse it is.  “It just totally placed that image right in my mind…What a great way to explain it,” said Naytowhow, laughing.

While Naytowhow didn’t directly address what universities can do to bring Indigenous knowledge to school curriculums, he said that “learning is about observation, insight,” and that schools could benefit from using that approach in classrooms across Canada.

Universities across Canada are starting to introduce ways to further bridge the gap between Indigenous ways of learning and universities.  According to a University Affairs 2016 article, “Indigenizing the academy,” the University of Regina, Brock University, Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg, among others, have introduced measures to better include and represent Indigenous culture in their teaching.

Naytowhow said that relearning his Cree culture has helped and still helps him heal from his past in the residential school system. “I can’t hang on to this grudge forever—it’s going to kill me. I’m working on that.”

Indeed, Naytowhow still heavily works on healing and put a lot of importance on forgiveness once he started getting back in touch with his “Cree side.” “There’s still some debris,” he said. “I call them my little demons.”

“I had to go to high mountains; I had to go to the valley; I had to go to sweats; I had to go to ceremonies. I went into Buddhist communities. I went through therapy, life skills; I went to the University of Regina. I got married, [at a] pretty young age—20 years old. I didn’t have a clue of what marriage was about,” he said, laughing again.

Photo by Danielle Gasher

Photo by Danielle Gasher

Above all, Naytowhow said he couldn’t have gotten through his healing journey without music.  “It’s hard to stop, I just want to keep on going,” said Naytowhow with a laugh as he ended a song he performed during the lecture. “Drumming saved my life,” said Naytowhow, with his drum still in hand. “It’s like a primal scream.”

While Naytowhow still has his demons, he will never forget the day a nun apologized to him for all the harm the Catholic Church caused Indigenous peoples in Canada. “At the time, I was still angry. I didn’t really respond in a compassionate way,” he said. Today, Naytowhow said he would have.

About Danielle Gasher