Dr. Winona Wheeler and Glenda Abbott spoke to an event on missing aboriginal women.

PRAIRIE MESSENGER PHOTO | BLAKE SITTLER

Dr. Winona Wheeler and Glenda Abbott spoke to an event on missing aboriginal women.

May 18, 2015
BLAKE SITTLER
PRAIRIE MESSENGER

The deliberate attempt of European settlers to break down aboriginal communities lies at the root of the addictions, violence and incarceration that is the life of many indigenous women today, says a native studies professor.

Europeans brought an end to the way aboriginal people passed on their culture from elders to their grandchildren by imposing an industrial school system, said Dr. Winona Wheeler.

"It was a systematic, destructive, pre-conceived breakdown of our communities," Wheeler asserted.

The University of Saskatchewan professor and Glenda Abbott, visitor services manager at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, spoke April 18 at Mayfair United Church in Saskatoon.

The event, called Voices of Our Sisters, was an ecumenical gathering of Christian leaders and community members who asked how churches can support indigenous people who struggle with missing and murdered family members.

Wheeler shared what she called the traditional circle teachings. "These teachings help us to understand our relationship to each other."

At the centre of the concentric series of circles were the children, the heart of the community. "They inherit everything we do," she said. "Immediately around them are our grandparents; . . . they are our past and (hold the) collective knowledge of our culture."

"It used to be that grandmothers taught the little boys how to hunt and cook," Wheeler said. "They taught them about life and how to revere."

She explained how the grandparents raised the children and identified the skills of the children, nurturing and preparing them for their roles in the community.

CHILDREN WERE VALUED

"From the very beginning, children were valued and they knew they were valued," she said. "This is important to a sense of identity and value."

Wheeler explained how First Nations elders taught children about creation, their culture, the laws and expectations of their people, how to relate to each other and about self-discipline in a seasonal cycle.

Abbott stressed the importance of language to this teaching process.

"The words for fire [iskotew] and woman [iskwew] are related," she explained. "The community gathered around and revered both."

STAGES OF COLONIALISM

Wheeler described the five stages of colonialism: the original "steady state" before the arrival of Europeans, followed by first contact, then the imposition of colonization, the internalization of colonization, and finally decolonization.

"In this first stage, the men and women were equal," Wheeler said. First contact with Europeans brought a new set of values that included patriarchy, individualism and materialism.

Even the basic concept of wealth acquisition was relatively foreign to First Nations. Early communities also recognized that they needed each other, she said. One of the most severe penalties for a crime was banishment, which was tantamount to a death sentence.

"Our world was not perfect," she admitted. "It wasn't perfect but it worked for us."

Many European technologies were attractive but changed and shifted values and priorities of the traditional communities, she said.

REVOLUTIONARY TECHNOLOGY

"Even a copper kettle or pot was revolutionary. These new things though were attached to new ideas . . . [like] materialism and individualism."

Wheeler spoke of how capitalism, individualism and patriarchy began to break down the communities.

"When settlement started, there was nothing we had that the Europeans wanted except our land and resources," she said. "Then they had to decide what to do with us.

"The way the early Canadians decided to deal with the 'Indian problem' was to make us disappear through assimilation: intermarriage and education."

Wheeler spoke about the treaty process, the formation of residential schools and the first Indian Act in 1840. She discussed how the Indian Acts were nearly genocidal because the legislation aimed at reducing the number of aboriginal people who had legal status.

"But the old people dug in their heels," she said. "They continued to pass on the traditions to the children."

REJECTING COLONIALISM

The last part of the cycle is decolonization, she said. It is the decision to reject the values that harm the individual and the community.

"It's like an addiction: trying to quit," Wheeler pointed out. "It's hard. It makes you grumpy. And for many of us, it takes a lifetime."

Abbott's list of proposed actions included:

  • Restoring funding to youth and urban aboriginal programs;
  • Improving housing both on and off reserves;
  • Providing more grassroots services such as safe houses, shelters and foot patrols;
  • Improving the education system by teaching the value of indigenous people and their culture to Canada.