Bent Arrow was established in 1994 to support Indigenous children, youth and families. Their mission is to empower Indigenous people to grow spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally. And to see them walk proudly in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Executive Director, Cheryl Whiskeyjack, tells us about the importance of ceremony and access to culture. And talks about some of the nuances of reconciliation in Edmonton.
Visit Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
Discover how you can connect with Indigenous culture and ceremony.
Read Bill C-92: An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, you and families.
Read the latest on our blog.
See how ECF connects you with Edmonton’s community.
Check out some of the amazing funds our donors have created.
Find out how to create an Endowment Fund of your own.
* Click here to see all ECF Grants.
Upcoming Student Awards:
* Click here to find details for all of our student awards!
The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation.
Image for this episode was provide by Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
Transcripts by Karli Drew.
[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays]
Graeme Lummer [00:00:25] Hi everyone. Welcome to ECF’s Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Graeme Lummer—
Shereen Zink [00:00:29] And I’m Shereen...
Graeme [00:00:36] These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.
Shereen [00:00:41] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.
Graeme [00:00:47] On this episode, we visit Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
Shereen [00:00:51] Bent Arrow has been around since 1994 and they support Indigenous children, youth, and families. Their mission is to empower Indigenous people to grow spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally… and to see them walk proudly in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Graeme [00:01:04] Ceremony is a powerful way to connect people to culture, teachings, and community. Through their Practice As Ceremony program, Bent Arrow provides access to ceremony right here in the city.
Shereen [00:01:14] That’s important for many urban Indigenous people who can’t easily leave the city. It’s also important for non-Indigenous people who wanna learn more about Indigenous history and culture. ECF was privileged to provide funding to help with the construction of a permanent sweat lodge to help increase access to ceremony. This project is in progress right now, so we’re taking the opportunity to share more about Bent Arrow’s work.
[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]
Graeme [00:01:33] Our correspondent, Aubrianna Snow, takes us to Bent Arrow to meet their Executive Director, Cheryl Whiskeyjack. We’ll hear more about ceremony, access to culture, and the nuances of reconciliation in Edmonton.
Aubrianna Snow [00:01:44] The old Parkdale School, which now houses Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, stands tall amongst the houses in the Parkdale neighbourhood. Towering trees grow on the front of the lot, some of them likely as old as the building itself, which was built in 1912. The grass is being mowed as I enter the space, which is bustling with people coming in and out to access the supports provided by Bent Arrow. After checking in with reception, I’m directed up to the third floor where Executive Director Cheryl Whiskeyjack is waiting for me. Her office is tidy, but full. I’m surrounded by Indigenous art and photos of smiling faces. It smells like burning sage. Cheryl has been involved with Bent Arrow nearly from the start.
Cheryl Whiskeyjack [00:02:22] While I was just in my last year of school, Bent Arrow was starting. It was just this brand new organization that was starting up in the community and it was here to serve Indigenous youth. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with Indigenous youth. So that’s how I ended up here. I came here in 1995, right out of school. They were, like, five or six months old. That’s how brand new Bent Arrow was at the time. And they were just opening up an Indigenous group home for youth, uh, like, 12 to 18 years of age here in the city. Because they were such a young organization, the group home program was the second program that they had. They already had a program for Indigenous youth that was, like, a pre-employment program. And so, I just kind of grew with the organization. Simple.
[00:03:03] Like, I came at the right time and I was a part of the vision of it growing and moving forward and, really, sort of supporting my bosses and my mentor, who is, uh, Shauna Seneca. She was one of the founders of this organization. Really just soaked up all the knowledge that she had. Helped her grow— her and her husband grow the organization to a certain point. Unfortunately, in 2006, um, she passed away quite suddenly. We were, I think, about 14 programs at the time. Really, like, quite a force already in the city of Edmonton. And so, about a year after she passed away, the board asked me to move into that role of, uh, Executive Director. And I did it, with a lot of trepidation because she made it look very easy. But, you know, after a few years, the shoes became my shoes. They weren’t her shoes anymore and we have a really amazing leadership team here, some of which was here when she was here, and some that have come along the way. And we just continue to work towards realizing the same mission and vision that her and her husband created when they founded the organization in 1994.
[00:04:04] So my first mission when I got the job of Executive Director in 2008 was to steady the ship, make sure our funders were happy, make sure our programs were operating efficiently. And then once that was done, I was able to gaze at the horizon again and say, “What are we not doing that we could be doing? What are gaps in some of the services that we provide?” And our leadership were actually bringing some of those to me. Like, “It would be really nice if we could do this because we notice, with some of our participants, this is a real need for them.” And so, that’s how we started to grow. We actually have more than doubled the program size of the organization since 2008. And I think we’ve tripled in size the annual budget of the organization since 2008. So, we really took the mission and vision that they created and we really ran with it, so it’s still in play today.
Aubrianna [00:04:54] Working with Indigenous children and their families is a top priority at Bent Arrow and this is deeply evident in the history of their work. Some of their earliest projects were centered around engaging with the child welfare system for the benefit of Indigenous families and this work is ongoing today.
Cheryl [00:05:07] If we are serving our kids differently, they’re gonna have a different experience and therefore when they’re, you know, sort of coming through that system, their experience will be different going forward. And then for those in the community who were taking care of their young people, parenting was never meant to be done in isolation. It was really meant to be a community effort. So we have had, over the years, some really good and hard conversations with our partners in government, in children’s services, about how we’re working with folks. I remember in the late ‘90s, we worked in partnership with a particular office to work with 10 of the hardest to serve Indigenous files that they had out of that office. And so, these are people where, when child welfare knocked, they didn’t answer the door and if they did, it was, like, aggressive verbal exchange from… from the mother on the other side of the door. Like, “Get outta here. I don’t want you. Leave us alone.” But they couldn’t leave them alone because there was very… serious worries about what was happening for kids on the other side of that door.
[00:06:08] And so, we talked about having a partnership where we would work right alongside with that child welfare worker and gain access because we are a trusted entity in the community. We’re a trusted organization. And so, they may not open the door for a child welfare worker, but they might open the door for an Indigenous, like, support worker. So that’s what happened. We worked with 10 of those very hard to serve families and we… we made decisions together, which wasn’t the way things were done back then. Those decisions were made by children’s services and passed onto the community worker to get certain things done. Get them into treatment, get them into parenting programs, and maybe supervised visits so that you see that there’s some good parenting strategies at play there. That kind of stuff.
[00:06:53] Um. One of the things I’ve said over the years is they have accepted graciously and willingly advice from the multicultural community on how to proceed with child welfare matters with the multicultural community because they will freely and willingly admit they don’t know the cultural norms in certain cultures. But they think they know that about Indigenous people. They believe they know what’s best for Indigenous people and that’s where part of the issue lies.
So, these are some of the hard conversations we’ve had over the years. It eventually became where the model that we started in the late ‘90s is now a model that’s really prevalent in Edmonton and area now as a way of practicing child welfare. So we, to this day, are working in a program called Kahkiyaw here at Bent Arrow. It’s a large program and we’re working in very close partnership with our partners in children’s services in how to proceed with these families. We’re really incorporating kinship into that work and Indigenous practice into how we proceed with families that are connected to child welfare. So we were pioneers in it in 1998 and now it’s become a part of the practice here today.
Aubrianna [00:08:04] Bent Arrow offers many programs and resources aimed at engaging a wide variety of folks at different stages of life. I wanted to know more about exactly how that diverse engagement looks.
Cheryl [00:08:14] So, we have a couple of housing first programs here. One is for Indigenous people and then the other one is specifically geared towards Indigenous youth. We own and operate an apartment building in the Inglewood area. And one of the things I’m, like, really proud of being a part of that work there is that, uh, we’re like a regular landlord but there’s nothing regular about us. So, we have onsite manager there that doesn’t just fix your leaky faucet and take your rent money every month. We have a manager there that knows the story of every tenant in the building and is really focused on trying to support them in whatever journey that they’re on. And we do a number of things to help them to do that in a good way.
[00:08:57] So, we’ve supported our manager in attending, uh, Citizens Police Academy, for example. It familiarizes our manager with all of the processes that are involved in the police service, um, so that when you’re in need of services from the EPS, you have an understanding of how that system works. So when you’re making that call, you’re doing it with knowledge instead of, like— sometimes when you call the police, you’re not even sure if they can help you. But when you take the Citizens Police Academy, you’re more aware of the process, right? And really being clear about what lane we’re in, right? Awareness of what 2-1-1 can do in support of people in our building. We noticed that there was a drop in calls for service to our building because we had that working knowledge of what the police could and couldn’t do for us. And so, what could we do on our own to make our building a safer place to be for people? So that is what we do there. Our interventions there are also very light touch, but they’re extremely meaningful.
[00:09:55] So we have interventions in that building, interactions with people in there that literally change the way that they look at the world. One of my stories I always tell there is of our manager walking into the building, seeing one of the young moms, um, trying to get into her suite. Our manager lived in the suite next door and saw this woman very visibly upset, was crying and she was struggling to get her key in the… in the door. And, uh, she knew the manager was coming in. So it made her even more like, “I need to get in my unit.” In any other building, it would’ve been “mind your business.” You know, “It’s their business, it’s not your business.” But that’s not the way it is at Orenda House. So, she stopped and very caringly said, “Are you okay?” You know, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” And, uh, she said, “Yeah, I got this letter from my kid’s school and I’m really pissed off about it. That’s why I’m crying.” And she’s like, “Do you mind if I see the letter?” And so, she said, “Go ahead.” You know, and she kept on struggling with her key. And she looked at the letter and she knew exactly what the letter was about.
[00:10:58] The mom was upset because, in her mind, the way she read the letter was there was a problem with lice in her child’s school and she felt like they were blaming her and her child for spreading lice. And so, these are the marginalized eyes that she looks at the world with, right? Our manager said, “Can you wait here one second? I gotta run to my unit and grab something really quick. I’ll be really fast.” So she ran to her unit and she ripped this letter off her fridge that was there with a magnet ’cause their children actually went to the same school. And she said, “I got the same letter. And nowhere on here does it say it’s your fault. Nowhere on here does it accuse you of your child spreading this in the school. It says we have a problem with lice and here’s how you can help us stop the spread. And every parent got it.”
[00:11:44] And it really changed the way she had a relationship with her child’s school. So instead of feeling, like, singled out and marginalized from her child’s school, she then became like, “Okay, I’m a part of this community here too and I’m in the same boat as every other parent.” And so, when I think about those interactions, they wouldn’t happen in a normal apartment building, right? But it was an example of this, like, light touch intervention that really had a… profound impact on the way this mom saw the world. And these are the kinds of things that happen at that apartment building that we do.
[00:12:16] We also have three employment programs here. We have one for sort of the general public. People who want a job and need some support getting a job. We have a program called Journey to Success that will help you do that. We also continue to have one for Indigenous youth because they have very specific needs when it comes to getting employment. And then we also have one specifically for Indigenous women because in the regular employment program, what we found out was that we could get anybody a job. That wasn’t a problem at all. But we were seeing a lot of recidivism from our Indigenous women. And the reason why is because they’re often the heads of their household. So they have needs that need to be addressed. A livable wage is one of them. So if you’re gonna be the head of your household, you need to be able to support everyone who’s in your household.
[00:13:01] Uh. Childcare is an issue and benefits is an issue. And so, when we were getting these jobs in the service industry, they didn’t often have maybe the hours that they needed so that they could access good quality childcare and maybe they had benefits… or maybe they didn’t. But we saw some women come back to us because it was easier to be on social assistance because they could get benefits than to be in a job making money where as soon as one of their kids needed something or they needed something, they were struggling to… to get that need met. So that’s why we’re working specifically with Indigenous women.
And then we do New in Town. New in Town is a program that works with Indigenous people who are moving from rural to urban, always for good reasons. For employment, for post-secondary studies, better schools for their kids, maybe. I always say for love. Sometimes that’s what brings you into the city. And it’s always a good reason, but then things can get very complicated, very fast.
[00:13:53] Being a newcomer-serving organization gives us a seat at the table where other newcomer-serving organizations are gathered at. And those newcomer-serving organizations are often serving newcomers to Canada. And one of the things we’ve learned from hanging out with our colleagues at that table is that newcomers to the city of Edmonton, Indigenous newcomers, have very similar experiences to newcomers to Canada. So you wouldn’t necessarily think that because this is where they’re from, but moving from an Indigenous First Nations community to the city is a real psychological, [laughs] uh, transformation. Everything’s really busy here, and you feel very small. It can be very intimidating. And that is often the experience of… of newcomers to Canada as well.
Aubrianna [00:14:37] With the help of many donors, including the Edmonton Community Foundation, Bent Arrow is currently in the process of building a ceremonial space and sweat lodge. This will allow easier access to ceremony right within the city.
Cheryl [00:14:49] It’s a dream that we’ve had that went back to our first culture camp, which I think was about seven years ago. We wanted to have a place for people to come and gather and learn about culture. And it wasn’t just for our community but it was also for people who serve our community. So we wanted a four day camp where people could come. We had 10 teepees at that time. Every teepee was filled with a knowledge keeper or an elder who shared their gifts with our— people that came. So between three and five hundred people came every day of this camp and received those teachings. It was very busy. It looked very beautiful here in this neighbourhood because the north and south fields had teepees all over them.
[00:15:30] And we were able to put up a sweat lodge right outside in the schoolyard for those four days. We had to guard it and have security around it 24/7. But every day we had a sweat lodge. And it was sort of, like, one of the first times in a long, long time where we were able to have that kind of ceremony right in the city proper. And it planted the seed for us of like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do this, like, all the time?” So we did a campaign which we’ve never done and it was during COVID. And so, COVID was a real, like, awakening time, I think, for people all over the world. Like, we really had to slow down and sort of, like, take stock.
[00:16:09] That was also when the graves were found, if you remember, was during those early years of COVID. And so, people on this reconciliation journey were, like, [emphasized] horrified… that in this country, on this land, kids went to school and never made it home. It was the stuff of nightmares. And so, we had a lot of people saying like, “I never knew. How could I not know the— this kind of thing? How can we be better? How can we do better?” And so, that’s when the campaign really started. We had a number of large donors that came forward which really got the ball rolling. And it was really nice to be able to tell our sort of grassroots supporters out there that we have this much money raised already and— but we need to raise this much more. And so, I always think when this lodge is done, it’s gonna be really nice for, like, Joe and Susie citizen who threw in a hundred dollars into the pot to drive by that building someday and say, “I had a hand in helping this thing become a reality.”
[00:17:04] And when it does get built and become a reality, it’s going to be a place where people can experience and participate in ceremony in the city proper. In a city where no matter where you come from in this world, you can find a mosque, you know, a temple, a church, or some kind of spiritual community that you can access. But for Indigenous people, to this day, have to leave the city proper to experience, right? And if you’re born and raised in the city of Edmonton and maybe you don’t have a car, that’s a real hardship for you to access that ceremony because it’s usually out of the city that you need to get to where a public transit doesn’t run. We’re gonna be the keepers of it. It’s not gonna be ours, it’s… it’s for everybody. And so, how do we do that in a good way?
Aubrianna [00:17:50] Cheryl was able to share with me a little bit about how the sweat lodge will look. Here’s how it’s different from the temporary ones they’ve done in the past.
Cheryl [00:17:58] It will be a shell on top of a permanent shell on top of the sweat lodge, which when we have the sweat lodge during culture camp, it’s very vulnerable because it’s so exposed to people who may wanna use it for not the right purposes or desecrate it in some way. This will be a hard shell of a building that will cover that. They’re ready to start building it, finally. And all the permits are in place. And so, I heard once they start building it, it’s an eight week build if we don’t run into any supply chain issues or anything like that. So it’s been quite a journey, but I think we’re finally in the place where this thing is gonna go up.
Aubrianna [00:18:34] Having the sweat lodge and ceremonial building up and running will bring a whole new lens to Bent Arrow’s work. As Cheryl explains, this is in line with the resurgence of culture that we’re seeing across Indigenous communities.
Cheryl [00:18:45] So there’s, like, this real reclamation of teachings and culture that’s happening in our communities right now. And I think we have this group of, like, elders and knowledge keepers that had a certain way of knowledge being passed down to them. And then we have this new generation of elders and knowledge keepers that are coming forward. You know, one of the things I used to hear back in the ‘90s was, “You shouldn’t light a pipe here in the city.” You know, the way that it was explained to me was that it was… this land was dirty. And this land isn’t dirty, it is our land that’s underneath our feet right now. But that was the teaching and the roots of that teaching, though, they go back to the time in our history where ceremony was outlawed. So, if you were going to have a pipe ceremony, you had to go… in the bush, deep in the bush to have that ceremony or you would be thrown in jail. You’d be literally breaking law by having that ceremony. So, we learned to protect those ceremonies to take them deep into the bush.
[00:19:45] Well, ceremony is no longer outlawed. But old habits die hard, right? So we’ve been taking them into the bush for so long that I think there’s a part of us that thinks that that’s where we have to have ceremony now. But it’s not true because before there was a city here under this land, under our feet, ceremony happened here all the time. And we have elders now that are getting us to that place where there is this belief that we need to reclaim this land. We need to bless this land with ceremonies that we do have. And so, that’s what’s happening. And so, having this building here will— like I said, it will provide access for people to be a part of ceremony right… right where they live and not have to leave the city proper to be able to do that.
Aubrianna [00:20:27] Having a space to practice ceremony in the city is an important first step for reconnecting with the land that Edmonton sits on. It also acts as an invitation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike to learn more about the diverse teachings across nations and experience the meaning of ceremony.
Cheryl [00:20:42] The other benefit is for people who are on, like, a reconciliation journey, it’s an opportunity for them to see what our ceremonies are about and what they mean and all of those things. And so, one of the things we experienced, um, with the culture camp is a real surgence of regular Edmonton citizens that are saying, “I wanna volunteer for this camp because I wanna see what it’s about. I wanna feel what ceremony is about. I wanna learn, you know, about your culture and understand it in a way that I don’t understand it today.” And always having really good conversations when people do come to camp where they talk about the experiences they had when they were here and in sharing those experiences get very emotional. And they would always say, “I don’t know why I’m so emotional.” And I’m like, “It’s because you’re in ceremony.” That’s what ceremony does. It strips away all the veneer, all the things that we project to the world. And it really just gets you down to your spirit. That can feel very vulnerable to people. Um, but it could also be very freeing.
[00:21:47] So it’s very exciting for us to be able to be at this place where we can do this. I think there will still be lots of learning that will come once the lodge is up of how to do that in a good way because there is still some division in our community about how to do that in a good way. And it’s something that we still have to navigate our way through here, even in just the programs that we deliver.
A good example of that is, like, drumming. And there are some nations who think it’s okay for a woman to hold a drum and then there are some that say, “Noooo woman should ever touch a drum.” Right? And so, we’re not having a pan-Indian approach here and treating everybody like they’re the same. But all of our teachings come from the same place. And so, whether it’s a Cree teaching or a Blackfoot teaching, it’s a good teaching and it’s a place for people to start. And often that’s what we see happening here at Bent Arrow is that it… it’s a place for people to start to connect to culture and then they go off on their journey, uh, once they get those initial teachings here.
Aubrianna [00:22:47] As Bent Arrow looks to the future, they’re not focused on growing just for the sake of growth. This work has always existed to fill a gap and Cheryl says that’s what they’ll keep striving to do.
Cheryl [00:22:57] One of the things that I’m really excited about these days, and I am excited… even though I know it will have an impact on how Bent Arrow looks going into the future, is there is a new Child Welfare Act that’s a federal Act. The Act respecting First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children, youth and families. It’s, like, got a really long name. You may hear about it in the community as C-92 because that’s what it was called when it was a bill. But what’s really exciting for me about that Act is the language. And it is very strong. It leaves very little room for interpretation and it uses very strong language that says you will do this and in this order. And not “may” or “might”, uh, which isn’t as strong of a language as currently is in the provincial legislation that we have. And it really focuses on keeping kids connected to culture, kin, community, language, and land. Those things are really critical to them growing up in a good way. And it supersedes the provincial Act.
[00:23:58] So, this is the Act across the land. Right now, we’re in a place where it’s only been recently made into law, so we’re in the early stages of it, but it puts jurisdiction of our kids back into the Lands of the Nations across the land. So right now our kids are wards of the provincial government. When the Nations start taking jurisdiction over their own children, our kids come from everywhere. So it really— I don’t understand how. How are we gonna help serve those families? How are we gonna help support those families? I don’t understand how that’s gonna happen, but I still think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing for our Nations to reclaim those kids and have the final say in how we proceed in their care.
[00:24:39] I’m an example and a product of a family that had a say in my upbringing and wellbeing and this is how I turned out. And so, I know when families have that much of a say in what’s good for their children and have the supports necessary, good things will happen. But our kids just don’t have that. They’re in care, they’re growing up disconnected from their community, they’re growing up disconnected from their family, definitely their language, definitely their land, definitely their teachings and ceremony. You don’t get that in a foster home. It’s just very hard to connect that. Even if you have the best foster parents in the world, they just don’t have the ability to… to make those connections for those kids, right?
This Act is very promising, but it’s definitely gonna have an impact on how we move into the future. But we’ve learned so much in our almost 30 years of service here in Edmonton and area that we really wanna tell the Nations that we’ve learned lots. And we’re in a good place to be able to support your community members here in Edmonton so let’s talk about how we can do that. That’s what I would like to see happen for us. I’m excited, but the future looks very big.
[00:25:50] The other thing that I-I want to talk about is, you know, this place we’re in and I’m… I’m gonna say we, the big we, as in Edmonton, we’re not in a good place. Like, we’re really struggling as a society right now and it’s really difficult to go around the city and see so many people suffering so badly and people blaming each other for who’s responsible for making that different. We need to fix these issues that are very present and in our face today. But they’re rooted in history and they’re rooted in not even ancient history. They’re rooted in, like, 15 years ago when we took that kid into care. Multiply that kid by thousands of kids here in Alberta. We have more Indigenous kids in care than we did pre-COVID.
[00:26:35] A lot of people are really struggling right now. Deadly, uh, drugs out on the streets, some real mental health issues that are coming out of what we just went through as a globe, um, with the pandemic. And there’s just lots. It’s really laid bare for us. We can’t turn away. But we also can’t just point at the Mayor. We can’t point at the Premier. We can’t point at the Prime Minister and say, “It’s your fault. It’s your fault. It’s your fault.” That’s not gonna fix any of this at the end of the day. That— Really, I think it’s gonna take all of us to do that.
Aubrianna [00:27:04] While Bent Arrow is focused on providing services to the urban Indigenous community, they provide important learning opportunities for non-Indigenous people, too. Regardless of your cultural background, Bent Arrow offers a space to connect.
Cheryl [00:27:17] We have so many programs and opportunities for people to get involved in without— you don’t have to be coming here because you need a job or you need housing or there’s something going on in your— you don’t have to have a reason to come here. There are so many programs that we have where you could just come. We’re making drums, we’re making ribbon skirts, playing games, board game nights, sewing and beading nights, powwow nights. Like, we have so many opportunities for people to come. And I always think those opportunities are really awesome ways for people to, like, dip their toe in. You know, peek their head into the building and see “What’s this Bent Arrow about?” So, for people who are curious, that would be my advice. For people who are here who some judge says, “You’re gonna take that parenting program” or some probation officer says to their youth, “You’re gonna take this youth employment program at Bent Arrow because it’s one of your conditions” or whatever. What we often see happen there is they may feel like they have to be here, but then they see all the other things that are going on and then they start getting involved in other things.
[00:28:18] Like, one of the things I heard from our youth who had a lot of recidivism happening for him in the Young Offender Centre, he said he came here and there was so much to do after his day was over that he didn’t have a hundred forks in his road from the end of his program to bedtime because he chose to take part in those activities that we have going on here. He said that was the choice. And because he made that choice, he didn’t have to decide to do crime or to do the right thing. He just came to program here. Whatever, powwow nights, making a rattle, making a drum. Whatever we had going on, he would choose that activity. And it kept him busy, it kept him out of trouble.
[00:28:58] For families who are coming to Edmonton to go to school, to get their kids into schools here, for a job, it can be very isolating to be a part of this big city if you don’t know anybody. Come to powwow nights, all of a sudden you’re meeting all kinds of people who are there ’cause we get about a hundred people on powwow nights, right? So you’re building your community when you come here. So that’s what I tell people, so people who are told to be here find out all the other things that we do and for people who don’t know, we have so many other things that they can come and check it out. Then maybe they can say, “Oh, maybe I’ll go to New in Town tomorrow because maybe they can help me fill out this rental subsidy form I’m so confused about.” Or whatever, right? Just so many ways for them to come in and be a part of what happens here. And it’s always a safe place to be for people.
[00:29:43] We are an organization that we want people to be, like, not under the influence when they come here. So there are other organizations where they’re okay if you are because we think there should be spaces for people who are, but we’re not one of those spaces. And what that does for our community is if you’re on a path to wellness or you’re trying to stay on that path, it becomes easier to do that because we make that sort of the norm here.
Aubrianna [00:30:09] I knew that non-Indigenous folks might be wondering how best to respectfully engage and ask for teachings. Here’s what Cheryl had to say.
Cheryl [00:30:17] I say, come in. [laughs] One of the wonderful things about being embedded in community is that we’re embedded in… community. And so, all the folks that are around this school, we’re not in your community. We are a part of your community. So, if you always wanted to, like, make a ribbon skirt ’cause you think they’re beautiful and we’re doing that, come on in, you know, and be a part of the community that’s coming together to do that. We have, like, 10 teepees now. Over the years we’ve been sort of buying some, buying some, buying some. And I tell our cultural senior manager that it’s like your fine China, it shouldn’t be sitting in a China cabinet all year long and you only take it out at Christmastime. That’s what our teepees are to me. They’re our fine China. And so, like, let’s take them out, let’s put them up.
[00:31:03] So we put them up at Kaleidoscope, which is that festival on the Avenue in the fall. We take them out and put them up during Deep Freeze Festival in January which, again, happens on the Avenue. And then two times in July and two times in August we take those teepees out and we put ’em up and we have teepee teachings over the summer. So two in July, two in August. And those are open to anybody and everybody. So we’ll put them up on our socials and say, “Here’s the dates in July, here’s the dates in August, let us know which one you wanna come to and we will host you.” So that means we’re going to take care of you when you come here. We’re gonna feed you, we’re gonna make sure you have something to drink and we’re gonna take care of you and we’re gonna give you some teachings and a teepee.
[00:31:42] We’re starting to get some really— To the community, they may seem like silly questions, but to me they are a barrier for people to be on a learning path. And I’m talking about the non-Indigenous community. So I remember this year at our culture camp, we had so many non-Indigenous folks coming and it was awesome because they were coming up to me saying, “I’m having a great day and I always wanted to ask this question and so I’m gonna ask it of you.” And they would tell me a story about how— You know, one lady, I’ll never forget her. She talked about how her husband was a doctor, they worked in a northern community that was very isolated. Her and her husband were very much involved in this very northern remote community. And eventually he moved on from that community and when they left, the community thanked them for all their contributions to their health and wellness and being a part of their community. And this person from the community gifted this woman with this beautiful moose hide jacket that was beaded and it was just hand done, right? “A work of art,” she said. “I love it and you can smell the smoke in it,” she said. “It’s just so beautiful.”
[00:32:49] And so, her question was, “Can I wear it?” And I’m like, “When did you leave that community?” She said, “It’s been in my closet for, like, 20 years, but I worry about getting accused of appropriation.” This was a real worry for her that was stopping her from wearing this beautiful gift that was given to her. And I said to her, “You know the lady who made it for you, you loved the lady who made it for her, held her in esteem and affection, right?” And she’s like, “Yes!” And I said, “So if someone ever dares to accuse you of appropriation, you can say ‘I was gifted this by so-and-so in this community and I love it and it means so much to me and I wear it with pride.’ And no one could ever accuse you of appropriation if you share that story of your gift.”
[00:33:34] But there’s people who, like, love our skirts and they want one, and I say, “Then buy one from a local artisan ’cause they’re everywhere now. Support local, don’t support Shein [laughs] because there’s stuff on there you could buy that could pass, but it’s not gonna be the same.” Right? Or make one, even. ‘Cause we have those classes here every now and again. So those are the kinds of conversations we’re having with our non-Indigenous community and it truly is a barrier for them to learning and growing more in their journey. If they’re even just worried about “What do I wear?” Like, “I love your earrings. But, like, would I be accused of appropriation if I wore these earrings?” Like, stuff like that seems kind of silly, but it… it can be the barrier that stops them from learning more.
[00:34:18] And then the other one is being afraid of doing something wrong. So, crossing some kind of cultural norm or, you know, whatever. What I always make a promise of here is that you will learn gently here. That we will never harshly correct you for doing something that sort of pushes those protocol boundaries. We will teach you gently when you’re here. Harshly teaching you? That’s from residential school days. Because our way was never to harshly correct people. We were harshly corrected if we didn’t say the rosary right, right? So then when you come back to culture, you… you fall into that habit of harshly correcting people. That’s what I think. And we won’t do that here. If we want people to learn, we need to be able to teach them in a good way. So that’s the promise I make to people. And it gets more and more people, I think, leaning in ’cause no one wants to feel dumb or nervous about “How do I sit? What do I say?” All of that kind of stuff, right?
[00:35:15] Even something as simple as land acknowledgements. You know, that’s a really big thing happening out there and I think people wanna do it, but they A. don’t understand the importance of it or what the teaching is behind it and B. they just don’t wanna look or sound stupid or performative. So if you understand what those are about, then they come from here instead of from… from your head, right? They come from your heart. Um, because I think we all appreciate this land. I really do think that. I tell people, I see it on Twitter, I see it on there. And when people are on their morning run or their evening walk with their dog in the river valley and they feel compelled to take a picture of that tree, of the river, they’re acknowledging the land when they do stuff like that.
[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]
So when you boil it down to its finest, that is something that people know how to do.
Shereen [00:36:05] What a great conversation. Thank you so much to Aubrianna Snow for bringing us this story. And thanks, of course, to Cheryl Whiskeyjack, Executive Director at Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
Graeme [00:36:14] If you’d like to learn more about Bent Arrow’s amazing work, visit their website at BentArrow.ca. You can find the programs in all of the events Cheryl mentioned for connecting with community and culture right here in Edmonton.
Shereen [00:36:24] We’ll also have a link to the Act Cheryl mentioned: Bill C-92, an Act respecting First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children, youth, and families.
Graeme [00:36:32] And we’ll have links to ECF grants and upcoming student awards… and to our blog for even more great community stories.
[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]
Shereen [00:36:38] Well, that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks for sharing your time with us.
Graeme [00:36:41] Yeah, thank you so much. If you enjoyed it, please share it with everyone you know.
Shereen [00:36:45] And if you have time, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.
Graeme [00:36:48] And you can visit us on Facebook where you can share your thoughts and also see some pictures.
Shereen [00:36:52] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Shereen Zink—
Graeme [00:36:56] And Graeme Lummer.
Graeme and Shereen [00:36:57] Until next time!
Andrew Paul [00:36:59] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation—
Lisa Pruden [00:37:03] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.
Andrew [00:37:07] This episode was edited by Lisa Pruden.
Lisa [00:37:08] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com.
Andrew [00:37:12] Subscribe to us on iTunes—
Lisa [00:37:13] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.
Andrew [00:37:16] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.
Lisa [00:37:19] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.
[theme music continues playing for a few seconds after dialogue ends]