Traditional teachings, knowledge at the forefront of Elders’ Conference in Lac Seul
Tim Brody - Editor
Earlier this spring, a group of elders from Treaties 3 and 9 came together in Lac Seul First Nation to share traditional knowledge and viewpoints on everything from health and health care, to raising children, to education, economics, world views and treaty relationships.
These elders extended an invitation to community leaders, health care providers, representatives of the justice system, business owners, the general public, and Indigenous people hoping to learn more about their culture.
The Elders’ Conference was sponsored by Anishnabe Clan System, Lac Seul First Nation, Choose Life Program and the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority.
Ralph Johnson (PaShawOneeBinace) from the Ginoosha Clan (The Great Northern Pike), shared, “We’ve met as an elder’s group over the course of a few years and we talked about important things that need to be brought forward and we’ve asked for support in different ways from different organizations.”
Commenting on the goals the conference aimed to address he said, “You’re looking at the high suicide rate, drugs and other things, issues that Anishnabe people have to deal with; most of the people that gathered were sweat lodge keepers, ceremonial keepers, languages keepers, and each one of us are doing something.”
Johnson said the group of elders wanted to work together to have more of an impact, which led to the idea of the Elders’ Conference.
“It’s important to know too, that we operate out of our traditional clan system. That system existed prior to European contact before the treaties were signed. It’s important to talk about the relationship that we have to all Canadians, not just Anishnabe people as a whole,” he added.
Conference participants attended from Treaty 3, Treaty 9, Treaty 5, and the Robinson Superior Treaty area.
Efforts to hold an Elders’ Conference, travel to communities to share traditional knowledge, or to allow participants to attend conference like this one Johnson said are often thwarted due to a lack of financial resources.
“It’s still assimilation policy that’s being instituted. The only way you’re going to receive funding is you have to play by their rules, you have to get their permission, you have to incorporate either as a body and we don’t want anything to do with that. We want Ontario; we want Canadians to acknowledge that we’re a nation of people. We have our own ways, we have our own institutions,” he said.
He added, “Having a place where these teachings can happen, whether it’s a facility where people can come and learn about these things, you’re talking about a healing camp where people can live comfortably, come and stay there and learn. So we talk about not just for this one area, but to be able make it possible so those things are in every Anishnabe community up north. That’s our vision. So that’s why we say we need a blank cheque, because we have to do a lot of work. The government really put a lot of emphasis, a lot of resources to work suppressing our way of life. The same amount of resources have to be directed toward reviving those things rather than continuing on with their assimilation.”
Conference participants, which included social workers, engineers, and other professionals, said they were grateful to receive the traditional teachings and viewpoints from the elders.
In one of the workshops for example, Johnson spoke about the differences in philosophy applied by western health care versus Indigenous health care.
He said western medical approaches might not work best for Indigenous patients. He and the other elders said they hope more professionals will be eager to learn traditional Indigenous views if they are dealing with Indigenous people.
Citing an example of this approach he shared, “When they first started introducing, talking about bringing Suboxone and Methadone into the communities, I remember putting an article in the paper that our sacred institutions, sweat lodges, are the most effective in dealing with that type of addiction, yet no effort, no resource were put toward our way of healing, instead they put up Suboxone clinics and Methadone clinics in every community where people are getting sicker and sicker, just replacing one addiction for another. It’s like the current system is killing our people.”
Treaties were another subject covered during the conference.
“One of the critical things, important things that we tried to bring out on the first day is the treaties that were signed, a lot of people used the paper, but that wasn’t the only thing there. The pipes were there. The drums were there and the version of the treaties held by our people is still strong and it doesn’t nowhere reflect the written word of the intentions of our elders, ceremonial keepers that participated in those treaty arrangements. The rest of Canada has to know that because they can take steps today, not tomorrow, they don’t have to wait for the government to take action, as a moral obligation, each individual can step up to the plate.
Elder Ronnie Beaver (PahTeenOwugNigis) of the Caribou Clan agreed that the cost of travelling can be a barrier when trying to bring traditional knowledge and teachings to people in northern communities, or inviting them down to a conference such as the one held in Lac Seul.
He said he felt a lot of positivity from conference participants.
Elder Tom Chisel echoed that statement, “The ones that came here had their own transportation and they’re grateful to make it here.”
He shared, “The historical trauma that our people carry goes back to residential school. It trickles down through the generations. Systems are still in place, like the child welfare system, where they’re continually taking kids away and they’re losing their culture. They keep losing their culture, losing their language and they’re the ones you see on the streets.”
The group of elders said they would like to hold more such conferences in the future.
“We’re devoted to furthering this effort and promoting the traditional values and ceremonies. It has been suppressed. It was outlawed. That’s why there’s great interest by people, because they’re also finding out who they are,” shared Andrew Johnson (Gabaay –Ogima).
Other elders who shared during the conference included Josephine King, Juliette Blackhawk and Evelyn Beaver (Wapimigwan Equay).
Students from Obishikokaang Elementary School were regular visitors to the Lac Seul Events Centre during the conference.
“I think it’s crucial for the young people to take part in the conference so they can know who they are and where they come from. That way they will know how to go forward in a good way,” commented Lac Seul Education Authority director Eric Bortlis.
Lac Seul elder Hammond Lac Seul said of the conference, “I think it’s very informative. It’s instrumental in bringing people from all over Ontario together. It helps us in terms of learning their problems in their own communities and how they go about trying to come up with some solutions or ideas of how they can make it a better place to live.”
Mona Gordon, who helped with the conference shared, “I think it’s been a long time coming. I think it’s really important we bring back and we provide that opportunity for our people, our elders, our youth, our children, our men and women, and also our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters the opportunity to participate and learn a little bit about the culture, teachings and ceremonies, the significance of it all and the importance of it. Promoting healthy lifestyles, self-identification, healing, empowerment, strengthening our children and our youth, providing gatherings where they can feel empowered. It’s a real beautiful thing.”
She concluded, “I’m looking forward to this being the first of many more to come. I think the culture, the teachings are slowly being brought back in our community and I believe that’s what’s going to facilitate the healing that is needed to address all the issues that our people are currently struggling with, long-term addictions and poverty, and family violence, the missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s a movement in the right direction.”