When there's an important event in Winnipeg's Indigenous community, Gerry Shingoose is there — often at the front, with a prayer, a pipe, a drum, an open heart and exactly the right words.
When the largest-ever class of Indigenous students graduated from the University of Manitoba this past June, Shingoose was the elder who started the graduation powwow with a pipe ceremony.
When people gathered at the Manitoba Legislature on July 1 for the Resilience of Nations event as a counter-narrative to the Canada 150 celebrations, Shingoose organized the sacred fire.
Known as "Gramma Shingoose" in the community, the 60-year-old elder and activist was honoured at this past June's Keeping the Fires Burning event, organized by Ka Ni Kanichihk to honour elders who preserve and share traditional Indigenous knowledge and practices.
"I get a lot of invites and try to do as much as I can," said Shingoose of her role as one of many elders who serve as spiritual leaders in our community.
"The people need that support, they need that guidance, that reassurance and that empowerment. Like my dad said, it's creator's work and the grandfathers' and grandmothers'. I always believe that I'm guided by spirit in all that I do."
But the elder, who is called upon to lead prayers and perform ceremonies, was severed from the very culture that today brings so much comfort and strength twice — once by residential school and once by grief.
Taken at 5
Geraldine Shingoose was just five years old when two cars pulled up to her home near Hudson Bay, Sask. One was a police car and the other carried people from the Muskowekwan residential school who had come to take her, her older sister, Darlene, and their older brother, George, to the school near Lestock.
'We were such a happy family before we were influenced by residential school.' - Gerry Shingoose
Until then, Shingoose and her siblings had lived in the bush with their parents and grandmother, speaking only Saulteaux and living off traditional food.
Geraldine's father, Henry Shingoose, had moved the family to the area from their home community of Tootinaowaziibeeng so he could work for a logging company based nearby.
"We were such a happy family before we were influenced by residential school," recalled Shingoose.
"My kookum would take us out on the land and show us various medicines. I just cherish those moments," she said.
"The first five years of your life are really critical. My parents and my kookum set that foundation for me. They must have known something was coming because they filled me with love and compassion and nurturing."
It was a stark contrast to what the five-year-old would experience at residential school from September to June for the next nine years of her life.
"I experienced physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse," said Shingoose, who suffered permanent hearing loss in both ears as a result of regular beatings.
"But the hardest part of residential school was being away from the family," she said, her voice breaking.
"Everybody deserves that opportunity to grow up with their parents and their grandparents. And I never had that opportunity. The government took that away from me."
Shingoose, who testified twice before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has visited schools to share her story with students, was finally able to escape residential school when she was 13.
When officials arrived in the fall to take the children back after summer vacation, she and her siblings hid. "I think that was the best thing that we ever did," said Shingoose. "It was good to be home."
But much had changed. Shingoose tearfully recalled returning home one summer to discover her beloved grandmother had passed away during the school year. No one at the school had given her the news.
Shingoose's parents had also suffered from the removal of their children. Her mother, Eva, had turned to alcohol and separated from Henry.
Gerry and her siblings were soon taken into foster care, but she ran away from 16 foster homes to be with her mother.
"It didn't matter if she drank or our home didn't have the necessities," said Shingoose. "I just wanted to be with her."
Shingoose was eventually placed with a foster family in Melfort, Sask., who encouraged her to stay connected to her parents. "I came to love them like I do my own family," she said.
Shingoose lived with them for seven years, beyond her 18th birthday, until she met her now ex-husband and moved with him to The Pas, where they had three children of their own.
It was during this time that Gerry Shingoose reconnected with her father, who revived her awareness of her culture.
"He showed me ceremony, he showed me how to smoke the pipe, how to do sweat lodge. He shared everything with me that he had been taught," recalled Shingoose.
But when he died in 2001, the ceremonies that were meant to bring comfort brought only pain for what she had lost. "Any ceremony, drum or medicine I would smell would trigger that grief," said Shingoose.
She put her pipe away for more than 10 years — a time she describes as a period of trauma, isolation and loss, as she struggled to deal with her father's death and the impact of residential school on her life.
Reconnecting to spirit
It was the Idle No More movement that Shingoose said helped her reconnect to her culture a second time and find her strength.
She had moved to Winnipeg to support her youngest daughter, Theresa, while she studied nursing. She went to the Manitoba legislature for the National Day of Action on Dec. 10, 2012 and pinpoints that as a defining moment.
"Just seeing the youth, I was so inspired by them," Shingoose recalled. "It just woke something up inside of me. Basically at that time I connected with spirit and picked all those teachings up again, and it was beautiful."
Since then, Gramma Shingoose has been fielding phone calls and social media requests for her presence at events.
"The people need us," she said. "They need that support, that guidance. Creator, grandmothers and grandfathers want them to know that they are loved and that it's OK to do ceremony. It's OK to smudge, to offer that tobacco."
One of many active elders in Manitoba, Shingoose recognizes the role is changing as they are called upon more and more in Winnipeg, with the city trying to move forward in reconciliation. She vows never to put her pipe away again.
"I would love to see more elders being utilized in the school systems, in hospitals or even mental-health services," said Shingoose.
"Because I know that our ceremonies work. I know that we have much to offer."
- More from the Winnipeg Famous series:
An earlier version of this story said Gerry Shingoose was placed with a foster family in Swan River, Man. In fact, she was placed with a foster family in Melfort, Sask.Oct 12, 2017 12:03 PM CT