Reclaiming their history: Three Manitoba women keeping their culture alive through language, art
All are on a mission to learn and pass down traditions from their ancestors to future generations
On the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, some Indigenous educators and artists say they're more determined than ever to keep the traditions and values of their ancestors alive.
Each of the three women say passing down what they know is a way of reversing the disappearance of aspects important to any culture: storytelling, history and identity.
Winnipeg visual artist KC Adams is reclaiming her Indigenous roots through pottery. Seven years ago, she started learning to create vessels using techniques her ancestors would have used hundreds of years ago.
Adams is on a mission to reclaim the lost art and revive those methods.
"When I look at this road that I've gone down, what I'm really doing is I'm learning about my culture … and it's developing a pride in who I am and where I come from," she said.
Adams believes the methods used by Indigenous people centuries ago didn't get lost because they were inferior, but because of technological advancements and the use of more convenient materials like metal.
"Indigenous pottery is a far superior technology than metal when it comes to cooking.… It retains heat. It is non-stick and it flavours your food, unlike metal pots."
Adams learned the techniques through research and from knowledge keepers. She creates vessels using clay from the Lake Agassiz region, and tempers it with granite and sand.
She says the design of her vessels represents the relationship between land and water and is modelled after a woman's pregnant belly.
"There's a lot of references to water. Women are water carriers, and so those kind of lessons helped me understand Indigenous ways of thinking and being on a more holistic point of view."
Adams, who grew up in Selkirk, says she knew little about her family history. She knew her father was associated with Peguis First Nation and her mother with Fisher River Cree Nation, but says she didn't really know much about her culture.
Learning about pottery has been a beautiful journey to discover more about who she is, she says.
"It feels really amazing. I think this work is so important in reclaiming our identity and culture and getting a better understanding of who we are.… I'm really just taking back that narrative and giving strength and pride to my community."
Rare art form of birch bark biting
Pat Bruderer is preserving one of the rarest forms of Indigenous art.
Birch bark biting involves delicately biting on a thin layer of bark, peeled from a birch tree, to create a symmetrical design. It dates back hundreds of years and was done to record Indigenous stories, ceremonies, and art.
Bruderer, who also goes by the name of Halfmoon Woman, is a self-taught artist who was inspired by the work of Angelique Merasty, another birch bark biting artist, whom she first met almost 30 years ago at the Thompson Friendship Centre.
"That's the first time I've seen birch bark biting," said Bruderer, who now lives in B.C. but was born and raised in Churchill, Man., and is a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
"I never knew that a few years later I would teach myself."
Bruderer is now part of a small group of Indigenous artists currently practising the art form. She believes birch bark biting became lost or hidden due to residential schools and colonization.
"The first time I seen it I was so surprised. I thought, 'How come I never knew about this?'"
Bruderer says creating art is healing and has helped her overcome trauma in her life.
"Some of my family did attend residential school. My mom was kept in one place that was not really good, and she never talked about a lot of things. A lot of our things were lost. A lot of things weren't passed on."
Now she says it's her mission to ensure her children and future generations learn the art.
"It's really important to pass it down to First Nations children because it's important for them to remember we have all kinds of art that can't be forgotten about," she said.
"It was really important for me to be able to pass it forward because when we look at things, we're supposed to pass it forward seven generations."
Speaking, passing on the Ojibway language
Language facilitator Carol Beaulieu has spoken Ojibway her entire life. She says it was her first language growing up, and she only started speaking English when she was in Grade 1.
Growing up in Treherne, Man., there were no other Indigenous families in her community, Beaulieu says, but her parents were strict about only speaking Ojibway at home.
"They were just very, very stubborn … and they just said, 'No, we're not going to speak English at home, and we're going to all understand and know our language.'"
Beaulieu's parents were residential school survivors, and believed language was a major part of reclaiming their culture. She says knowing the language helped her when she was put into foster care at 14, after both of her parents died.
"I think I don't know what would have become of me if I didn't have it, because it has made me really resilient and strong, and I always have a different way of thinking," she said.
"It has really given me strength and I know who I am."
Since May, Beaulieu has been facilitating Ojibway language classes through Indigenous Languages of Manitoba and Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. She says the course is more than just learning to speak the language — students also learn about the history, stories and legends behind it.
Anita Murdock, who is one of the students attending the virtual class, started learning Ojibway in university, but completing courses to finish a science degree took precedence. Murdock says it was important for her to get this second chance.
"I don't speak anything other than English, which I think is a shame."
She said she's especially motivated to learn Ojibway because of how few people now speak the language.
"It's a dire situation," she said.
"That's how we have survived all these years as Indigenous people, is whatever information we have and whatever experiences we have, we share those with our children or grandchildren," Beaulieu says.
"I know I should share it because the language doesn't belong to one person and it doesn't belong to, like, an exclusive group of people."
With files from Cory Funk