North·First Person

It's never too late to connect with your Indigenous culture, even from afar

Georgette Aisaican grew up disconnected — both physically and spiritually — from her Indigenous roots. A journey to her First Nation's traditional powwow helped change that.

Getting there wasn't easy, but my first traditional powwow was life-changing, writes Georgie Aisaican

Georgette Aisaican of Whitehorse with her mother Eileen Sparvier, in Carcross, Yukon. (Submitted by Georgette Aisaican)

This First Person article is the experience of Georgette Aisaican, a member of the Cowessess First Nation who now lives in Whitehorse. Find out how to pitch your own story to CBC North here.

I didn't go to residential school. 

I also didn't grow up learning about my Indigenous culture. That came later — and it was worth the wait. 

My mom is from the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and went to Marieval and Lebret Indian Residential Schools. Once out, she taught herself life skills like cooking. 

Baked bannock was the closest to anything cultural she knew when I was growing up. 

When I was four, my non-Indigenous stepfather moved us from Saskatchewan, through the prairies and eventually to Whitehorse when I was ten.

The Yukon had so many First Nations cultures, but I couldn't enjoy them at first. Some local First Nations girls bullied and challenged me to fights after school. I wasn't accepted.

That discouragement was reinforced by mental and physical abuse by my stepfather, that started when I was five. He demanded obedience, and no individual interests were allowed.

At age 13, I met a Northern Tutchone girl full of energy and kindness. She introduced me to her family who fed me dry meat and smoked salmon from Pelly. That was my first time seeing a healthy Indigenous family — and it's one that I'm still part of.

The Yukon truly became my home. It's where I was introduced to the drum, smudging, and one of my favourite comforts — Yukon-style fried bannock and jam!

A road sign near Carmacks, Yukon. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

My mom later moved back to Cowessess and texted me videos from powwows — "Here's the Grande Entry, Fancy Dancers, Jingle Dresses!" 

She shared the Cowessess Facebook page where I saw the Chief explain the meanings behind each dance. 

He said, "powwows bring us together, the dancers dance for healing for those watching."

I wished for the spirit-healing medicine of our own people. My daughter was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome at a very young age, and she's dependent on others in every aspect of daily life. I felt I needed strength for the rest of our journey together.

I wrote an application directly to Jordan's Principle [the federal program that provides funding to First Nations children with unique needs] requesting support to attend the 2019 Cowessess First Nation Traditional Powwow, and our request was granted!

The trip was not easy. I physically moved my 85-pound daughter to and from her wheelchair over 86 times. But it was so worth it!

Georgette and her daughter Selena heading to the Cowessess First Nation Traditional Powwow in 2019. (Submitted by Georgette Aisaican)

I was 44 and my daughter was 19 then. Our Chief Cadmus Delorme welcomed us home in a heartfelt opening speech at the powwow, and we then enjoyed three days of healing and culture.

We received our spirit names, and attended a healing feast where the food was blessed by traditional prayers. I took some water for my daughter's tube feeds. 

We watched dancers — even our chief did his famous chicken dance. We received many traditional blessings and prayers.

Our Chief invited us in the final Grand Entry, and we were introduced as I pushed my daughter's wheelchair over the grass of the powwow grounds. In that moment I realized that I may have carried her there, but she brought me home.

Later, with lots of help, she stood with her grandmother during the last intertribal dance. For a brief moment she stood proud in her pink ribbon skirt. An elder in full regalia came up, put his hand on her and gave healing blessings and prayers in our traditional language.

Dancers from the Cowessess First Nation performing earlier this year. (Matt Howard/CBC)

Our trip had an incredible impact that exceeded anything I could have imagined. I was rediscovering who I am, and proud for the first time to be a strong resilient First Nations woman.

Our journey in life is challenging, but I trust that I have the ancestors and loved ones on the other side with me always.

Back in my Yukon home, I attend sweat lodges and smudge regularly for healing and guidance. I send prayers to loved ones and others out in the world, prayers for freeing the lost children, and prayers of thanks for all our relations.

We can now watch powwows on social media posts from diverse cultures, with singers, drummers and dancers sharing their gifts. It's out there for everyone, spread out across the earth, under the same sky, beautiful and free.

A wise Gwich'in elder taught me that no matter where you're from, you must strengthen your connection with the Creator, that it's through your heart that the Creator hears your prayers.

I am Keeper of the Wind Woman.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Georgette Aisaican is a member of the Cowessess First Nation #73. She’s a chef for a Yukon First Nations non-profit organization that provides services such as free food and meals for students in Yukon schools and families in the communities. She lives in Whitehorse with her daughter Selena and her son Sam.

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