Saskatchewan·First Person

How my adoptive father motivated me to revitalize Indigenous kinship law

My relationship with my dad was profoundly close, even though we were never related biologically. He was able to help transform my life and give me an important purpose — to uphold our spiritual law. 

John Sugar, or Eagle Standing on a Cloud, adopted Andre Bear when Bear was 18

John Sugar, or Eagle Standing on a Cloud, was a medicine man. He adopted Andre Bear when Bear was 18. (Submitted by Andre Bear)

This First Person piece is by Andre Bear, the former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly First Nations National Youth Council.

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When I was 18 years old, I was adopted by a medicine man. 

My relationship with my dad was profoundly close, even though we were never related biologically. He was able to help transform my life and give me an important purpose — to uphold our spiritual law. 

His name was John Sugar, or Eagle Standing on a Cloud. He adopted me after I attended his ceremonies and eventually became one of his helpers. 

Medicine people have gifts from the Creator that help them understand the people that they are working with. They can communicate with the spirit world and often know personal things about you that you might not even be aware of. This is how we are able to distinguish medicine people from Elders or people that are just pretending. They are truly gifted by the Creator and you will feel it.  

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Since he passed away, I have been fortunate to share his name and stories as a legendary medicine man that has helped heal hundreds of people, including myself. By adopting me through ceremony, this taught me about Mîyo-Wâhkohtowin (Me-Yo-Wah-Koh-Tow-Win), our kinship law as Nêhîyawak (Plains Cree) peoples. 

I know now that when you are adopted by someone traditionally, through our law, the Creator might recognize it and bind your spirits together. Even when you call someone brother, sister, mother or father when you are not related, you are extending your family and building kinship ties across different families and nations. 

That is why our adoptions, and our laws, are so powerful. 

This practice should be normalized. By acknowledging Mîyo-Wâhkohtowin and exercising it through growing our families and treating each other with kindness, love and respect. Adoption can help strengthen the revitalization of Indigenous law.

Reclaiming the laws of Indigenous peoples, or in my case, of the Nêhîyawak peoples, means taking what traditional knowledge of spiritual laws we have left from our medicine people and putting them into action.

Andre Bear stands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Submitted by Andre Bear)

As a young Cree man, I've heard about Mîyo-Wâhkohtowin. I was taught that this word describes our families working together. But I have now come to learn why this word means something far more profound.

For far too long, Indigenous identities have been intentionally eradicated by both the church and the federal government. With all of the mass graves being uncovered from the Indian Residential Schools across Canada, it is now becoming more evident why Indigenous children are not speaking their traditional language, learning their own history or practising their culture.

I don't believe our ancestors ever intended Indigenous peoples to be obedient to the government, or to wait for our languages, histories and cultures to be accepted or taught. 

I've come to understand that Mîyo-Wâhkohtowin means so much more than who we are related to. It refers to our extended relationships with humanity and describes the act of working together in a way that upholds the Creator's law. This includes everyone that is a part of our lives: our neighbours, friends, colleagues and even people that we don't know yet.

In some way, we are connected to all of the people around us and we are bound by law to treat them with kindness, love and respect. 

It's integral that we recognize Indigenous law as a key component of our everyday lives. We must normalize the language of upholding Mîyo-Wâhkohtowin as law, especially amongst our friends and family. 

Often, we can feel closer to the family that we adopt than the family that we are related to by blood. This is because of the spiritual connection that comes with building these kinship ties with the people that we love and reciprocating that love enough to call each other family. 

The love my adopted father held for me has shaped my understanding of Mîyo-Wâhkohtowin and I'm humbled to honour his name by treating others with respect and upholding our law. 

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André Bear

Freelance contributor

André Bear, B.Ed, J.D. (He/Him) is a Nêhîyaw (Plains-Cree) educator and advocate of inherent and treaty rights. He’s a Juris Doctor graduate from the University of Saskatchewan and is now pursuing his master of laws. At 21 years of age, André was appointed as an advisor to the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Canada for the implementation of TRC Call to Action 66.