'I know who I am': Saskatoon group with international connections aims to turn young women into leaders

What began as branch of an international research project that is exploring gender-based violence has turned into tight-knit group of Saskatchewan Indigenous girls gaining self-confidence and finding inner strength.

Group part of research project looking at impacts of gender-based violence in young Indigenous women's lives

The group name Young Indigenous Women's Utopia came from the idea of imagining a world that makes girls feel empowered and free. (Submitted by Jennifer Altenberg)

What began as branch of an international research project that is exploring gender-based violence has turned into tight-knit group of Saskatchewan Indigenous girls gaining self-confidence and finding inner strength.

"(It) makes me kind of proud to be able to speak up about things that other girls from around the world aren't able or don't speak about," said Cindy Moccasin, 15, one of the seven members of Young Indigenous Women's Utopia.

"I have learned to not care what others might say about me, because I know who I am and how I am."

The Saskatoon-based girls group was formed two years ago as part of the Network for Change project, an international initiative based out of McGill University that examines historical violence and how that plays a role in young women's lives today. It involves government- and community-based organizations in South Africa, Canada, Russia and the United States, focusing on the empowerment of girls.

Young Indigenous Women's Utopia is made up of girls ages of 14 to 16 from different neighbourhoods in Saskatoon.

The goal of the group is to find out how gender-based violence plays a part in the lives young women, while giving them tools and knowledge about positive self-image. (Submitted by Jennifer Altenberg )

The project began by identifying  what these young women see as safe and unsafe places in their own environments — their schools, neighbourhoods, families — said Kari Wuttunee, one of the group's facilitators.

"But what we were really interested in was mentorship and leadership for young women, and to be able to speak back to the violence they were experiencing within their communities," said Wuttunee.

The group uses different platforms for their projects, from poetry to video to spoken word and cultural activities in their communities, all with the intent of instilling confidence in its members.

"We are really arming our young women with the tools and education to be able to say, 'I can recognize racism, I can recognize sexism,' and really taking that leadership role,"  said Wuttunee.

The women were given time with Elders and a chance to experience a Full Moon Ceremony, which is a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years with Indigenous women to celebrate their power. (Submitted by Jennifer Altenberg )

Many of the group's members have committed to being drug- and alcohol-free, ensuring that school is a top priority.

Taking their projects on the road 

The name "Young Indigenous Women's Utopia" comes from the idea of an imagined world where all girls feel empowered and free.

Earlier this year, the girls made a video shot on cellphones about some of the stereotypes and discrimination they encounter in Saskatoon, such as prejudices around Indigenous people being involved in gangs, prostitution and other crime.

The video won second place at an transnational girls conference called Circles within Circles in Montreal.

The young women within the group have had the opportunity to travel nationally and internationally. Here the girls take in the view of La Grande Roue de Montréal in Montreal. (Submitted by Jennifer Altenberg )

The young women have also had the chance to travel to other conferences and seminars in Vancouver and South Bend, Ind.

"We have leaned heavily on our communities to help with the girls to come and speak and spend time with the girls steeped deeply within culture and ceremony," said Wuttunee.

"It's empowering for them ... to be able to showcase their work."

Recently Wuttunee was invited to travelled to Durban, KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to present the work she's done in Saskatoon and show what methods worked with the Young Indigenous Women's Utopia.

"Some may not be aware but Canada and South Africa have similar societal issues surrounding young women," she said.

Laying the foundation

Moccasin's mother, Mickilyn Desjarlais, said she is always excited to hear about her travels and seeing the positive change within her own daughter.

"I see her excelling in school and making better choices for herself," said Desjarlais.

"Out of our family she is the first one to even have left the province ... It's a big thing for me as a mother that is she was able to explore the world."

Wuttunee and her colleague, Jennifer Altenberg, hope to see these young women become the mentors and leaders of the next set of Young Indigenous Women's Utopia members, something the pair say they feel confident about.

"Without women the world would be very different. We make a huge impact but no one really gives us enough recognition," said Moccasin.

"But being able to learn about this stuff makes me able to share it with other (girls) not in the group."