Indigenous 101: Culture lost and found (part one)

April 11, 2019

Indigenous 101: Culture lost and found (part one)

Indigenous people are literally living in their “old country” and yet because of fear, ignorance, and racism, there are generations who still have no answers to important questions that are integral to their existence and well-being. Loss of Indigenous culture is real and in many cases the “good intentions” of previous Canadian generations have amounted to nothing less than cultural genocide.

“I never met my maternal grandparents,” says 28-year-old Carla Gladue. “I met my dad’s mother once when I was little but never had any contact after that. As I child, there wasn’t any education about ancestors, heritage, or culture. None at all.”

Gladue grew up in Whitefish Lake First Nation near Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta and is now a student at NorQuest College. It’s difficult to believe that she could grow up on a reservation and learn nothing about who she was.

All I was taught was to go to church and confess your sins. No pow wows, no elders, no smudging, nothing.

Non-familiar traditions caught up with Carla's community. The ways of knowing they were being taught had little to do with who they were as Cree People. Where were the sweat-lodges for spiritual, physical, and mental cleansing; where were the traditional medicines that grew nearby and helped with everything from rashes to chronic pain; where was the grand and colourful regalia; where was the dancing to the beat of the traditional drum?

Gladue had nothing of an Indigenous childhood. Things would get worse before they got better.

“When we were taken, we were taken together,” says Gladue, remembering with surprising composure the day she and her siblings were removed from the reserve to live in foster care. “Then I guess it wasn’t working out, so we went our separate ways. We were moved around a lot. I never lived in a single place for very long.”

Gladue’s adolescence was without positive parental role models, her siblings, or Elders. With little stability and eroded self-esteem, she struggled through grade school and high school.

“School was a hard place where I couldn’t really learn either. It was hard for me to retain an education because as soon as I was at a new school suddenly they were telling me I was moving somewhere else.”

When she was 16, she moved into yet another youth home. She continued to live in self-destructive ways, which were learned through watching her family and due to a system that didn’t seem to care about where she went or who she was with.

“But there was an employee at the group home who just wouldn’t give up on me. Throughout the group home all he did was help the youth. When I would go out and come home drunk he would be waiting for me and say, ‘get ready, we are going for a drive and have a nice talk.’ He just wouldn’t give up. Eventually everything he said inspired me to come to NorQuest College.”

Gladue began in Academic Upgrading, and found that not only was she moving towards her educational goals, but her cultural goals as well.

“I was slowly learning about myself thanks to the group home I was in, but I didn’t really learn until I came to NorQuest. I was first here in 2009 and I would gradually go into the Indigenous Students Room in the old downtown campus building and talk to the Elder there. So I was learning how to smudge and pray, but thanks to the Elder there I was learning the meaning of our culture. You could go in there and eat your lunch and talk to people. The Elders are always there for you if you have any questions or just need to talk.”

Since 2009, Gladue left school and then returned again. She now continues with her upgrading and will enter the college’s Social Work program in 2020. She regularly visits NorQuest’s new Indigenous Students Centre and has great hopes for herself and her three children, whom she readily teaches about Indigenous ways of life.

My career goal is to help others. I know how it feels when you are in that life and there is no one to talk to. But there is still a lot more I need to know. I’m always talking to Elder Delores. For me, it was a case of never being ashamed of who I was, I just didn’t know who I was,” she says.

Now I know.

Indigenous 101 is an ongoing series of articles that explore Indigenous culture at our college and beyond. Our Indigenous team will be sharing knowledge as we delve into ideas, concepts, myths, stereotypes, and more.