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Indigenous History Month a call to action

"We have so much to offer. We have a rich, vibrant and beautiful culture. The Indigenous way of knowing and being is something that we take great pride in.”

STONEY NAKODA— Honouring the rich traditions and culture of First Nation, Métis and Inuit people, June marks Indigenous History Month.

Stoney Nakoda community organizer and youth advocate Daryl Kootenay said it has been exciting to see the event grow from a single day to a month of celebrations.

“The Bow Valley right from the head of the Bow, Lake Louise down to Calgary, I have seen a lot of change and the eagerness growing significantly,” Kootenay said. “Indigenous peoples, we’ve been tortured. We’ve been victims of genocide. We’ve been through hell and back but it’s because of our strong beliefs and our belief systems that we’re still able to sing songs, dances and do our ceremonies because of that strong faith and belief we have in the creator and our ways of life."

Kootenay takes pride in fostering these connections through art, dancing, song and other projects. He noted the opportunities to share these works have been expanding in the Cochrane area.

National Indigenous Day, which took place on Monday (June 21), serves to celebrate and unite Indigenous artists, performers, dancers, storytellers, researchers, educators and others to embrace the opportunity to engage in healing and share a voice.

To honour National Indigenous People’s Day in Cochrane, Kootenay collaborated with the AUMA grant-funded Equity and Inclusion Committee Indigenous Cultural Advisor Gloria Snow and her team to showcase Stoney Nakoda dances and songs in a pre-recorded video for social media with the Town of Cochrane.

During the filming Kootenay provided information and background on the songs and dances.

“We were singing loud and proud to let people know we’re still here and we’re going to celebrate and bring awareness as much as possible,” Kootenay said. “We wanted to continue that momentum.”

The design of regalia, the meaning behind each song and the significance of each dance is captured by stories that have been passed down for generations, Kooteney said. He explained there is a responsibility to learn their origin and history.

Many individuals due to the trauma created by Residential Schools and the banning of Indigenous dances and songs for almost 100 years in Canada have lost their connection to the culture. Kootenay said this has made the stories of where they come from and why they are performed essential.

In 1884, eight years after the Indian Act was created, Indigenous songs and dances were banned until 1951. Those who performed moved underground and faced persecution and punishment if they were discovered.

“We know the risks that our ancestors faced when they were in that position, but that’s changed now. It’s really important that we share those meanings— Especially for our future generations,” Kootenay said. “It’s important for our young people to hear those songs.”

Dancing serves as a way to connect not only with audience members, but foster connections across Nations and generations. 

“When you’re done, you’re empowered. You remember who you are,” Kootenay said. 

Kootenay remembers the first time he engaged with Indigenous Peoples Day as a student at Exshaw School. At the time his class painted totem pole colouring book masks. He said as a young person it was challenging to connect to the activity because it was not from his tribe.

“It was nice to get the sense and awareness, but I felt like 15, 20 years ago Indigenous Peoples Day was spread across a very stereotypical lens from a non-Indigenous person,” Kootenay said. 

It has been exciting to see the culture surrounding the day changing and greater emphasis placed on digging into the uniqueness of individual Nations.

“Today I feel that we’re starting to get more specific and starting to go more into detail in terms of each tribe across Canada, rather than having that one kind of narrative across the country,” he said. 

Kootenay is currently working to help launch an Indigenous Youth Opportunities Program with True North Aid. The program is open to Indigenous youth between 13 and 30 across Canada providing grants from $250 to $1,000. All projects in the arts, music, sports, traditional and cultural initiatives are welcomed.

National Indigenous People’s Day serves as a great opportunity to engage with and learn about Indigenous culture and history, said Stoney Nakoda First Nation community organizer Eve Powder.

“It’s us wanting for others to know about our culture,” Powder said. 

When the day arrives, she hopes people realize the strength and perseverance Indigenous culture and traditions have shown in the face of decades of tribulation and persecution.

Indigenous people still face racism, Powder said, but she hopes to one day see stronger connections forged between Cochranites and Stoney Nakodas First Nation members.

Powder treats the day as an opportunity to share Stoney Nakoda's culture and the history of people who have lived on the land for centuries.

“Back then the chief said the mountain all the way up to the Cochrane Hill everything you could see in the valley belonged to the Stonies,” Powder said.

One of the more challenging aspects of helping Stoney culture flourish has been learning and sharing their language, as some Nation members be hesitant to speak Stoney due to their experiences at Residential and Day Schools.

“I didn’t start learning my language until I was 15 or 16. I understood but I just couldn’t speak after coming to school in Cochrane,” Powder said.

She highlighted the recent memorial established in the Historic Downtown to honour the 215 children found in an unmarked grave near the former Residential School Kamloops, B.C. as a starting point to begin building connections.

“I just want people to understand not all of us are bad, as the way that I hear every time I come to Cochrane. You just need to get to know us and not push us aside,” Powder said.

Holly Fortier launched Nisto Consulting Inc. in 2007. The company centred on offering Indigenous awareness training to help foster community connections. Fortier hails from Fort McKay First Nation and now lives just west of Cochrane. 

Fostier hosts culturally sensitivity workshops teaching people about Indigenous history, how to move forward from colonial trauma and building more meaningful and respectful relationships between all Canadians.

“I talk about how Indigenous people lived on Turtle Island, which is North America, in time immemorial. We were well-established,” Fortier said. “When Europeans first came over they depended on the First Nations.”

Canada has been negligent in sharing this history, and it remains important to unpack and confront these experiences to create a better future for all communities, she said.

Fortier also owns the film company Two Canoes Media. Her goal has been to create films with an authentic Indigenous voice.

Fortier completed the documentary A Mother’s Voice focused on her mother, a Residential School survivor, to shed light on the trauma many Indigenous people have experienced.

She is grateful her mom was willing to share the stories of living in Residential School and proud of the impact she has had as a helper and mentor in the community. 

Fortier said it has been an impactful experience sharing the story of a Residential School survivor who was able to directly use her voice.

“When you put a face to it, it could have been anybody's child that got stolen. That really affects people ... How do we move forward? That’s the million-dollar question," Fortier said. “There are people across Canada that have no idea about the history and there are people that are really well versed in it and they still learn— Our history with Indigenous peoples in Canada is not so nice.”

First Nation, Métis and Inuit people have faced more than 150 years and unilateral decision-making from provincial and federal governments, she said. To move forward from this experience, it is essential to acknowledge and learn from past events through compassion and healing.

“I’m hopeful that over the next 150 years it’s going to be so much more better and healing and Reconciliation can take place,” Fortier said. “Not just Reconciliation, but Reconcili-action.”

Reconciliation can be an individual experience and Fortier encouraged people to research, visit important cultural sites and engage with Indigenous art to learn more about Indigenous culture year-round.

She called on people to research and learn from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and understand how the document and its calls to action can serve as a building block to foster and build friendships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“Let’s start saying, ‘What can I learn from Indigenous people,’” Fortier said. “We have so much to offer. We have a rich, vibrant and beautiful culture. The Indigenous way of knowing and being is something that we take great pride in.”