Storytelling and Unveiling Youth Potential
by Spirit River Striped Wolf
My Blackfoot name is Makoyiomahka, which describes an enduring running wolf. The Kainai ceremonialist who gave me the name had a vision of a wolf running, pushing hard despite its struggle and adversity – a name I try hard to live by. This elder had heard of the different struggles I went through in my life and how I overcame them by persevering through my undergrad, being a change-maker in my communities through activism, advocacy, and social enterprise, and finishing two terms as the first student president of Indigenous ancestry at my university during the hardships of the pandemic. I say these things not to boast, but to tell my story of finding my own youth potential, despite the barriers that existed as an Indigenous second-generation survivor of the residential schools, day schools, and of the 60s scoop.
My father and many of my aunts and uncles were shifted from foster home to foster home in the 60s. All my grandparents attended residential schools, but today the only grandparents I have left, who survived these schools, are my maternal grandmother and grandfather. I lived with them primarily through middle school and high school. My mother attended day school in Piikani, and that’s where I attended middle school and high school, but at that point it was no longer run by the Catholic Church. I fortunately missed the horrors that my parents and grandparents experienced, stories which are not mine to share but have affected me deeply.
While I attended university, I began my career as a policy researcher for Indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development. I set out to research the barriers to prosperity, happiness, and freedom for Indigenous people. I simply ask, why is it harder for us as students, parents, workers, partners, and entrepreneurs to succeed? How do we escape the clutches of poverty and begin to live the lives we want to live? When I was talking to a nursing professor about this work, she summed it up nicely: we’re always hearing how Indigenous people are a “vulnerable population,” and my research asks, “where does this vulnerability come from and what can we do about it?”
When I explain my research, I usually ask folks to think about a timeline where first contact is in the centre of that timeline. For thousands of years before first contact, Indigenous peoples had their own parenting practices, and the clan and community would instill strong values into their children that worked in tandem with parental disciplinary styles. I spent four years speaking with elders from various nations, like those in Treaty 7, but also elsewhere in Turtle Island. Carefully, I asked about traditional methods of parental discipline styles for First Nations, and what these elders explained to me was truly fascinating.
Elders and knowledge keepers had a lot to say when it came to how their people traditionally disciplined their children. English, however, was not a useful tool to describe these practices. One pattern that I identified was how discipline was worded. It was worded in a way that drew the child’s attention to the behaviour, or the choice of action, of the child. The child’s sense of self worth was differentiated from its behaviour, that behaviour was more of a tool or instrument chosen, and like with any tool, it can either be helpful or unhelpful, but it could never be attached to the holder’s self-worth.
The use of elders and clan wisdom were particularly important in this context because it would help guide the child by explaining what the consequences have been for faulty behaviour, and that actions and words should always be an expression of the values of the community. This practice is observed through the telling of oral storytelling and of fables, and its reinforcing of community-centric values, such as being a self-starter, being compassionate, helpful, and so on. This would then produce behaviour that only benefited the community. One of Bridges’ key values is storytelling, and that’s one aspect that attracted me to Bridges and to its work with unveiling youth potential.
On the timeline, after first contact, we see storytelling being used in another way: for assimilation. When our elders were children, the stories told to them were the opposite of behaviour focused. Residential schools, day schools, and the foster care system all instilled stories of unworthiness, that self worth was only for the assimilated and that traditional forms of teaching to our children was shameful. I have spent a lot of time in the homes of Indigenous youth on reserve, and now that I know what I know, I see that the way we discipline our children is rooted in shame.
The other unfortunate learning I incurred was the fact that parental disciplinary styles have a great hand in developing our inner critic as humans. If you were disciplined with more shame, or if you are surrounded by racism and discrimination, then your inner self will use shame as its chosen tool to get you to change. However, what we know about shame is that it is emotionally painful and makes us intolerant to risk-taking and to avoid it (because who wants to feel shame and unworthiness? We are driven to connect with others and to feel belonging).
We also know that an inner critic that is heavily shame-prone makes us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide, anger, aggression, blame, domestic violence, and issues arising in education and in the criminal justice system. This is what has disempowered many Indigenous peoples, this historical trauma that started at first contact, this foreign way of thinking about ourselves and of our capacity to change and adapt, to become changemakers.
Me, my family, and my community know these vulnerabilities all too well. A major driver, yet also my deepest struggle, has been an addiction to gaining the approval of others because that’s what was heavily valued in my own household while growing up, and shame reinforced that value. It has led me down many paths, some fruitful, and some painful. In my darkest days, when I needed community the most, I have had people I loved walk away from me and reinforce the language of shame, but I fortunately have also had whole communities of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who have continued to believe in me, to be there for me when I needed them the most without judgement and shame. In those dark days, I also learned the value of self-sufficiency, to be a warrior that is cunning yet empathetic. Finally, I learned the importance of auditing my own values, to suss out what has benefited me (like my ability to be a changemaker, to speak to hundreds of people about issues that truly matter, to be brave and cunning) and what has harmed me (such as attaching my self worth to the opinions of others).
Like Wisdom Stories, I have found that identifying our authentic selves is key to cultivating our inner power, and to not allow hurt people to continue to hurt us. When I was a child, I didn’t understand why my elders in my community urged us to learn our Blackfoot language, but now I understand that the value of storytelling and language are fundamental to unveiling potential, to be warriors.
Spirit River Striped Wolf has recently joined the Canada Bridges team as a Co-Leader. Click to learn more about him and the rest of our team.