Children of Attawapiskat

by Danny Beaton

In Memory of Alicja Rozanska

Brian Martin, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga, told me to call this elder who was a doctor working up north with people from Attawapiskat. It was the best news I had all summer while researching the events that were unfolding for several years now. He gave me her card, so I gave Dr. A.A. Dunlop a call. She was both positive and friendly. I asked her if she knew any natives in Attawapiskat who were using traditional native culture to heal, as well as if there were any people who she thought I could connect with after telling her my background with native child and family services. Dr. Dunlop gave me the phone number of the mental health unit in Attawapiskat, and said to ask for Jane or Peggy. She told me to tell them that I was a Mohawk elder interested in bringing back traditional Cree healing ceremonies within native communities.

Young boys in Attawapiskat. Picture by Danny Beaton

Young boys in Attawapiskat. Picture by Danny Beaton

When I called the Attawapiskat hospital and asked for Peggy or Jane, the person I spoke to said it sounds like you need to talk to Joe Tipp, the head of Health Canada in Attawapiskat. Peggy and Jane were out of the office that day. I immediately called Joe Tipp, or Joe Tippeneskum, Cree elder. When he answered, I explained that I was being funded to bring back culture and ceremonies, as well as my background of organizing healing activities to the elders and youth who were suffering in their community. Joe Tipp was a positive person for me to connect with. He explained that the youth were taking a lead in efforts to bring back traditional Cree culture, but they could use my skills in organizing events that would unite the community in Attawapiskat. Joe said there were several youths organizing the sacred sweat lodge ceremony, and if I was free at night it would be good to join them. Joe mentioned we could work together in the secondary school, presenting traditional native culture to the youth in grades nine-through-thirteen, as well as anyone interested in hearing our message. As it turned out, Joe and I did present at Vezina Secondary for one morning in October.

Little boy in Attawapiskat, photo by Danny Beaton

Little boy in Attawapiskat, photo by Danny Beaton

I shared a poetic prayer addressed to a traditional Iroquois Thanksgiving. I honored creation, plant life, waters, relatives, and everything that moves on Mother Earth, in the sky, and through the air. My understanding of our Thanksgiving ceremony is it is equivalent to smoking the pipe for the Lakota, or any other indigenous way of giving thanks to the gifts of the universe and Mother Earth. We answered student questions later on, and I shared several songs on my native flutes. I play with the intent to heal and open the spirit and mind.

The students were glad to see a Mohawk and Cree elder working together for the protection of Mother Earth, and the future of generations to come. We explained that we were working for the benefit of all children, not just our own, and that every child deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. I then explained how Mohawk spiritual leader, Tom Porter, viewed all men as brothers, and all women as sisters. He mentions that this is our way of life in our country, and that it was no different in Attawapiskat. We talked about art, and the sacredness of using communication to heal, be it through writing, drawing, singing, photography, film making, and even just talking. I also explained, in the indigenous way, life, and how North American indigenous must always stand for our first law: respect for the land.

In Attawapiskat, you are surrounded by forest and bush. You have the cleanest and freshest air. I love it there. It is so quiet that I could fall fast asleep any time I lay down.

We are living in a concrete jungle in Toronto. People have forgotten how to live simply here. My wife was the best person I’d ever met. She chose to live like a Zen monk despite all of the conveniences and distractions and the fast-pace of city life. I enjoy living in Toronto because I’ve gotten a lot done here, but you can still live a good life in Attawapiskat. Once you finish high-school there, you have the opportunity to travel down south to get a college or university degree. Education is a great tool for indigenous in present day. It provides us with the ability to overcome the suffering of our past.

When my mother, uncles, aunts, and all First Nation people in Canada were put into residential schools, they lost their culture. Be it the Mohawks, the Ojibway, the Cree, the Inuit, the Haida, the Algonquin, and all of the tribes and all of the clans – our way of life was lost. Indigenous people down south recovered in a big way, but I see the Cree are still suffering from culture shock and trauma. Our elders say: when you take away the ceremonies and way of life for First Nations people, you are taking away their wisdom and connection to Mother Earth. Once a person has been traumatized, they need help or healing by a therapist or through native ceremonies. Personally, when I see how happy our people are, it is usually when they were raised with ceremonial parents. In Six Nations, there are always ceremonies and social events that bring our people together in order to honor Mother Earth and the Creator.

Today, I see many young people and adults looking for their native roots and culture because they see how broken and lost society has become. If the Cree people can get their ceremonies and cultural roots back, then they will not be hurt or broken. People have to be reminded, just like our elders had to remind us here, that we are learning up until our last breath. We have no right to take our own life, only our Great Creator can take a life when our time is up. Life is so sacred. Every minute when times get tough, we need to seek help to work out difficulties. If we had positive teachers and healers in our life, things would not get so bleak. We all need positive energy, positive thoughts, inner-beauty, love, respect, companionship, creativity, and peace. Without this in our world, negativity gets in and destroys our health.

Left: Mike Booy Mohawk from Tyendinaga, Right: Danny Beaton Six Nations Mohawk,  photo by unknown Swampy Cree Oct 2016

Left: Mike Booy Mohawk from Tyendinaga, Right: Danny Beaton Six Nations Mohawk, photo by unknown Swampy Cree Oct 2016

The residential school system did not take care of native youth or people, instead, it tore through culture and our way of life. This has be said in the case of Attawapiskat.  I heard it from the people, community, nurses, and teachers. Many northern communities need healing and resources fast. When I look at the faces of the children I worked with, I am ecstatic from the beauty of the Cree! The idiosyncrasy of the children come from the earth, wetlands, marsh, moose, bear, wolf, deer, and wounded parents. When I study trauma, this is what I see in Attawapiskat!

Many aspects of a child’s health, physical and mental, rely on this primary source of safety and stability. We need our native values and culture more than ever to fill our mind, body, and spirit with that kind of medicine. Like my uncle said: Danny, the kids need to see us laughing and having fun. They need to see us working together, singing, starting a sacred fire, loading our pipes, eating together, praying, and doing our Sacred Ceremonies in unity. They need to see us live in the way it was before residential schools. They need to see us as we were in the beginning.