June is National Indigenous History Month. It is a good time for me, from my heart, to share my story in hopes of empowering other Indigenous women.
I come from the Gabriel family of Skownan First Nation. In 1973, I tragically lost my parents and older sister, who attended Brandon University. I have memories of my sister saying that she is going to be a chief. My surviving siblings and I were brought into care with Children’s Aid Society.
My father taught me to work hard. He used the illustration of a pen and book. He would hold it up and say, “This will get you somewhere, my children.” I recall that my grandparents at the Rez were the first ones to get a T.V. We children were allowed to watch it to learn English. In those days, it was instilled in children that they must speak English or they will not amount to anything. Moreover, we couldn’t speak our Native language. It was a life that was extremely difficult then, with poverty.
There was a lack of transportation. Parents walked to the store. Welfare funding was limited for families. I know my dad worked hard for his children. He put food on the table by fishing, trapping, digging Seneca root, hunting, planting gardens, sugar beeting, and picking berries. In the winter months, he would use his dog sled to take us to school.
What helped me was a T.V. commercial with chiefs who identified themselves as Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (MIB). Their message was very straightforward: “If you need help, call MIB.” I will always remember this commercial throughout my life because my sister would have been one of the chiefs in the future.
I remember my grandma’s teachings. She told me, “Don’t let anyone take your Saulteaux language.” Today I am fluent in my language. It came handy at one time when I was being interviewed by the late Chief Raymond Swan. Chief Swam asked every question in his native language, and I answered back in Saulteaux. Chief Swan was grateful for that.
Moreover, I also developed a support network of educated ladies from the University Club. And when I encounter challenges, I pray to God. Though going to school was difficult for me – at times I wasn’t able to concentrate due to emotional trauma of the loss of my parents – I managed to graduate.
I earned a Certificate of Social Work from University of Regina, and from Brandon University, Native Human Services. In 2007, I earned a Bachelor degree of Social Work from University of Manitoba.
For June 2020, National Indigenous History Month, I would like to encourage Indigenous women, from my brief story, that you should never give up. You too can make it. Don’t be ashamed of your history, culture, and language.
Stella J Woodhouse, BSW