Michaella is developing her skills as a writer and blogger. She is currently writing a television series about global Indigenous cultures and continues to write for a variety of online platforms while building her own brand as a travel blogger.
What is “Canada”?
When I am traveling abroad and people learn that I am from Canada, there is an immediate fondness. They know Canadians as friendly, genuine people and they believe Canada to be one of the safest countries in the world. People on the other side of the world think it is a place of peace, equality, and “Eskimos” still living in igloos. All of which, for the Indigenous people of Canada, is as accurate as the White man discovering North America. Canadian history is about as deceiving as Canada’s reputation.
The first thing you should know is that Canada has been around a lot longer than 150 years. The First Peoples of Kanata, which means “the village”, refer to this continent as Turtle Island. Turtle Island dates back to the beginning of time, or at least when the continents separated. First Nations people are the first peoples of this land. They are the indigenous peoples of “Canada.”
Some people might try to tell you that our creation story of Turtle Island is old Native folklore. The story will vary depending on the storyteller but here is my shortened interpretation of it: The Earth was flooded by the Creator because the people couldn’t get along and were fighting. A number of animals tried diving to the bottom to collect soil and bring it back up to create land but none of them could make it. Finally, the Muskrat was the last one to try and he succeeded. The Muskrat gathered enough dirt and made it to the surface again only to take his last breath and die. The Turtle said if Muskrat can give his life for our survival than so can I. So the Turtle offered his shell. The rest of the animals placed the dirt on the back of the turtle’s shell which grew into the land known today as North America. You can visit the exact spot where Turtle Island began. It is a sacred place on Anishinaabek territory.
A History Before Canada
There is so much I could teach you, I could write a book. But I will do my best to deliver a strong, clear message that is not too long and easy to understand. There is a lot of basic knowledge that you need to learn in order to get what I am saying later on and I have to take into consideration that readers may hold zero knowledge of who my people are.
Before colonization, First Nations tribes lived holistically on the land, in harmony with Mother Earth. Some of the First Peoples were nomadic people, being hunter gatherers. Each time the seasons changed, they would migrate in order to hunt, fish, pick berries, herbs, and certain medicines to survive. We would pack up our tipis, food, tools, clothing and begin our journey, on foot, to the next location. Others had stationary settlements with longhouses, wigwams, adobe, plank and other houses which were more permanent. Being nomadic or stationary was dependent on the growing season of where they lived.
The First Peoples had their own governance systems. Some of the principles of First Nations governance were implemented into the American Constitution. The structures of governance varied from tribe to tribe, as each tribe is virtually a separate nation. An Ojibway is as different from a Lakota as the Irishman is from a German. They all had their own languages and practices.
Most First People lived by a matriarchal system where the women were recognized as having the highest authority in a village. Women were called Clan Mothers’ and considered sacred as the ‘givers of life’. The women were the backbone of First Nation societies, communities, and families.
When the Europeans arrived here they claimed they discovered this land. This is not true. We know that the Vikings (Leif Erikson) were here long before 1492. St. Brendan and Prince Madoc of Wales were also here long before Columbus allegedly landed carrying the Papal Bull.
Colonization of First Nations In Canada
There were 11 treaties signed between First Nations people and the Crown between 1701 and 1923. Each treaty is with different nations within geographical areas. These treaties were agreements that set out promises, obligations and benefits for both parties. The major understanding of First Nations is that they were sharing the land in exchange for certain considerations.
After the fact, the Crown seemed to be the only party to benefit. Some of the treaty’s were tampered with after they were signed making them null and void from onset, without First Nations knowledge or consent. Things like healthcare and education were promised in the treaties in exchange for use of the land. Tax exemptions were implemented only on reserve. As in all colonization processes, the indigenous represent a problem to the colonizers. The ‘Indian Problem’ was discussed many times in parliament. The concepts of the Diamond Jenness theories are still being implemented to this day: educate, assimilate, alienate, integrate and terminate.
Modern Day Effects Of Colonialization
Surviving Residential Schools
Myself and all First Nations youth have encountered many challenges. These challenges are a result of the intergenerational effects and trauma of colonization; in particular residential schools. The last residential school closed its doors as recently as 1996. The very first schools were ‘industrial’ schools where they taught boys to be farmers and girls to be maids. With the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, they actually started to educate the boys. If they got a grade 6 education, they were kicked off the Indian lists. On this list, registration as an Indian only indicates who Canada is financially responsible for, it does not define who an Indian is.
Residential schools were created for the purpose of stripping culture, language and identity. The intent was assimilation. Children as young as six years old were stolen from their families and forced to attend residential schools. Most children never returned home. Children were beaten, abused, brainwashed and raped. Thousands of children died due to the brutality and conditions of these schools. Some children committed suicide. They were not allowed to speak their languages or practice their spirituality. If they were caught speaking their language they would be locked up in a small cage without food or water, raped, or beaten half to death. They were made to believe that being an “Indian” was wrong. The children’s hair would be chopped off and dressed like White people. Having long hair is sacred to a First Nations person, it is part of their spirit. White people knew this and they knew that cutting it off would make them weak.
The elders tell many stories of abuse in Residential Schools. The Canadian government recently requested to have all these stories destroyed. These records should remain in the files forever so we can remember this history. Many of the churches have yet to issue an apology for their responsibility in these stories. Justin Trudeau has requested that the Pope issue this apology in efforts for reconciliation. My stepdad is one of many residential school survivors who is still able to share his story. Most of his friends from that era have died either by the effects of alcohol/drug abuse or suicide. This is the legacy of these schools.
First Nations School Funding & Curriculum
The systems today are not set up for First Nations people to be successful. We are not given proper funding for education. Students attending school on the reserve are not provided with the same curriculum and funding that a school is provided with off of the reserve. Teachers and staff are underpaid. Professionals who work on reserves are not paid the same as people who work off of a reserve even though they do the exact same job and usually more.
First Nations Drinking Water
Nearly 150 communities in Canada do not have clean drinking water. Canada has third world living conditions in her own backyard. These third world living conditions are First Nations communities that are overlooked and ignored by our government.
First Nations Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women
Clean drinking water is not the only thing overlooked and ignored by Canada. The lives of First Nations men and women have not only been deemed invaluable, they have been marked disposable. After the launch of a multimillion dollar national inquiry, there is still no way to tell how many Indigenous women and girls go missing in Canada each year. Hundreds of Indigenous women are missing and thousands of Indigenous women have been murdered over the past 30 years. Most, if not all, have gone unaccounted for. The RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) have made little to no effort in investigating these cases.
First Nations Justice System
There is no trust between First Nations people and authorities. The justice system in Canada is geared towards discrimination with incarceration rates being 80% First Nations people. There are many stories about authorities targeting First Nations men and women. In the early 2000’s, officers from the Saskatoon Police Service would arrest Indigenous men, drive them out of the city, and leave them to freeze to death in the midst of winter. This act is called Starlight Tours and is one of the many examples of the police brutality targeted towards my people.
First Nations Survival
Poverty, sexual abuse, high incarceration rates, poor health, mental illness, alcoholism, addiction, gangs, domestic violence, and foster care are ALL a result from the effects of intergenerational damage done by Canadian institutions. These challenges are many – loss of identity, culture, language, spirituality, broken spirits, hopelessness and learned helplessness. All intertwined in a history few want to speak about. I have experienced most of these challenges throughout my life whether directly or through family members. So before you judge First Nations people on their ways of living, remember that we survived genocide. We continue to fight an internal battle with ourselves in a world where we are reminded of our traumas every day.
Who I Am
Now that I have covered the history, struggle, and oppression of my people, I can go on to teach you about the beauty of my people and the richness of my culture. I did my best to try and bring attention to important, relevant topics that my people face today and I only scratched the surface. Let me tell you more about who I am and where I come from.
My name at birth is Michaella Shannon. My Lakota name given to me by my ancestors and the Creator is Wanbli Wiyaka Kiyan Yoha Tata Wiyan, in English this translates to Eagle Feather Flies with the Wind Woman. I am a “Cree” (Nehiyawak), Irish, and Lakota woman from Frog Lake First Nation. My biological father is from the “Cree” nation Frog Lake in northern Alberta, also known as Treaty 6 territory. My mothers ancestors originate from Shannon, Ireland. And my step dad, who I call dad because he is the one who helped raise me, is from the Lakota nation Cowessess in southern Saskatchewan, also known as Treaty 4 territory. I like to put the word Cree in quotations because the original name of the Cree nation is Nehiyawak. The word Cree is a word that was created by and given to us by the colonizers.
Being A Nomad
I like to say I live the nomadic lifestyle that my ancestors once journeyed and enjoyed. As a First Nations I am ‘grounded’ in all of the ancestral territories. I was born in Edmonton, Alberta but for most, if not all of my life, I have moved around a lot. I moved around so much, I protested by moving out on my own. I was fifteen years old and going into grade eleven when I made the choice to move to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Long story short I survived!
Accomplishments In The Arts
Throughout all the moving around, I was able to make a career for myself in the arts. I started acting at twelve years. My very first show was an APTN television series called Rabbit Fall. I have also been on a CityTV animation series called Space Stretch, and commercials for Saskatchewan Tourism, Health Ministry and Teachers Confederation. I started modelling at fourteen years old. I have modeled in New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, Vancouver Fashion Week, Aboriginal Fashion Week, and the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend Fashion Show. I have done photo shoots for numerous designers, companies, and magazines. When I was fifteen I started doing pageants. I was the first Indigenous woman to win the title Miss Teen Saskatchewan (2014), as well be the first Indigenous woman to place in the Top 5 of Miss Teen Canada.
Now, it took some work to put me on this path because before the arts, I was a tomboy with a little influence of both the “Rez Life” (life on the reserve) and the farm life. I loved sports and it wasn’t until I reached that awkward age where you start experimenting with makeup that my mom signed me up for this ‘Catwalk and Camera’ class. It taught modelling, a little bit of camera commercial work, proper etiquette, personal hygiene, and makeup/hair. We can confirm that her plan worked. I found something new that I was passionate about and she didn’t have to worry about me walking around looking like a clown.
I graduated high school and went on my way to the University of Saskatchewan. I studied Aboriginal Justice and Criminology. I spent two years as a peer mentor to first year students and sat as a youth participant on the technical working group of National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy (NAYSPS) program. Then I dropped out and moved to Calgary, Alberta. After being in an abusive relationship I had no choice but to up and leave one day and flee from a toxic environment. I spent two years in Calgary healing, growing, and nurturing my spirit whole again. It was OK because it put me on the path I was meant to be on and that path is the Arts.
After overcoming my abusive relationship, I went into 2016 with the desire to gain a stronger connection to my culture, spirituality, and identity. I also wanted to strengthen and develop my intuition. A gift I possessed as a child. After replenishing the brightness of my light, I knew it was time to make the move I had always dreamed of. I moved to Toronto, Ontario. I was asked if I was interested in co-hosting a reality/drama television series called The Other Side. The series is about paranormal activity from a First Nations perspective. The show explores paranormal phenomenon and shares First Nations beliefs and protocol in regards to the spirit world. When this opportunity presented itself, I knew it was everything I’ve been praying for. My new years resolution was fulfilled.
Passions In First Nations Community
Although I spend a majority of my time in the fashion, film, and media industry, my true passion lies in helping my community and being a positive role model. During National Addictions Awareness Week, and at other events, I facilitate workshops on alcohol and drug abuse and their close relationship to suicide. This topic is very important to me because I have experienced the death of both my eldest brother and sister.
I hold workshops for young women on reproductive health and self-esteem where I speak to students about the effects of bullying, decision- making, and overcoming negative experiences. I also have spoken at national conferences like “Honoring our Strengths” in Ottawa, ON. As of recently, I have started working with a non-profit organization called I Love First Peoples. This organization is a great way to help First Nations youth in isolated communities and participate in the reconciliation with First Nations people from a non-political standpoint. I am also a brand ambassador for various Indigenous owned companies like SheNative, Manitobah Mukluks, Neechie Gear, Ojibwe Cosmetics, and Helen Oro Designs. And I am an advocate for Indigenous women and youth across Canada.
You might say otherwise but I absolutely hate talking about myself. There is no other way to tell you what I have accomplished without sounding boastful. There is a fine line between sounding boastful and genuinely being proud of your success’ because you made it when all odds were against you.
I have learned how to heal through writing, public speaking, acting, writing music, sharing my story, helping other First Nations youth succeed and most importantly maintaining a strong connection to my culture and spirituality. I go to the sweat lodge, I pray, I bead, I sundance, I jingle dance, and I smudge everyday. I am a leader and role model drawing from ancestral pools of knowledge taught to me by my Kokum (Grandmother in Cree) and other knowledge keepers.
Traveling While Native
As a woman, an Indigenous Woman to be specific, I was raised to believe that I could never travel by myself. My family told me how dangerous it was to travel alone. However, it doesn’t matter where I am in the world. As an Indigenous Woman, nowhere is safe.
When I tell people that I am First Nations, they give me one of those “smile and nod” looks. Then I have to repeat myself with “Native American” and their faces light up with excitement like they’ve never met an “Indian” before. And they haven’t. After learning that I am a “Native American” from Canada, they really like me. I have received a number of different responses from:
I thought you people never left your reservations
Ooooo Pocahontas! You look like Pocahontas!
Wow! I’ve never met a Native American person before!
Do you live in those pointy tents?
You people are so lucky to get free schooling and free medical care
or I’m just being stared at because they still don’t know what Native American means. For Americans, it’s mainly:
You people are so lucky, you get cheap gas and cheap cigarettes and you don’t have to pay taxes!
People on the other side of the world hear of Canada and think it is a place of safety, security and romanticized Indians living in tipis. But again, as an Indigenous Woman, nowhere is safe.
When I tell people I am a First Nations woman from Canada, while the responses are ignorant, they are delivered with amazement. The people I meet in my travels abroad are always so kind and eager to learn more about me. I can honestly say, I have never felt threatened or insulted by anyone that I have met outside of North America.
When I travel anywhere outside of Canada, people assume that I am Latin American. When I travel to the States, people approach me in Spanish. When I was in Europe, Spain specifically, people would also approach me in Spanish. For being only 22 years old, I have done a lot of traveling. I started traveling as soon as I turned 18 and the first place that was on my list was New York City. I have traveled nearly all of Canada and I have traveled to few states in America such as Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and California.
The year I turned 21, I decided it was time to explore outside the comfort zone of North America. I traveled to England and Scotland in the first half of the year. In the second half of the year, I went back to Europe to see more of England and more of Scotland as well as Ireland, France, and Spain. When I got back to Canada, I turned 22 and decided to leave again to Thailand for one month. Thailand was a life changing experience, I almost didn’t come home!
When I was in Thailand, people had no clue what First Nations meant or who Native American people were. I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Bangkok for one month. My uncle, an American from New York, married my aunt who is from Thailand. When he retired, they decided to move to Bangkok.
When people saw me out with my aunt and uncle, they thought I was their daughter. When I went out with my aunt, I had the privilege of having a translator. People honestly thought I was part Thai! My aunt told me I received a lot of comments on how beautiful I was, how tall I was, and how much I looked like their daughter. When the three of us would go out to eat at our favorite vendor in Chatuchak Market, the server would give me the largest piece of chicken every single time and my aunt and uncle would get just a little bit of chicken. They always laughed about it and said, “that’s how you know someone really likes you here!”
I have to say that Thailand was the biggest culture shock for me so far. It took me about a week to adapt and get comfortable leaving my family’s side. The language barrier was the hardest challenge. But overall, it was a life changing experience. The people in Thailand are so kind and generous, island people especially. I found it extremely comforting that the rich and the poor coexisted in a world where judgement did not exist. One minute you would see a brand new skyscraper and the next you would see a small shack or hut right next to it. Ways of living are simple but truly appreciated. Materialism does not exist. It was as if I was living in a care free world. I highly recommend a trip to Thailand!
Being An Ally To First Nations People
Today, I find there are a significant amount of people that want to actively participate in the reconciliation with First Nations people but they don’t have a clue where to start. We are living in a time where everything is extremely political and outsiders are afraid to say or do anything in fear that it will be incorrect or inappropriate. Due to the lack of education, accurate and truthful education about First Nations people, ignorance has become the most common trait shared amongst outsiders. This needs to change and I want to help create that change.
First, I want to tell you that we welcome you to join us in this journey forward. We must learn to walk together. We welcome you with open arms to join us at our pow wows, round dances, and cultural events. One thing my people have always been good at is never turning someone away who wants to learn. We have never been the kind of people to turn anyone away for that matter, unless they mean harm of course.
Ways To Get Involved
There are a number of ways you can get involved. I always encourage mainstream society, or outsiders, to attend a pow wow. The pow wow trail starts in late spring and runs through to the end of summer. There will always be pow wows throughout the year but summer is usually the best time because summer is pow wow season! You can find the dates and locations of pow wows simply by looking it up online. Different regions/provinces have different schedules.
Attend Pow wows
Once you get to the pow wow, you will be amazed by all of the unique, beautiful, and bright outfits. The correct term is ‘regalia’. Never use the word costume. Each outfit is made according to the type of dance. The dancers range from fancy dancers, jingle dancers, traditional dancers, chicken dancers, grass dancers, and sometimes hoop dancers. Each dance is different. I am a jingle dancer. The jingle dance is the women’s healing dance.
At the pow wow you will have the opportunity to try different foods. Some pow wows will offer traditional foods like bannock/frybread and wild meats. Some will have bannock burgers, bannock hot dogs and Indian tacos. I highly recommend you try an Indian taco on frybread! Other pow wows will have typical food you can get at the fair. Make sure to check out the different vendors.
This is the perfect opportunity to support Indigenous artists and buy from local, Indigenous owned companies!
Visit A Reservation
If you are interested in visiting a reserve and you want to see the living conditions for yourself, ask someone to take you. Internationally, this will help make the plight of First Nations known. I would reach out to someone who works at a local Friendship Centre or cultural centre. Ask if they have an elder on site. When asking anything of an elder, you must always offer tobacco. In modern times, a pack of cigarettes or a pouch of tobacco will suffice. Traditionally, tobacco is used as a sacred offering when you are asking the Creator or someone of high regards for help. Our elders hold the highest respect in our culture, they are knowledge keepers. As an outsider, when asking any Indigenous person for something, I would offer tobacco out of respect. Respect will take you a long way.
Visit Historical Sites Or National Parks
Other ways to learn and get involved is to visit historical sites and provincial or national parks. These sites will always have cultural centres based on the tribe of that region. Growing up in Saskatchewan, the prairie province in the very middle of Canada, I can recommend a number of significant places to visit. Wanuskewin Park, Batoche, Fort Carlton, Cypress Hills, Fort Walsh, are just a few. Take the time to learn about the rich history of the land. You can find medicine wheels, petroglyphs, and sacred medicines still used today. In Brantford, Ontario, you can now visit one of Canada’s most brutal residential schools, previously known as The Mohawk Institute or as First Nations remember, ‘The Mush Hole.’ Today, it is open to the public and known as The Woodland Cultural Centre. It is a museum, art gallery, education centre, and library.
Read Books & Watch Movies
If you want to gain a better understanding of our culture, beliefs, and rituals, I recommend you read the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ by Kent Nerburn. This trilogy is available online and I promise it will give you important insight.
Last but not least, a very powerful movie that is going to change the world just hit cinemas and I need you to watch it! It is called Indian Horse. This movie, first a book, is going to help you understand everything I just taught you. It is the first step towards reconciliation.
Important Things To Remember
There are 634 different nations in Canada with over 50 distinct languages. The most important thing for you to know is that we are not all the same.
The correct term is First Nations or Indigenous. A lot of people still use the term Aboriginal but the meaning behind this term is non-original. Ab-original shares the same context as ab-normal. We are the original people of this land.
When buying souvenirs, make sure to support First Nations artists and companies. Always buy from Indigenous owned companies or local Indigenous artists who make authentic artwork. Places like the Trading Post will always carry artwork made by local Indigenous artists. Please do not buy things that are made in China. Let’s put an end to cultural appropriation.
We are not mascots and we are not Halloween costumes.
Let US tell our own stories! When reading stories or watching documentaries about First Nations people, always do research on the source and the writer. Always read reviews. A lot of the time it is a non-Indigenous person telling our stories and they are told wrong.
Acknowledge the fact that First Nations languages should be recognized as the official languages of Canada.
“Tansi” means Hello in Cree.
“Miigwech” means Thank You in both Cree and Ojibwe.
Ways You Can Help From Your Country
Ask your politicians to support First Nations initiatives at the UN table.
Educate yourself on the history of First Nations people in Canada and the United States. A lot of information is available online.
Take an Indigenous studies class (Offered online).
Shop online from Indigenous owned companies.
This year is about using our voices and sharing our gifts. I want to thank you for taking the time to read my truth.
Wanbli Wiyaka Kiyan Yoha Tata Wiyan
This article was originally published on How Not to Travel Like a Basic Bitch