Aiming to save native culture

Joey Payeur

Genevieve McGinnis still can remember the feeling of determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition.
The Manitou Rapids First Nation elder once was a child in the residential school system in Canada, which is infamous for its attempts to dismiss and discourage the cultural heritage and identity of its native students.
“I almost lost my culture in the residential school,” McGinnis recalled about her traumatic experience.
“But I was too stubborn.”
McGinnis was among those who took part in “Now and Forever,” a two-day series of multimedia workshops held at the Emo Inn that joined First Nations’ elders and youth in an effort to both bring the past alive and look ahead to the future.
Some of the workshops included hands-on sessions for the participating youths, which saw them get to try their hand at film-making, where they conducted on-camera interviews with elders, as well as writing seminars.
They even had the chance to be part of a story-telling circle.
All of these activities were based around the goal of archiving the history of local First Nations’ people—something McGinnis was more than glad to share once she overcame her initial doubts.
“At first, I wasn’t sure if I should go or not . . . I didn’t know what I was supposed to really talk about,” she admitted.
“But our history is something that is not written down anymore,” she noted.
“I want to leave that history to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” McGinnis stressed.
“They don’t learn about it in school today. They learn about the history of other countries, but not their own.”
Phira Rehm, from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, was a facilitator for the “heART Mandala” workshop at the event.
She said her involvement with the project was the result of feeling a direct connection through her own background as a first-generation Cambodian refugee to the cultural jeopardy encountered by First Nations’ people for many decades.
“My parents experienced genocide in their home country, and were displaced and forced to come to a land they knew nothing about,” Rehm explained.
“Thinking back on that, with all the traumatic experiences we went through . . . it’s all still embedded and still strong in my genes,” she noted.
“I was living between two cultures,” Rehm said. “I was going to school, speaking English, and learning all about American culture, and then I would come home to my parents, who were trying to instill Cambodian traditions within me.
“I started asking myself, ‘Who am I? Where can I find a peaceful place and still honour my ancestors?’” she mused.
“Even through the pain and trauma, we are a passionate people,” Rehm remarked. “We were raised to respect all beings.
“At the end of the day, we are one people, one human race.”
Jason Wilson, project manager for “Now and Forever,” spent two years trying to get approval to hold the event.
“I’m a dogged lobbyist who’s worked in industry but I wanted to do something different,” said Wilson, who is McGinnis’ grandson.
“My late grandma, Annie Wilson, had the idea to do this because she wondered where our culture was going and said we’ve got to keep modernized when it comes to archiving these things,” he added.
“She told me not to give up,” Jason Wilson said. “That’s why I chased it for two years.
“I’m very grateful to those in the district who financially supported the project.”
Wilson said the youths taking part in “Now and Forever” were shy and rather reticent at first.
But, by lunchtime, he declared, “They don’t even want to go play hockey now . . . they would rather stay here and do this.”
Chandler Medicine, who enjoyed running the camera for the interviews, said he wanted to be a role model for other First Nations’ youth by participating in “Now and Forever.”
“I want to interact with other youth and pass this knowledge onto them,” he reasoned.
His brother, Dakota, echoed the need for preserving First Nations’ history.
“It’s important to keep our culture alive,” he stressed.
“We don’t know what it was like back then for elders,” he added. “This lets us see what their lives were like.”
Another Medicine brother, Jaden, said it was “pretty cool to learn this stuff,” and mentioned how he wanted to learn more about where he came from.
Keisha DeBungee said it was time for her generation to step up and do their part in this venture.
“We can’t let it fade away . . . the sharing of the elders’ stories is something you want to pass down to your own children someday,” she remarked.
Kayla Allan, who served as the interviewer, noted the career opportunities that could open up to young people like herself by learning the technical skills of archiving.
“There certainly could be more teaching of First Nations’ culture in district schools,” she suggested.
McGinnis spent many years as a First Nations’ language teacher for the Rainy River District School Board.
She encountered many students in her time in the classroom who had to overcome their fear of expressing their cultural identity.
“I found many teenagers who felt ashamed because they had been called down so often by non-native kids and that was why they were afraid to show they were Indian,” McGinnis recalled.
“But then, I also remember one little native girl who was clear she was not an Indian,” she added.
“I asked her why and she said, ‘Because I live in town,’” McGinnis laughed.
McGinnis said it’s a priority of hers to show First Nations’ youth the beauty of their culture while also still remembering to respect other cultures—something she is sometimes surprised she’s able to do after all the difficult times she endured.
“I think I have that view because I want the youth brought up to respect everything, including themselves, and they’re losing that right now,” she warned.