Anishinaabeg women honoured for wisdom, courage

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

At the first annual Anishinaabeg Women’s Empowerment (AWE) Collective Gala Night held this past weekend on February 25, a sold-out event held at the Seven Generations Education Institute Fort Frances Campus, seven Anishinaabe women were honored for awards based on the Seven Grandfather teachings.

Morningstar Tom said she was shocked when she discovered that she would be honored with the Nibwaakaawin (wisdom) award.

A colleague had informed her that she was nominated, but Morningstar Tom said she didn’t think much of it because to her, the teaching of wisdom is a lifelong process, something she felt she was still striving for.

From left: Cassandra Bundz (Truth), Sharon Johnson (Love), Megan Bob (Honesty), Susan Councillor (Humility), Morningstar Tom (Wisdom), Shelly Jones (Courage) and Shannon King (Respect) (not pictured) were honoured for their exhibition of one of the character traits outlined in the seven grandfather teachings. Below: Scenes from the sold-out gala event. –Submitted photos

Morningstar Tom is from Mishkosiminiziibiing, or Big Grassy River First Nation. She is currently a PhD student and sits on the Indigenous Education Advisory Committee for Lakehead District School Board, both notable accomplishments, however, not the main reasons why she thinks colleague Yolanda Wanakamik submitted her nomination.

As a family violence survivor, a situation that made her a single mother with four children, and homeless during the time when she was still in the early stages of pursuing her degree in education, Morningstar Tom is passionate about openly sharing how she overcame her many struggles, telling others that if she can do it, they can do it too.

“I know I’m not the only one that faces the things that I faced,” she said. “Statistics show how bad domestic violence is, even to be a PhD student, point 2 per cent of Indigenous women in Canada will hold a PhD. Point 2 per cent.”

“We have these facts that are just constantly working against us. And I just think it’s so important to share my story so that others can know, like, this is someone that was homeless, and look at where she is now… I’m just sending that message that ‘if I can do this, you can do this too.’”

As she was called up to the front to share a few words, Morningstar Tom thought of her daughter, now 16, and how important it was that she was able to see her mother and many other Indigenous women being honored.

“It was so important that I had my daughter attend with me, just as a young woman, because she’s 16 now, and just being survivors of that family violence, and having to go through this as a family and having to heal, I just felt it was so important that she see women honored.”

“I think it’s so important for boys as well, to know that women deserve to be recognized, you know, they deserve to be honored, and appreciated for the things we do,” she said, noting that many women go overlooked for tasks such as motherhood simply because “it’s just a woman’s role.”

Homeschooled by her mother up until high school, Morningstar Tom said the way her mother taught her encouraged “actual understanding and a love for learning.” Contrary to the public school system, she didn’t follow a set schedule sitting at a desk until a school bell rang, something that felt like “culture shock” when Morningstar Tom transferred to high school.

Morningstar Tom said that homeschooling her own children wasn’t an option because her circumstances were different being survivors of a violent home and a teen mom at the age 17.

Earlier this year, Wauzhushk Onigum Nation found the province’s first “plausible burials” at the site of former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kenora, not too far from where Morningstar Tom grew up.

“That one hit home, because that was the one that my grandma had gone to,” she said. “It just hit a little bit different because it’s so close to home, and then you know so many people who had moms and dads or grandparents or great grandparents that attended that.”

“And I just think it’s so important to be open about that, and acknowledge that we’re all in different spaces within our own healing, our own healing of intergenerational traumas, we’re all on our own stages of processing that grief. And I think it’s just so important that we hold that space, you know, that we hold that space to each other, to heal how we need to heal.”

Morningstar’s father is a residential school survivor and Sixties Scoop survivor, a term that refers to the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands.

Several colleagues have invited Morningstar Tom, who also works as a Contract Instructor at Lakehead University, and her dad to speak at presentations for university. Morningstar Tom noted that many discuss the trauma faced by Indigenous people as if it were a distant history.

“But it’s like, you’re talking about my dad, you know, that’s not long ago. And I think that’s the biggest misconception. It’s as if it’s attempted to be talked about from a space that it happened a long time ago, and ‘why can’t these people just get over it and move forward and move on?’ But it didn’t happen that long ago. Like, you’re literally talking about my dad,” she said.

The importance of sharing stories is both the focus of her PhD research and the key to gaining wisdom, Morningstar Tom said.

Her thesis is titled, No Longer Your Token Indian: Indigenous Stories of Navigating Through the Education System. Using Indigenous methodology and storytelling, she seeks to understand what Indigenous students face when immersed in westernized institutions.

“I don’t manipulate the information and I don’t change the words… I literally leave the story the way it’s given to me,” she said, noting the importance of avoiding trying to interpret stories a certain way.

“We only know what we know. You know, and when we share stories, that’s how we learn different perspectives and learn to see things in a different way,” Morningstar Tom said.

“Even with my master’s thesis and sharing stories of Indigenous students who have gone through post secondary education, we can be looking at the exact same thing, but we’re taking something different. And that’s why I just like, I just think it’s so important to be open minded and understand that we all have strengths, we all have weaknesses, and it’s when we work together that’s how that balance happens.”

Morningstar Tom thanked her partner and kids for being on her team, Wanakamik for the nomination, and ended with the words, “a healed woman is an unstoppable woman.”

Shelly Jones is from Anishnaabeg of Naongashiing and was honored with the Zoongidi’ewin (courage) award the night of the Gala.

Nominated by her close friend Michelle Strachan, the courage award sought to honor a woman who “embraces change for her own well-being as well as the collective good, and who helps others find inner strength so they, too, can face their fears.”

Jones worked as an Indigenous Education Projects Facilitator for SGEI up until January 2020 when she suffered a stroke that paralyzed the entire left side of her body at the age 39.

“I always say today, I live with half a body because my left side isn’t functioning as well,” she said, adding that while she can move her left hand, she can’t pick things up.

Being a stroke survivor meant her independence was stolen in many ways, but Jones said she likes to see the positive in every circumstance. Her love for her family drove her to overcome her fears and to challenge herself to work toward recovery as much as possible, not only for her own wellbeing but for her family and community as well.

Recently, Jones relearned how to drive, an accomplishment that she is grateful for.

“I think [my family] just showed me how important it is to keep going. You know, without even saying it they show me how much they need me. So there’s no giving up, no time to dwell on the negatives,” she said. “Stay positive and see the good in everything and everybody. And I was like that before my stroke, so I really think that that kind of saved me in a way.”

When she was still in the hospital, Jones said something just “clicked” inside her and she knew she had to get better and go home. Her family was a huge motivator, often frequenting the hospital to visit her. Jones said she’s thankful she managed to return home before the COVID-19 pandemic limited hospital visitors.

Today, Jones still lives with the effects of the stroke. She said it took a lot of courage and self-talk the night of the Gala just to walk up to the front with a cane in hand.

As a mother of three, one daughter, 27, and two sons, 18 and 16, having her entire family witness women being given recognition and respect was a powerful moment, she said, adding that it was a healing experience to return to a space she was familiar with before her stroke.

Jones said she was very thankful to be chosen as one of the seven women to receive an award. “I look at the names of the women and I just feel so honored to kind of be in that same space as them.”

“I think just something that I’ve learned, especially these past three years from recovering from the stroke, is just to keep going. If you’re having a difficult time doing something, then just take as much time as you need to get comfortable in a certain situation. And just go for it,” Jones said.

“Life is too short, I think. And we need to start taking these risks and putting ourselves out there. And I think especially as Anishinabeg women, you know, I feel like we’ve been silenced for too long. So we need to find our voice and use it. And don’t be afraid to take up space. Don’t be afraid to use your voice, to share your opinion, to share your story, and to just be brave.”

Jones told the public to watch out for more AWE events in the future.