AWE Talks Gala Night honours Anishinabeg women

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

What started as an idea discussed by friends over breakfast has bloomed into an event promoting the empowerment and leadership of Anishinaabeg women. The Anishinaabeg Women’s Empowerment (AWE) Collective will be hosting its first AWE Talks Gala Night on Saturday February 25 at Niizhwaaching Aanikoobijigeng Gikinoo’amaadiiwigamig (Seven Generations Education Institute Fort Frances Campus).

The AWE Collective was formed by a handful of women who wanted to create a space that celebrates Anishinaabeg’s women’s achievements, and that recognizes how Anishinaabeg women have engaged in leadership.

All 150 tickets were already sold out over a week before the event, said Jana-Rae Yerxa, one of the organizers and founders of the collective.

“Think TED Talks meets Fancy Anishinaabe Style, where everyone is welcome,” she said.

The night will also host special guest speakers who will share stories, poetry, music, and expertise, inspiring those who attend with new ideas on how to support Indigenous women in their lives.

Guest speakers will include musician Erika Jourdain; musician and Powwow singer & drummer, Teddy Copenance; elder Shirley Atwell; poet Al Hunter; AWE Talks Speaker Carissa Copenance; and AWE Talks Speaker Chief Janice Henderson.

Mixed in with the inspirational talks will be an assortment of appetizers prepared by culinary students from Seven Generations Education Institute, under the direction of Todd Moxham.

Yerxa moved back from Thunder Bay to her home in Couchiching about a year and a half ago with ideas about starting women’s empowerment events.

She said the idea for the collective and gala arose over breakfast amongst friends.

In addition to Yerxa, those who have helped organize the event include Aimee Beazley, Beverley Jourdain, Kourtney Perrault and Mandi Olsen.

“When you look at statistics like Amnesty International, they talk about how for Indigenous women, life expectancy is five years shorter; at least five times more likely to be murdered; three times more likely to report the level of violence and victimization; three times more likely to live in poverty; three times more likely to live in unsafe, inadequate housing than non Indigenous women,” Yerxa said, highlighting some of the statistics that pushed a need for the event.

“Or the Native Women’s Association of Canada, they’ll talk about how Indigenous women face life threatening gender-based violence and disproportionately experienced violent crime.”

These statistics, Yerxa said, speaks to how Indigenous women sit at the intersection of gender and race.

“And yet, Indigenous women continue to do amazing things for themselves and their community and their family,” she said, adding that it speaks to the “resistance, resurgence, and excellence” of Indigenous women that we all need to celebrate.

To honor the contributions of Anishinaabeg women, AWE Collective invited the public to nominate an Anishinaabe woman from one of the following ten communities—Miitanjigamiing, Couchiching, Rainy River First Nations, Mishkosiminiziibiing (Big Grassy), Anishinaabeg of Naongashiing (Big Island), Lac La Croix, Ojibways of Onigaming, Naicatchewenin (North West Bay), Nigigoonsiminikaaning (Red Gut), and Seine River First Nation—to receive an award.

Open nominations gave the opportunity for daughters to nominate their mothers, mothers to nominate their daughters, husbands to nominate their wives, brothers to nominate their sisters, nieces to nominate their aunts, friends to nominate their coworkers, and so forth, said Yerxa.

The awards are rooted in the Seven Grandfather Teachings, seeking to highlight women who lead with Debwewin (Truth), Zoongidi’ewin (Courage), Manaaji’idiwin (Respect), Gwayakwaadiziwin (Honesty/Integrity), Zaagi’idiwin (Love), Nibwaakaawin (Wisdom), and Dabasendizowin (Humility).

For example, the Manaaji’idiwin (Respect) category would spotlight “a woman who leads with respect, reminds us to treat others how we would like to be treated. She understands deeply that to be harmful to others is to harm herself. Therefore, she is cautious and understands that when she centers self-respect, she knows it not only uplifts her but her family and community.”

And the Zaagi’idiwin (Love) category sought to honor “a woman who leads with love and carries deep compassion for others and self. She walks in kindness. Her inner peace serves as a light for others, reminding us all to strive for balance and grace with Creator.”

The selection committee used a blind selection process where all identifying information was removed from the nomination form. They also ensured that there was a balanced representation in the selection process, including voices from men, elders, and two-spirited people.

Honorees for awards have already been selected and will be announced at the end of the AWE Talks Gala Night, said Yerxa.

Several guest speakers and Indigenous leaders have been assembled for what organizers are hoping will be the first of many AWE Talks Gala Nights. The inaugural event takes place this weekend to a sold out crowd. The evening will honour Indigenous women, and celebrate the leadership and stewardship they bring to their communities and families. – Submitted photo

“I need to say that all of the nominations are definitely worthy of being honored. Going through those passages, reading the words of the nominators about the women that inspired them was really good medicine,” she said.

Drawing on the guidance and assistance from those they knew, AWE Collective was formed by a small group of volunteers who decided it was important to honor Indigenous women. Without the support from the community at large, Yerxa said nothing would have been possible.

“Because we’re just a handful of volunteer women, what we did was we brought in some of our relations to help us out with this, which is really an Anishinabeg way of doing things, bringing in your relationships to help with the process,” she said.

“We are grateful for the tremendous amount of support that this vision has received from the community at large,” she said. “For example, the event sold out quickly, we received a fair amount of nominations from community members, and we have been fortunate to have the generous sponsorship from Seven Generations Education Institute; Couchiching First Nation, Binesiwag Center for Wellness, Shooniyaa Wa Biitong, TD Bank, and the High Council. All of this speaks to the need and support to celebrate Anishinaabeg women.”

She said they are hoping to do more events in the future, and to have more people involved to see what could be accomplished when working collectively as a group.

Most of all, to those who can’t attend the event but would like participate in the cause, Yerza encourages them to reflect on how they can celebrate the Indigenous women in their lives.

“That’s something we all can do, not just the night of the gala, but every day of our lives.”