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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future


Sociology Student and Native Youth Counsellor

I'd like to share with you what it was like for me growing up in this society as a North American Indian. And, I want to talk about my experience working with children of trauma.

I grew up off the reserve, but for the past year I worked as a native counsellor at a high school and this summer ran a youth camp on my reserve at Big Grassy.

For me the most difficult aspect of growing up in Canada has been attempting to balance two very distinct and, at times, opposing cultures.

The Ojibway tradition and way of life require complete respect and acceptance of teachings that are centuries old. Trying to live a way of life that's respectful, patient, sharing and very spiritual — while being a member of a fast-paced, competitive society — is, most of the time, very frustrating.

Luckily, I was raised with a strong sense of pride and a strong sense of identity. I was able to follow the old way of life.

Unfortunately, many people confuse way of life with lifestyle. Because I dress similarly, attend school, drive a car, go to the same movies and listen to music, people often think that there's nothing different about me.

My way of life is very spiritual. We have a different history, different concepts, language, and our perceptions of the world, as with many other minority groups, are very different.

The way that I live is often inconsistent with the way mainstream society functions. A lot of people find this difficult to deal with. Some react with patience, some are tolerant others are patronizing. Some people are very hostile. I've learned to deal with that.

I spent most of my teenage years volunteering with various native and youth-oriented organizations in Thunder Bay. I received a lot of support from a group called the Multicultural Association. They allowed me to be a part of a group and at the same time I was able to represent and work for my people without being ridiculed. They not only accepted my differences, but they promoted and encouraged them.

Unfortunately, many young native people do not have that opportunity. Instead, they are shamed for their differences and this results in a lot of pain.

These are children of trauma and that's what I'd like to talk about tonight.

Children of trauma live in an environment where emotion is stimulated, but the release of emotion is blocked. For example, watching a death and not being allowed to grieve, or having an experience where you're not allowed to express yourself.

Most native children are children of trauma.

I worked with 35 native students in a remote high school; 25 of them came from dysfunctional families.

I had five attempted suicides, two cases of abuse, four new moms and three new dads, all under the age of 17. There was one abortion. One 15-year-old girl who practices self mutilation in an attempt to stop her dad from drinking.

I had continuous abuse of drugs and alcohol by many of my students. I had emotionally disturbed kids as a result of accumulated trauma or a severe trauma in their past that was either a result a death, violence or suicide.

The individual cases were heart-breaking and tragic.

One of my students, a 17-year-old, was an orphan. Her dad had died in a house fire when she was seven. Two years later, her mom was a victim of a rape murder.

I had another student, 17, whose mother and father died in a murder suicide. His dad shot his mom, then killed himself when the student was only 12.

These were my kids and my friends and my people.

The statistics that so often are quoted in the news media are very real, especially to me and to my students.

To be an Indian in Canada, North America, is to be very concerned and even angry. Statistics like these are excellent indicators of assaults that have been launched against our way of life. The people who launch these assaults may not even realize it.

When our young people — being very impressionable — hear these bad things, they tend to question the wisdom of their own people. This shouldn't happen.

Unfortunately, many of them do not have a strong family upbringing and have lost much of their culture. They turn to the bad in the white man's world. They turn to the drugs and the alcohol and the crime because its much easier to live in the white man's world, because our culture requires a lot of respect and self-discipline.

Changes have to be made. If a young person cannot get a sense of pride from home, they should be able to look elsewhere to find it.

At school, they must not see their people portrayed as savages who didn't exist until the white man discovered them. They must see that they have as much right to eat in a restaurant as any other person. They must see that native justice does not only refer to all of the Indians in jail but also to the Indians lawyers defending them.

They must see that not all the Indians are drunks, like they have been told and that there's a very special and honourable gift to having been born Indian. They cannot do this if they are being fed the opposite message from the white man who controls everything, from what they study in their school to what they can and cannot do in their own home on their reserve.

These children of trauma need someone to help them start the healing process.

The first step is validating their pain; to say to a young person, yes many bad things have happened in your life.

The next step is to say to them, its ok to feel hurt because of those things and to cry or to feel sad.

The third step is to be there for them when they need you and to help them look at themselves with self- respect because they are survivors.

The next step is to give them time, time to deal with the pain and then encourage them to move on.

There's survival techniques that they have developed and that's what many youth, youth at risk, many of my students have developed; such as rebellion, withdrawal, acting out aggression, their drug abuse, the attempted suicides and so on.

We had one suicide last year. The majority of them are attempts and they are simply a cry for help. The survival techniques make them less sensitive to the pain, but the cry for help is very real. If someone answers their cry and gives them an opportunity to heal, maybe some of these young people could get on with their own personal, mental, emotional and spiritual development, instead of worrying about just getting through the day.

Cultural self esteem is particularly an important element of the healing process for my students. To learn to love themselves and their own people and not to be shamed. For so long they have watched the suffering.

They need to see that the generational legacy of abuse and alcoholism does not have to continue.

They must develop pride; not a false arrogant pride where they will put down other people, but a true honest understanding of the trauma that their people have endured for centuries; a pride that will help them to let go of their fear, of their rage and their hopelessness. A pride that will inspire them to better themselves.

I try to teach them that, because some of the adults in their lives have lost or discarded their values, that values themselves are still valid.

People often ask me why I turned out different, or how I made it?

I was blessed with a wonderful family. My mother taught me respect and pride and honour and she enabled me to overcome my personal traumas. Now I dedicate my time to helping other people overcome theirs.

There is a lot of grief in our world, but there is also a lot of beauty. I would like to finish by sharing with you a poem that I feel expresses a little of what I talked about this evening and also a little of our purpose at this conference.

It is called, Walk a Little Plainer, Mommy.

Walk a little plainer, Mommy,
Said the little girl so frail;
I'm following in your footsteps
And, I do not want to fail.

Sometimes your steps are very plain,
Sometimes they're hard to see;
So, walk a little plainer, Mommy,
For you are leading me.

I know that once you walked those ways,
many years ago;
And what you did along the way,
I'd really like to know.

For sometimes when I'm tempted,
I don't know what to do;
So walk a little plainer, Mommy,
For I must follow you.

Someday, when I'm grown up,
You are like I want to be;
Then, I will have a little girl,
Who will want to follow me.

And I would like to lead her right
And help her to be true;
So, walk a little plainer, Mommy,
For I must follow you.

This appeared in the April 1988 issue of Healing our Hearts, a Seattle, Washington, Indian Health Board Indian Alcohol Prevention Team project newsletter. The author is unknown.