Over the past year, the University of Lethbridge community has had unique opportunities to learn about Aboriginal ways of being and begin the process of reconciliation. In addition to two discussion forums, one with Dr. Leroy Little Bear and one with Commissioner Chief Wilton Little Child, Dr. Martha Many Grey Horses, director of the U of L’s Iikaisskini First Nations, Métis and Inuit Centre has led many initiatives across campus.
Last October, Many Grey Horses organized a workshop for the University community and local agencies on old Blackfoot words with Elder Beverly Hungry Wolf.
“Even though some of us are fluent speakers we are still severed from opportunities to hear these old Blackfoot words. The words are still used but mostly in ceremonial contexts and there’s knowledge connected to the words,” says Many Grey Horses. “The Blackfoot language is gentle; I always say it’s a language of the heart.”
Another workshop focused on First Nations traditional hand games. Working with Mary Ellen Little Mustache, and the oldest Piikani Elder, Alphonse Little Mustache, as co-facilitators, a Fine Arts class learned about popular team games that were known throughout North America. In another workshop, Elders John and Keith Chief Moon explained the origin of some of the old powwow songs and shared stories about the drum and nature.
“Our songs are closely linked to nature and it was revitalizing for students to feel connected to their heritage,” she says. “In all of these workshops, the students were learning a lot about their heritage and it was good for them to get that connection back.”
At Many Grey Horses’ recommendation, Keith Chief Moon also worked with Dr. Janet Youngdahl, a U of L music professor and conductor of the University of Lethbridge Singers, on a performance that featured choir music and Blackfoot drumming and singing at Southminster United Church.
“Another special initiative was the honour call ceremony,” she says. “That was held during the Meeting of the Minds conference. I worked with the Dean of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Students’ Association and with the Elder Peter Weasel Moccasin. The honour call was to recognize the work of four FNMI master’s alumni.”
“It’s the first time this particular honour call has been held on campus,” says Lucía Stavig, conference co-ordinator with the Graduate Student Association. “You could feel it. It was so haunting at the same time it was so powerful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Many Grey Horses also organized a session on Blackfoot traditional child-rearing practices with Georgette Fox and Sophie Tailfeathers, two members of the Buffalo Women’s Society. Students in Dr. Janay Nugent’s (BA ’95) Women and Gender Studies class heard about Blackfoot teachings given by the four-legged, the winged ones, the water creatures and the Earth. They also spoke about the residential school experience.
“My students were just hanging on every word. They didn’t want to miss anything,” says Nugent. “You can read about residential schools but to have someone who lived that experience made it more real. Until you can see the expressions on their faces and their body language and hear the emotions in their voices, you don’t really understand how powerful and important traditions are.”
Nugent added the talk also brought home the idea that the entire community has a role to play in truth and reconciliation and understanding the effects of residential schools.
Two additional projects were conducted to show respect for the Métis. Many Grey Horses, along with Rod Mcleod, Métis elder, U of L employee Tara Froehlich (who demonstrated Métis beadwork) and City of Lethbridge inclusion co-ordinator Roy Pogorzelski (who performed a traditional jig), conducted a workshop to commemorate Louis Riel and the role he played in the history of Western Canada. A second workshop gave international students on campus the chance to learn about the Métis people.
In conjunction with the Lethbridge Public Library, Many Grey Horses is also working on developing an FNMI Children’s Literacy program as a pilot project. Partners in the project include the YWCA, Lethbridge School District No. 51, Lethbridge College, elders from the Kainai and Piikani First Nations, Faculty of Education professors Dawn Burleigh and Dr. Robin Bright, along with champions from the Lethbridge Police Service and Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society. She hopes the project can be in place sometime this fall. Another project under development with the Galt Museum will focus on Blackfoot grandmothers telling stories.
Many Grey Horses also gave a talk about the impact of residential school and internalized oppression at a Women Scholars Group Speaker Series session.
“As I’m speaking, my grandson is born. So, on the one hand I was talking about a deep, heavy subject but on the other hand, there was this joy about new life. What a moment,” she says.