Joseph Naytowhow discusses how to move forward together in the wake of a national tragedy.
The entire province has been left reeling after a series of violent stabbings committed on the James Smith Cree Nation. Now that the danger has passed, many have begun to look forward and focus on healing.
The attacks, which took place over the Labour Day long weekend, left 10 dead and 18 others injured. The assailants, Myles and Damien Sanderson, also died.
Chief Wally Burns made a statement after the attacks had ended, in which he declared that we must now begin the healing process. Burns also noted how vital it was for people to come together at this time, not just within the community, but as Canadians.
Chief Burns has since asked for better resources within Indigenous communities, which he believes will be effective in preventing events like this in the future. These include First Nations policing services on reserves, as well as better treatment centers for mental health and addiction issues.
Joseph Naytowhow, an award-winning Indigenous actor, storyteller, musician, cultural leader, speaker, and knowledge keeper affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan, agrees with Burn’s assessment of the need for improved resources within Indigenous communities. Naytowhow particularly mentioned how living conditions were still not good enough, and how these often lead to other problems such as addictions. The knowledge-keeper said that today many of these issues surround the use of heavier drugs, whereas he said that “…back in my day it was alcohol.”
Naytowhow also believes that the conditions that lead to events like these attacks happening are connected to colonization and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
“If people are stepped on, walked over, ignored, and maybe[sic] invisible… At some point that will explode.”
Beyond that, Naytowhow believes a key component of healing for Indigenous communities is to form a stronger connection to their identity.
“I think what would help is to strengthen the identity of those people, first of all, as their Indigenous culture, so they can be happy and proud of who they are, before they can take on another identity… Canadian identity.”
Burns and Naytowhow had similar thoughts on collaboration being an element of the process of reconciliation as well.
Naytowhow described the processes of colonization as a machine, forcing Indigenous people to stop practicing their traditions and way of life. He now believes that the only way to get out of that cycle would be for everyone to come together as one decolonization machine, or reconciliation machine. Collaboration is vital to overcome these conditions.
Naytowhow does believe some improvements have been made in the way of decolonization, but there is still work to be done. He feels that reconciliation needs to happen at every level of government, healthcare, education, business, and more.
The University of Saskatchewan showed its continued commitment to the process of reconciliation through their response to the attacks. President Peter Stoicheff released a statement expressing the tragedy and grief of this event, and announcing that mental health support, cultural services and a safe gathering space at the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Centre would be available on campus.
Following these announcements, the University established an emergency trust to provide financial aid to students directly impacted by the violence.
Naytowhow says he was “quite moved” by this response on behalf of the University, and feels it is definitely “a step in the right direction.”
When asked how individuals can help to facilitate change, Naytowhow explained that while events like Orange Shirt Day (coming up on Sept. 29) are a nice thing to have, it’s important to make an effort every day. He said that there are plenty of things that are doable year-round that really contribute to lifting someone’s spirits.
“Text out, ‘let’s make a hamper.’ Let’s make sandwiches for someone [who needs them]. Give them a shirt, an orange shirt to wear, something like that.”
He also thinks it’s important for students and people to inform themselves about the conditions that many Indigenous people are still living in in this country, and to educate themselves about the history of Indigenous issues here.
“Say you didn’t have an Indigenous friend, make an Indigenous friend. Say you didn’t understand the Indigenous people’s way of life, well, you go to a ceremony or ask an Elder…If you live daily with the intention to try to make this place a better place to live, you know, with others, what would that look like? Think about how you could do that.”
The attack at James Smith Cree Nation was a tragedy, and it teaches us that, as Canadians, we must all come together to work toward reconciliation and healing.
“It’s human beings,” Naytowhow said. “Rather than this people or that, that seem like they’re separate, but they’re not. We’re all human beings, right? We live here in this planet, Mother Earth. It will take time to get there [but] we’re getting there, slowly.”