“It’s like I am exhaling for the first time in a long time. Really learned in the last two years how much connection means to people,” said Cheryl Whiskeyjack, the executive director of the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.
“I don’t think that’s an Indigenous thing. I think that’s a human thing. Just to be able to welcome everybody back into the circle and celebrate has meant so much.
“We are better together.”
Bent Arrow works to promote the Indigenous community in a culturally relevant, authentic and sincere way. On Tuesday, a few hundred people gathered for drumming and dancing, including a round dance.
Whiskeyjack said National Indigenous Peoples Day is a chance for everyone to learn more and celebrate about the rich traditions, art and history of Indigenous people.
Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations Grand Chief George Arcand remembers stories about his relatives having to hide their culture.
“Part of the change we need to make is making people feel comfortable that we don’t have to hide those things,” he said.
On Tuesday, Arcand said watching connections being formed at the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society was everything, adding the events show the world the things his people have to offer.
“When you see the children dancing, it brings happiness to me, to see our people finally standing up and saying, ‘It’s OK to be Aboriginal. It’s OK to be First Nation.’ Now we need to start figuring out how we start to make that difference.”
Artist Alaynee Goodwill-Littlechild was demonstrating traditional hide-painting to children at the Art Gallery of Alberta on Tuesday and said teaching her culture is part of reconciliation.
It has been a difficult few years with the recent discoveries of suspected and confirmed unmarked graves at residential school sites across the country.
Both Goodwill-Littlechild and Whiskeyjack noted while The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in September, also known as Orange Shirt Day, is about recognizing the legacy of the Canadian residential school system — there is so much more to their people’s history than tragedy.
“I think both days separately and together are still really meaningful,” said Goodwill-Littlechild, who is a traditional First Nations artist from Maskwacis. “There’s still a lot to be shared.”
“There’s this sad narrative around Indigenous people and certainly there is a tone to that day — there is definitely a reason we need to have it — but it isn’t the whole of who we are,” Whiskeyjack said of Orange Shirt Day.
“I think one of the reasons we have been so resilient and able to withstand so many things over our history is that we aren’t that — we are strength, we are hope, we are all of those good things as well. A day like today, really sort of bubbles all of that up to the surface for the whole day.”
Whiskeyjack said as much as people need to acknowledge the past — they also need to celebrate the good too.
“I think Canada thinks they know who Indigenous people are, but when you look us up, it’s dark — and this isn’t dark, and this is more representative of who we are.”
Whiskeyjack said the kids in attendance at Tuesday’s events came from a variety of backgrounds, and some are new to Canada.
“Having them experience celebrations like this really colours how they look at Indigenous people going forward in our ways and ceremonies. Same thing with newcomers — so many of these kids are also newcomer kids.
“So having that ability to have that impact on their impressions and beliefs about Indigenous people is really important — I think it’s a really important part of reconciliation.”