“No beginning and no end”: Sandra’s Narrative
By: Sandra Lamouche
Sandra Lamouche is a Nehiyaw Iskwew (Cree Woman) from the Bigstone Cree Nation in Northern Alberta and married into the Piikani Nation in Southern Alberta and mother to two boys with braids. She completed her B.A. in Native American Studies from the University of Lethbridge in 2007. In 2021 she successfully defended her M.A. Thesis at Trent University, titled “Nitona Miyo Pimatisiwin (Seeking a Good Life) Through Indigenous Dance” which examines Indigenous Dance as a Social Determinant of Health and Well Being. Sandra is a multidisciplinary creator and storyteller, she is a Champion Hoop Dancer, award winning Indigenous Educational Leader, two-time TEDx Speaker, artist, and writer. Photo credit: Define Yourself Photography
As an Indigenous woman raised with aspects of both traditional Nehiyaw (Cree) culture, values, practices, and language, alongside Western ways, the challenges and benefits of learning to walk with a balance of both worlds and negotiating what is the best of both, I have come to embrace life as a process of learning, become fearless in trying new things, and even accepted failure as necessary. Without the struggles and challenges that learning and doing new things necessitates, there cannot be growth or learning. This attitude is essential to creating a new way forward in education, we need to be okay with getting it wrong, which makes getting it right so much more of a celebration. For me, Two-Eyed Seeing is ingrained in all aspects of life and requires deep thought, reflection, and even criticism. Sometimes it means asking a question and not getting an answer.
As a mother, I felt a huge responsibility to ensure the cultural knowledge I was taught was continued and built upon. This was an important part of why I began working in education over a decade ago. My academic background in Indigenous Studies helped with this, but it was mostly my involvement in culture and ceremony that I credit the majority of my success, including my relationships, sobriety, hoop dancing, and even for my career.
Kokum School: Our Indigenous Land-Based Homeschool Year
In Nehiyawak (Cree) culture, the idea of Miyo Pimadisiwin – the Good Life is a guiding practice that some people aspire to. The idea is sometimes related to balance and holistic well-being. In his book about social work, Seeking Mino-Pimatisiwin: An Aboriginal Approach to Helping (2002), Dr. Michael Anthony Hart (Nehiyaw) interviewed several Nehiyawak elders and used their knowledge to create an explanation of the good life. He notes that it is described as “a process of learning, growing and being, or being in becoming” (p.52).To live a good life we must always be open to and actively trying to learn more. This is often at odds with Western ideas that see childhood as a time of learning and adulthood as having reached a pinnacle of knowing. Just like the principles of learning, Miyo Pimadisiwin is also future oriented. It is an ongoing process. It is guided by life experiences. It is about balance and includes the spiritual, physical, emotional and mental.
The principles of learning inspired by Two-Eyed Seeing are driven by life experiences and connection to the land, which is grounded in reciprocity. This is one of the reasons my family chose to radically shift our education for the 2020-2021 school year. During the summer of 2020 we had been social distancing and at home learning and spending summer close to home. This is when my sisters and I discussed the option of online and/or homeschooling our kids as a cohort. For both of my kids the lack of Indigenous content in schools with 30-40% Indigenous students was a red flag. I was excited about the opportunity to try something different. My mom is a Cree language teacher—it was her first language—and she also taught culture and values. My family started a cohort for what we called Kokum School for four cousins, including my two boys. They were together for three days a week. The other two days I would have them home with me. We decided to focus on Indigenous history, culture and language as much as possible. This meant in social studies lessons on rights and responsibilities including our Nehiyaw views. Responsibilities such as respecting the land and learning our culture, stories and language.
We focused a lot on land based learning as well. Going for hour-long nature walks 1-2 times per week. This often involved walking by the river and allowed us to watch over the seasons, such as the changing of leaves and the water levels in the river. It became a year long lesson in the states of water, the local ecosystem including animal behaviour, migration and hibernation, the seasons, trees and plants, traditional stories and more. We even made sure to do a tobacco offering, prayer, and give thanks to the water along with a writing and art assignment on the river on International Water Day.
Land-based learning was more effective than worksheet-based learning. One example, is when we went to the local golf course in the winter for our physical activity. It was a place where kids gathered for sledding on one of the larger hills. As we were walking up the side of a hill near some bushes my youngest son exclaimed “what’s that!”. I looked to where his eyes were focused and we saw a mouse burrow down into the snow. We saw the small mouse footprints on top of the snow and a small hole where they disappeared underneath. This was a real life lesson on animals in winter and hibernation. He still reminds me of that mouse. He even made me a detailed drawing of it as a gift that year. In contrast, we were doing a worksheet on animals and hibernation and he drew a lion’s mane on the weasel on the worksheet. He has never seen one in real life and thought it might look like a lion. Needless to say the experience of seeing an animal in real life was pretty impactful and a more effective teaching tool than the worksheet. Today when we are out in winter we still look for small footprints on the snow, especially excited when we see the tiny tunnels where animals have burrowed down into.
Having an experience led practice meant that we could not plan for some of the learning that we encountered by chance. This requires flexibility and patience, as well as trust. Believing that this is a ‘productive’ and ‘useful’ activity and worth the time. The biggest barrier was getting past the colonial and western narratives of being constantly productive in a capitalist sense of the word. This took commitment to the process! We were only able to observe the changes of the river water, ice, thaw, etc. because we spent so much time watching it change. We were only able to see the migration of geese and changing of leaves by being vigilant in our walks in nature. This could never be condensed into a week or month long lesson. Or even planned as a seasonal lesson.
Medicine Wheel Goals
During our homeschooling year we decided to integrate health and wellness curriculum using a Nehiyawak Medicine Wheel. This is the same that I used in my thesis research. This Medicine Wheel uses the spiritual, physical, emotional and mental aspects of humans and seeks to balance these parts of the self. The goal is to live a good and balanced life and use the different teachings around respect, responsibility, etc. Each month we created a goal for each area of the Medicine Wheel and kept track of how often we were able to do this. Goals ranged from helping each other, cleaning, reading more, doing art work, playing outside, etc. I encouraged my sons to think of how they can reflect on their life and how they can try to learn and grow in each area. To my surprise, my youngest son made it his goal to ‘stop saying bad words.’ Yes, he enjoyed saying things that would get a laugh or reaction out of others. I am not sure where he started to pick this up, but swear words were occasionally spewed out of his little mouth. I had tried for years to discourage this. He was the total opposite of his older brother, who now, even at age thirteen, I have never heard him say anything even close to a curse word. So gladly, we wrote it on his Medicine Wheel, I can’t even remember what we put it under. He chose to stop saying ‘bad words’ and even corrected me if I said any of what he considered ‘bad words.’ Since then he has not said any bad words at all. Giving him the power and choice to make his own goals empowered him and was more effective than any of my parenting tactics in this regard. The importance of self-determination is vital to learning and growing.
This was a holistic and empowering lesson for all of us, the Medicine Wheel goals was a tool to remind us to reflect on our own responsibilities. The commitment and constant reminder brought a sense of renewal and continuity to these lessons. In no other space in our life do we see these holistic practices reflected, so making a commitment of time and space was essential to our success. The flexibility and self-determination allowed for this to be an empowering lesson and experience for my children. They were able to choose important goals. They were also taught to create manageable goals and through trial and error over the years they could better determine their ability to reach a goal or if it was too easy and something they already did or if it was too big or difficult of a goal.
This experience changed our perspective and understanding of education. It was very difficult at first and I had many doubts. I did learn a lot and had to put a lot of thought, planning and work into it. It was an opportunity to experience how our traditional education or ways of knowing might have operated. Being on the land, using holistic wellness, spending time learning with family and community, learning by life experiences, and more.
Our experience during our year of homeschooling was an important lesson and helped us in our understanding of learning. I learned that our structure of education can be focused on the future, by including Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and that was also focused on Mother Earth and learning from the past. I learned that we could flourish as an Indigenous family in a holistic sense if we were given the chance and the culturally appropriate tools and environment to allow that to happen.
Braiding Indigenous ways of knowing and being into all aspects of life often means were are directly in opposition to oppressive forces and structures. I think of it as swimming upstream, we are literally moving against the current. This is where it is so important to remain focused and committed to the practices around reciprocity, relationship and process and protocols. Going slow is still forward movement and in itself an act of self-determination against a consumerist society where value is placed largely on productivity.
Hoop Dance Stories
My teacher Jerry First Charger (Blood) taught me the Anishinaabe version that he was taught. In this teaching, the hoop has no beginning and no end. It is infinite. He said that everything you do comes back to you. Like a circle. It was a constant lesson to do good. To try to put good into the world, so that good comes back to you. It doesn’t mean to be perfect, but it is a reminder to try your best. The hoop dance taught me about responsibility. I was at a point in my life that I was ready to take on the responsibility of being a hoop dancer. Having studied the history of Indigenous people in Canada I was aware of the great harms that were caused and the attack on our identity and culture. This made me passionate about learning as much as I could about my own culture and identity. The hoop dance allowed me to do this. It taught me about striving to learn and do better, it is future oriented and focused on having a ‘growth mindset.’
The hoop dance embodied and symbolized important aspects of life that I was taught to value growing up, this included respected all life, balance and more. The circle is a symbol of creation or the ‘hoop of life.’ It represents balance and unity.
Once, after a performance at a school, I was asked if I would prompt the students to tell me what they saw during the dance, and I would respond by telling them if they were ‘correct’ or not. This is not how the hoop dance works. I was taught that the manitous or spirit of the hoops manifest in ways that the audience needs to see. It is a special meaning for each person who is watching and it is not up to the hoop dancer to share what is the right or wrong way to see the shapes. Each hoop dancer has their own story to tell, but the interpretation of the audience is also a valid perspective.
Hoop dancing in itself is a symbol of holistic wellbeing. The hoop being an all inclusive and universal symbol. It taught me about balance, reciprocity and relationships. It taught me about how to be a good student and how to be a good teacher as well, to honour the journey of each individual.