CREE ELDER BIOGRAPHY
My English name is Mary Lee. I am from Pelican Lake, in northern Saskatchewan. I have five children, three girls and two boys. Together those children have given me twenty-three grandchildren and four great grandchildren, two boys and two girls.
There are women older than me who are sometimes made to feel that, because they don’t have the English language or education, they don’t have a right to speak. But those are the powerful ones, the sacred ones, because they were not disrupted in their journey. My mother was one of those women. Her knowledge was pure, uninterrupted by residential school. It wasn’t written knowledge; it was a life she lived.
My mother spoke only Cree. From a very early age, she instilled in her children the value of our culture and language. She had two daughters and five sons. All of us speak Cree and have gone to ceremonies like the Sun Dance and the Sweat Lodge since we were little children. She shared with us the teachings and meanings of these ceremonies. And she also shared her teachings with women in the community, because she was given the gift of helping women in their journey to becoming mothers. In English, you would call her a midwife. Many of her teachings to me were about the sacredness of motherhood and how to help women raise healthy children in the world. She retained these teachings because her life was not interrupted by residential school. So she was able to parent differently, with the knowledge that was given to her as a child. That is why I say all of my teachings, everything I know, that it came from her.
Everything my mother learned came from her grandmother, who raised her when both of her parents died. So she learned everything from two generations before her. I am fortunate; because of my great grandmother and mother, I can share the teachings that at one time were known to all Cree women, like the teepee teachings and teachings on the value of women.
So in honor of Cree women everywhere I will share these teachings with you.
I work in an Aboriginal high school as an Elder Counselor. The youth I work with struggle with their identity and sense of culture. I try to instill in them the teachings that I have learned, especially with the young women. I talk about teachings, not to alter or change them, but to inspire the youth to seek out more information. I can only talk about the teachings as they were told to me. If people want to learn more, then it’s up to them to journey forth and look for elders that can continue to advise. The expectation is that people have to go on to seek it out on their own. This is how teachings are shared and acquired.
In addition to my work at the high school, I also work in the provincial women’s jail, Pine Grove. It is the only women’s prison in the province. There are kookums (grandmothers) in there, and mothers in their thirties, and also very young adults, nineteen and twenty, that shouldn’t be in there. I often think there should be other ways of dealing with criminal activities besides housing people behind bars.
I go there to help the women remember who they are - that they are more than their classification as offenders. For some of them, that is all they know - they’ve been told they’ve broken the law and that’s their record. When I visit with them, I see them as women. I look at them as I would any other woman: that sacred being that was given that responsibility to bring life, and to bring about warmth and comfort in their communities and families. I don’t look at them as what they’ve done. Some of them have done awful things. But I like to believe that their spirit hasn’t been completely broken.
So I spend time with them, to talk about the teepee teachings. And some of the teachings I go into in depth - because I know by looking at them what they need the most out of the fifteen teachings of the teepee that I talk about. I’ll go into those teachings in depth with them, because I hope that there is a healing process beginning to happen.
In this way I practice traditional counseling. I don’t rely on the book learned counseling methods, sociology and all that stuff. I use it when I have to, but I prefer to use the counseling methods that the old people used. They believed you never trick the brain or work with the head to make that person think they’re okay. You work with the spirit because the healing of the spirit will carry that person longer.