Ongwehon:weh – by Lorrie Gallant

Photo of Jan Kahehti:io Longboat courtesy of Sonny Thomas

The history of this country that most people know has been recorded by explorers coming to this land.  They wrote what they observed and drew images depicting the exotic and unusual things they saw. The history that we know as Ongweheon:weh comes from the stories that are told by our elders. What we know as a people is what we have always known and we try to live it every day. Some things have changed but when you’ve grown up with your grandparents, and even your great grandparents, those changes are subtle over the years. The relationship we have with our elders is the precious and delicate connection between where we have been and where we are going. 

The connection we have as First Nations people to the earth is spiritual because we have always been here, that’s what the word Ongweheon:weh means.  Our elders are our roots into this earth. Our meaning for elder is different than the Euro-Canadian definition.  There is no word in the Haudenosaunee language for ‘elder.’ For us, an elder has nothing to do with age but everything to do with respect.  When I was growing up on the reserve I remember always being around my parents, grandparents and aunties. As a child, my mother would bring me to quilting bees with a sack of toys and I spent many afternoons sitting under the tent of a quilt being made by the women of the St. John’s church. I don’t remember ever being in daycare, kindergarten or even a baby-sister unless it was my brothers or older cousins. 

I remember when I was little my mom told me her mother never locked the door. She would lean a broom outside the front door and that would tell visitors she wasn’t home. It’s not like that anymore.  My father’s house was broken into last summer while he was sleeping in his bed. This is not how we honour our elders. The outside world has had an effect on our way of life. How did this happen?  That subtle change has become dramatic in the last few years and I fear where it will lead. Elders in our community should feel safe in their homes, surrounded by the people that honour them for the years they have survived.

Historically, the classroom is not where first nations’ youth would learn in.  We were taught by our community as we observed and participated. The education of First Nations youth is connected to the elders and the community, a place where learning is holistic and organic. This is how the gifts and abilities that have been given by the Creator are nurtured.  These gifts were given to benefit the whole community and this is why the connection between youth and elder is so important. Language, traditions, culture, spiritual values and knowledge of who we are as a people are passed down from one generation to the next.  

I read an article a long time ago about a woman who went to a Northern First Nations community to work in the public library. She found that no one ever came to take books out.  She tried many different programs but no one would come.  She noticed that the library had some video equipment so she decided to go out into the community and record conversations with homebound elders. When she put the videos out for the public to borrow, she couldn’t keep them on the shelf.  I thought this would be a great idea to re-connect the younger generation to the older. So I took advantage of my position of Education Extension Officer here at Woodland Cultural Centre to put this inspirational idea into action here on Six Nations. Interviewing elders would be a contemporary way of preserving our culture.  The youth of this community could benefit if they became the interviewers.  I realized that these stories would make a great book and with every great book, there are always great images. So photography workshops came into play. Workshops with a graphic designer would help put it all together and give the youth ownership over the project.  

This project became known as The Elders Project. It would combine culture, education and art with First Nations youth, artists and elders within a community. The results, like the young librarian had discovered, became more of an impact to the community than I could have ever imagined, beginning with me. I got acquainted with elders in this community that I have lived around for years but never really got to know. The first phone call or visit that I made to invite them to be a part the project was the beginning of them sharing their wisdom. Then these elders were given an opportunity to sit with youth and share something that was important to them and to who we are as First Nations people. Interviewing contemporary elders provided a continuity of the Haudenosaunee way of life. Elders are the keepers of our culture, language and spiritual beliefs.  I am inspired by their ability to adapt to the enormous changes around them and yet stay true to their beliefs.

There are some people that are meant to cross our paths in life.  These people change the way we view the world.  They make you stop before you speak and think about how our action will affect those around us.  This person is Jan “Kahehti:io” Longboat.  She is an elder from Six Nations and my life is blessed knowing her.   She once told me “Teachers are all around us, in the earth, the animals, plants and the old people.  Watch them, listen to them and learn from them.”  She gathers and grows many plants and herbs to make medicines, teas and ointments, she works with women survivors of the residential schools.  Jan said that she is helping on our journey of over 500 years to pick up the pieces that we have dropped.  “Get ready and always be prepared,” is what she told me. I believe that First Nations people are all survivors, resilient and have learned to adapt. This is why we’re still here!

Our community is going through a strain but when we work together we become strong. I hope that this project can be a positive return to that safe place of what community means. 

Ietshii’a’:wih (pronounced yit-tee-yah-wee) means “They will give something to you all.”

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