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From smudging to photos, agency helps people better understand Indigenous culture, traditions

'Indigenous people are happy to share our culture and history to anyone who wants to learn. It's what we have always wanted,' says founder Vanessa Kennedy

With National Day for Truth and Reconciliation now upon us, the founder of a local Indigenous organization has some insight on how to better understand things you might see today.

Started this past May, Red Quills began providing services to non-Indigenous sectors of the community in an effort to build meaningful relationships with the Indigenous population by sharing knowledge about culture and traditions. 

Red Quills founder Vanessa Kennedy was asked about several traditions people may see today and what they mean and/or how to respond. The first thing Kennedy made clear was that this day is for everyone, regardless of their background.

“I feel that some non-Indigenous people are nervous, or unknowing, when attending a ceremony or sacred fire," Kennedy explained. "Maybe they don't think it's for them, but that's just the opposite. Indigenous people are happy to share our culture and history to anyone who wants to learn. It's what we have always wanted.”

At the beginning of many events, there is what's called smudging. Kennedy explains that it's for everyone who wants to participate.

“When we smudge, it is meant to cleanse the air of any negative thoughts, emotions or energy that has been brought with you," she says. "It is done at a lot of events like a flag-raising, a powwow, circles or an opening event. It can be done by anybody and it is simply meant to bring positivity to the area between everyone.”

Kennedy says most people burn sage for their smudging, but it can be any of the Four Sacred Medicines common to First Nations, which also include tobacco, sweetgrass and cedar.

To some, smudging may look like you are pulling smoke to your head, but Kennedy explains there's a method to the act.

“You cleanse your head to cleanse out any negative thoughts, your ears to hear positive words, your eyes to see with positivity, your mouth for positive speech and the centre of your chest for positive heart and spirit,” she says. “You can also smudge the area in front of you to walk a positive path.”

Kennedy says many people have felt better after their first time being part of the act, and continue to do it whenever they can.

If you ever wonder about the background of an Indigenous person but don’t know how to ask, Kennedy understands and says how to go about it with the correct terminology.

“Generally, you just ask what First Nation or territory someone is from. I am from Wasauksing First Nation and some people will ask what Treaty that is; it is Treaty 61. That helps know exactly where someone is from and what territory they are actually from,” she says.

You can also ask what clan someone is from. Kennedy says they will usually then indulge in the rest of the information from there. 

She also pointed out that while the term “band” is in the Indian Act, it isn’t a term most people like to use when speaking of their First Nations background. 

When at some of public events, taking photographs may seem like something fun to do to remember the day. At some Indigenous events, though, you may hear organizers ask for no pictures to be taken at certain times. 

If you’re not sure when to take a picture, it is better to listen for that announcement or ask. As Kennedy admits, it does vary from time to time.

“It is sometimes a case-by-case situation. At a powwow, for example, it used to be forbidden to photograph the Grand Entry, but people are becoming more receptive to that,” she says. “The best thing to do with regards to pictures is ask and listen to instructions from the speaker of the event.”

One thing to watch for is if a feather  particularly eagle  falls off someone's regalia. 

“At that time, they will do an actual ceremony and play songs on how to retrieve that feather off the ground,” Kennedy says. “The eagle feather is revered as one of the highest items that Indigenous people keep, not own. We don’t own sacred items  we keep them until we can pass them down. Should that happen, it is a sacred moment and no pictures should be taken.”

While attending events today, it is always recommended to ask if you’re not certain.

Kennedy and Red Quills have worked with churches and the City of Barrie to help with cultural training as the country moves into a period of better understanding of Indigenous culture.

“I’ve recently spoken to them about the meaning of the orange shirts and the multi-generational impact of residential schools,” she says. “It's been going well and helping to bring understanding is something I enjoy doing.”

You will also likely hear the word ‘miigwetch’ a lot today and when you do, feel free to say it back.

“Miigwetch just means 'thank you' and there is no real response needed, but you can say it back as a way to show you understand or if you mean to,” Kennedy says. “You have also probably heard chi-miigwetch, which is just a big thank you. To be honest, we are likely to be happy to hear it back as it is a great thing to hear our language being brought back.”

Kennedy says she also hears from a lot of people about how to be a better ally and has provided this list:

  • Reach out to local Indigenous organizations 
  • Attend workshops to understand culture and history 
  • Invite Indigenous people to sit on your boards and committees
  • Engage in meaningful conversation and build friendships
  • Question elected officials about their views on Indigenous issues and rights
  • Push for more Indigenous representation 
  • Champion land dedicated to Indigenous ceremonies in your area
  • Support Indigenous businesses
  • Educate yourself on Indigenous issues
  • Help support Indigenous history being taught in organizations and schools
  • Smash stereotypes 
  • Read Indigenous narratives (books) and listening to Indigenous podcasts and other forms of media 

Like Red Quills, BANAC also offers a form of Culture Awareness Training.

Shawn Gibson

About the Author: Shawn Gibson

Shawn Gibson is a staff writer based in Barrie
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