She was studying my face closely, and I could feel the weight of her eyes on me without even moving my eyes.
It was hot, the hair at the back of my neck was already dampening with sweat—I didn’t want to be here.
But my aunt wanted help picking medicine, so here I was.
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy helping her; it wasn’t even about the heat or my slightly distracting thirst for some water. I had been going through a hard time.
Every day was a battle lately, and I think she knew this as soon as I came over. I never spoke about it, but she knew:
“Look Sodíyeh:s. Have you noticed how bright the grass and the trees are today.”
She said this as we were crouching over a dandelion flower. I dug out the root of the flower, and she put oyę’gwaôweh in its place as thanks.
I lifted my head and looked across the yard to the bush-line behind her house. The shining sun illuminated layers of green, yellow and brown. The glow ignited the colours into even brighter shades, and I swear some of the leaves almost sparkled.
To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed what the grass looked like today, it’s like I was walking through the days with tunnel vision.
I just nodded and followed after her to find another dandelion.
“The birds are coming back now. I can hear them in the mornings again before everyone wakes up.” She added.
A few feet in front of us three birds flew together clumsily, bumping into each other before flying away only to quickly meet on a nearby tree branch. They were playing together I thought, chirping at each other.
“You know, Shôgwayadíhsôh gave these things to our people for a reason.” She said—I hadn’t even noticed her watching me now.
“What reason?” I asked, falling into step beside her.
“Well, he knew that we would also need medicines to strengthen our minds and spirits. There would be hardships and difficulties in our lives; he knew there would be times when we felt sadness and pain.
“That’s why he did specific things to help our people find happiness every day.
Have you ever gone outside first thing in the morning and the sight of how bright and fresh the grass is just made you smile?
Or the chirping and singing of the birds brought you some happiness or laughter. The bright colours that come from the flowers, the trees, and the sky.
Even the smallest things have a purpose. Not only to keep us alive, but to make us smile and bring us peace.”
“I never thought about it that way.” I said quietly. The full meaning of what she said steadily sinking in.
We were both standing now. Looking at the birds fly above us. It wasn’t until then that I took the time to breathe deeply—the earthy smell of the roots still covered in dirt and grass, mixed with the crisp smell of the light breeze.
Later, when the medicine was boiling on the stove, I went back outside.
I sat on the back porch steps and reflected on our walk. It seemed ordinary enough. There had been no grand declarations or long passionate speeches, but yet, I felt changed.
As I sat there, the day got even brighter—the sun peeked through the clouds and I closed my eyes against the brightness.
I felt a widening smile spread across my face involuntarily as the sun beat down. The warm and comforting heat encircled me, reminding me of a hug from knô:ha’. I didn’t realize until then that I had felt cold.
I relished in the embrace. Then just as quickly as the sun had parted the clouds to shine down, it was gone.
In my culture, women have always been the center of our world.
We are taught from infancy that women are to be valued always, and treated as the most precious things we have. They carry and bring the next generations into the world; they are our mentors and together they are the primary decision makers for the Longhouse, after listening to the people.
I can feel the blood pulse through me, a culmination of generations of spirited Longhouse women before me.
Their strength and resilience are what I look to when I’m feeling lost or burdened. I look at what they did for our people, for their grandchildren and the generations that they didn’t yet know, and I’m sure that I can conquer any obstacle.
Not just because of what they taught me, but because I’m not doing it alone.
I think back to my grandparents as little kids. As confused children in a residential school—alone, scared, and cold in a foreign place that held no love or compassion for them.
One may have heard about that before, the horrors of the residential schools have now come to light, because of the bravery of the survivors.
What I find even more admirable is their unbreakable spirit.
The strength that they had in their culture even as kindergarten children, even though they were taken from their families and their people at an age when they should have been blissfully free and loved. They didn’t let the institution win; these children grew up and came home.
They used their time to fight for every single right that our people have today.
They knew that they wouldn’t live to see the benefits, but that never weakened them. They risked their lives and their families to protect who we are, and the right to practice who we are and be proud.
My grandmother showed me strength. She taught our family to be proud of whom we are, to be proud of our people. She showed my family our culture even when her life was at risk to do so.
They believed in us, the future generations.
And every day, I work to honour them and the work they did. Not only by being in university or getting a good grade, but by living proudly and unapologetically as an Ôgwahô:weh.
They cleared the path so that we can now live as who we are, without fear.
I don’t know of a more heroic story.
My name is Chelsea Powless. I am a part of the Haudenosaunee people (the people of the longhouse) – in the Mohawk nation and Bear clan. I’m from Six Nations, a reserve along the Grand River. I was fortunate enough to have grown up immersed in my cultural teachings and language.
Currently, I am studying in my third year at Wilfrid Laurier University. My people and culture have always been an important part of my life and I find comfort in the traditional teachings and ceremonies that I was brought up with. I find inspiration in the tremendous success of Indigenous people and the variances between our lively and growing nations.