‘Be proud,’ Cree elder says at National Indigenous Peoples ceremony

Cree Elder Jack Robinson says the time for hiding is over, and there is no need for First Nations people to be ashamed of their customs and traditions.

Holding a colourful pipe and sitting inside a teepee in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson on Tuesday morning, Robinson explained his reason for pulling aside the teepee’s skirt and allowing cameras to be present for a sunrise ceremony to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Joined in a circle by about 25 others inside the teepee, with a bonfire crackling in the middle, Robinson acknowledged that others might not be happy about it, but said some practices, like forbidding photography during ceremonies, were born of fear and should be cast aside.

Those rules, he said, trace back to the days when Canadian law said it was illegal for First Nations people to practise their culture.

“They were always afraid if somebody takes pictures, they’re going to take it to the authorities,” he said, noting his grandfather used to hide in the woods to do ceremony in private.

“For me, I allow it. We want people to know what we are doing now and be proud of what we are doing.”

WATCH | Elder Jack Robinson at sunrise ceremony in Thompson:

Importance of sharing ceremonies

7 hours ago

Duration 1:24

Elder Jack Robinson talks about why he allowed media to record the sunrise ceremony that kicked off National Indigenous Peoples Day events in Thompson, Man.

With that, he welcomed members of the public and media to the ceremony, as the sun crested the horizon in MacLean Park.

Following a smudge — a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place — Robinson said prayers and told stories. He explained the uses of different ceremonial pipes used by First Nations. His daughter, Gina Spence, passed around a pipe for each to share in it.

The sunrise ceremony was the start of day-long celebrations planned in Thompson, as well as communities across Manitoba and the country, for National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Events in Thompson include lessons on the Seven Sacred Teachings, or Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers — a set of lessons on human conduct toward others, the Earth, and all of nature.

Caelin Webber, a literacy support teacher with Mystery Lake School Division in Thompson, planned to spend part of the day taking students from kindergarten to Grade 12 through the seven stations of the sacred teachings, which involve truth, humility, honesty, bravery, respect, love and wisdom.

A crowd stands near a teepee as the sun rises.
People gather around a teepee in Thompson following a sunrise ceremony that took place inside. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The students are “very enthusiastic … so we’re really hoping they take their time, learn and take something back for them,” she said.

After hearing the lessons, students are given a feather and bead at each station to represent what they learned. They then take them back to class and assemble them on a wooden stick to create a physical representation of the teachings, Webber explained.

“We have a lot of people who are of Indigenous heritage but also who aren’t, so we’re here to work together and teach all of our kids to appreciate and show some love to everyone.”

A variety of entertainment is also planned in Thompson, as in many cities across Canada, from music and dancing to prayers and ceremonies, activities, crafts, demonstrations, food and fireworks.

Some of the morning events in Winnipeg, however, were a literal washout as pouring rain doused plans for sacred fires and other outdoor ceremonies.

Nonetheless, The Cube stage in Old Market Square was still filled with the sounds of music, even if the crowds were sparse.

“Yeah, the weather is a problem, a little bit,” said Métis singer-songwriter Violet Vopni, but she added the show will go on.

“We’re really excited to show that we’re still here, we’re still strong, we’re still proud, we’re still resilient. That’s what we’re celebrating today,” Vopni said as a handful of people huddled under trees and umbrellas.

The day is “a celebration of my ancestors, a celebration of why I’m here,” Vopni said when asked what it means to her.

Sets were planned at Old Market Square from 20 Indigenous acts as part of the Nistumee Neepinee Keesikow Concert, presented by the industry group Manitoba Music’s Indigenous Music Development Program.

People stand in front of an outdoor stage in the rain
The crowds were small for the rainy day concerts in Old Market Square on Tuesday afternoon, but the performers weren’t short on energy. (Jérémie Bergeron/Radio-Canada)

Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, who promotes Indigenous artists for Manitoba Music, said Indigenous musicians face extra obstacles in getting airplay and being heard, which is why Tuesday’s open-air performances are so important.

“Breaking down those barriers is something that we’re trying to do. We’re still not being recognized by the non-Indigenous mainstream music business,” she said.

Suzu Enns was out for a walk on her lunch break when she came across the concerts and decided to stay “and help out with a bit of an audience,” she said.

She was aware of the importance of the day for Indigenous people and welcomed the chance to take in the tunes.

“It’s fantastic. I’m very happy to see it in the heart of Winnipeg here,” Enns said.

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