Building the Hearth

In April 2018, I was invited to accept what I like to call “my first adult award”—for the first time “youth” wasn’t in the title.

Some prominent individuals have been recipients of the Esquao Award, including Sarah Pocklington and Tantoo Cardinal and I was nervous to be placed in a category of women with far more life experience. In preparing for the big night, I reflected back on a talk I gave last Fall that Hunter and I called "Finding Agnes", about my search for my great grandmother.
 
In Cree tradition, a grandmother, or kohkum, is the lighthouse in the storm—one person that you can count on in your life who doesn’t falter, no matter what happens. Agnes passed before I had a chance to meet her. Or adopt her wisdom.
 
Before colonization, it was women who ensured everything in the community was in good working order, and it was the hearth of a kohkum where family members collected to get advice and to hear the stories of where they came from. After contact, there was a movement of women into the background. Only men were asked to the tables for negotiations with treaty commissioners, and so it was the whispers of the women into the ears of those men that became their way to represent themselves - a shadow of their traditional role. Still, many today consider their whispers as the foundations on which our treaties were made.

 
Being a woman has always played runner up in defining my identity compared to being and becoming indigenous. Maybe because the etymology of our language doesn’t decipher between male and female. The meaning of the word "Iskwew," for example, translates more directly to "heart and fire in the community" or "life-giver", not "woman". The language is not gender based, but instead relational. Hunter is my "nisimis", or "younger sibling", rather than "brother". 

So from a western perspective, "Woman" comes with a tall order: Be caring, never cry, don’t get angry, be really good at your job, and look perfect while you do it. Surprisingly, that never felt like it quite fit me.
 
The challenges I face as a woman in the workplace have become more apparent in recent years, so finding and sticking with my inner compass often has led me to contemplate: if I had to choose, because of energy or time, would I rather be good or be kind? An argument could be made that the role of women in our western society values the latter, but my Indigenous roots as an Iskwew favours the former. And though I don’t consider myself an unkind person, kindness has always felt like something I’ve had to strive for and is a quality I value highly in others while my strong convictions for truth, self-betterment, and service to community was not something I ever had to really think about.

In many ways it’s wonderful to become comfortable in knowing myself as separate from a role that never felt quite right, but as many women know, that does nothing to change how the rest of the world sees you. It hurt to notice that sometimes, doors seemed to open easier for my dad and brother, people were sometimes a little more lenient, a little more patient. And there is still many a boardroom where my ideas are better slid across the table on a piece of paper for the males in the room to voice, rather than me voicing them myself. 

And because of this experience, something that confused me early in my career no longer does. A lot of truly amazing, talented, successful women I meet are really, really mad.
 
It’s fascinating to me how when anyone in my family talks about my great grandmother Agnes, they nearly always end the story with a lament about how important she was to keeping the family together, and how when she died, there was no one to replace her. 

  From left to right: Harold Cardinal, Agnes Cardinal, Frank Cardinal, Don Cardinal.

From left to right: Harold Cardinal, Agnes Cardinal, Frank Cardinal, Don Cardinal.

I’ve never had the hearth to turn to, but think often about becoming a kohkum. My name, "Flying White Eagle" actually tells the story of a woman among sisters who lived a long time ago and knew that a big change was coming. She transformed into a white eagle, flew into the future, and took responsibility for reminding her descendants about who they are and where they came from. A daunting task that she felt she could do because her sisters promised to always call her back to the present if she ever got lost. 

It is my deepest desire to be brave enough to go where I haven’t gone before, and in doing so, become that lighthouse in a storm. Become that hearth for my community, the keeper of stories with stew always simmering on the stove, and solid earth to build upon.

And though Agnes isn’t here to show me the ropes, receiving the Esquao award led me to see that I have an amazing network of women out there who are willing to support me and share their wisdom. Women to sing me back to the present if I ever get lost. 

It also reminded me to celebrate when it’s time to celebrate. And pray for strength when the universe wants to show you how strong you can really be.