An Interview with Suzie Miller of the Pen Pal Project
by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
In 2006, a group of clan mothers in Six Nations decided to halt the construction of a subdivision on the Douglas Creek Estate in Caledonia. This chunk of land, along with the rest of Caledonia fall under Six Nations Territory that was promised to the Haudenosaunee people in the Haldimand Treaty of 1784. The government has refused to halt construction of the contested territory and this reclamation was a direct response to the continuous land theft.
The reclamation of the estate, also known as Kanonhstaton, sparked a lot of discussion around indigenous land rights and drew out hundred of supporters. Unfortunately, it also magnified the racism present and furthered the division between the people of Caledonia and Six Nations. This culminated in a multitude of instances of physical violence.
Suzie Miller, a school teacher in Six Nations witnessed this division and violence. As a mixed race woman, who had family on the reserve as well as in Caledonia, she felt she had a responsibility to mend relations between the two communities. She decided to start up The Pen Pal Project; an initiative aiming at connecting youth from both communities so that they could learn about each others histories and cultures in order to foster respect, care and understanding.
Recently I had the opportunity to learn more about the project and how it transformed the communities around her.
Shabina: So tell me how the pen Pal Project started?
My two communities were at war it seemed, it was…chaos.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the original videos but it was awful. So my concern was for the children and how they would perceive each other and in neighbouring communities across the river. You know people penpal across continents but you don’t think about penpalling across the river. The thing was people didn’t realize that Six Nations was even there. Some people didn’t even know they were next to the largest reserve in Canada and they didn’t know the history that we have in our treaties so how do we educate our people? I was like let’s get the children writing across the river; so Six Nations to Caledonia.
S: So how many youth are involved in the Pen Pal Project?
It started with two classes and it just grew. 2016 was ten years since the project started and we had 100 schools, so 2,500 kids involved. Every year we met and celebrated and that was really neat because the kids got to meet with their pen pal at the end of the year. It was a massive initiative, we had a wonderful bunch of people that contributed to this amazing project but it was like after ten years I thought, “I don’t need to do this anymore, people can do this on their own. I don’t need to get them together”. It was a lot of work. People all around wanted to then start to understand First Nations people. I felt like I was always begging teachers from Six Nations and New Credit asking if they could pen pal and I didn’t think I had to keep doing that. I wanted it to go out with a bang rather then simmer and die out. It was an amazing thing – ten years – and then I figured I’d pass it off and see where people take it.
There are still lot’s of connections happening. A lot of people are still pen palling but I’m not coordinating it. I still do a bit but we’re doing different things. We’re connecting schools like we have some sister schools working together in Brantford and Six Nations and so it’s kind of morphed and evolved to connecting in different ways.
S: How were you hoping the Pen Pal Project would impact the youth involved?
The whole thing is really just linking classrooms you know, between Six Nations and our neighbours and that was the thing. The initial project was about your neighbours, it was about the people next to us. Something I’d really like to do is see Northern communities connecting with their closest neighbours where the kids would be going off to school when they reach Secondary school and they would have a relationship built from childhood. Because at the highschool level, Six Nations kids and New Credit kids they have to leave their community to go to highschool. I remember one of my students from grade 8, he got to grade 9 and he had met five of his pen pals. There was a familiarity when he went to highschool and had to leave his community. Even though it’s close here to leave, in the North, some kids have to move away to go to highschool. So if they could build a relationship and a sense of comfort with their neighbouring community that would help. So it would be nice to get into that. Let’s say Thunder Bay, they need a lot of help I think in understanding each other. Something like this could happen across Canada.
In Alberta we had a small community that was writing. There were four small reserves around this place called Grand Cash, Alberta and somebody from here went out there to work and so she started the project out there. They didn’t even know that there were reserves and they didn’t know that there were schools on the reserve and so they connected. Again it’s about your neighbours, knowing who your neighbours are and sharing your culture with your surrounding community. It was a simple project and simplest idea that grew into something beautiful.
S: Are you still involved with the project even though you are no longer coordinating it?
People still contact me for connections and things but I am just not formally coordinating and nobody took it over. It’s a lot of work, it came from my heart and I don’t think that anybody really could have taken it over to keep it going the way it was. We’re not formally connecting, it was ten years and in that time we did our logo, we did an overhead picture, there’s videos, we have our website, so we have communities still connecting in different ways and we are still documenting things on the website but I am not formally doing the connections anymore. Teachers are doing their own thing so I really don’t know. The concept of pen pals, people have taken it upon themselves so if they want to do it they will do it instead of feeling pressured. Again, It’s a lot of work and already being a teacher is a lot of work so I want to let people who are committed to taking it over and doing it for themselves. I don’t need to do this anymore.
S: What are you up to these days?
I am working with Grand Erie District School Board so I am still doing a lot of linking of Indigenous culture. I am an Indigenous instructional coach so I am going into classrooms, I am teaching about our history, I am building community in classrooms and I am kind of bringing indigenous approaches into the classrooms to bring students voices forward in a healthy way. I am helping to build safe places plus I am sharing our ways of understanding the world which is all about equality, the circle, respect and giving thanks to Mother Earth. You know those basic concepts. I am doing this work in classrooms from kindergarten to grade 8.
A lot of this is happening in Brantford where we have a high Native population in the classrooms. So the kids see themselves represented and they can understand their history because a lot of kids don’t understand and a lot of their parents don’t know. A lot of cultural knowledge has been lost so I am really thankful that I can bring this into the schools. Because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it has to be taught in schools, people want to teach it but they are afraid because they don’t want to get it wrong. They want to honour the history as best as they can but they don’t know it. So I am one person who can help build that knowledge in the classrooms with the teachers and the students.
S: That is so important. I work with mostly settler youth and I talk to some about what they are learning in their schools and it seems so removed in a lot of ways. They get taught about things but on a really surface level and not on a nation specific level. It’s like they’re learning that residential schools happened and it was bad but they won’t talk about where they happened and what communities that are close by were affected.
And so we are lucky because we are doing that work in Grand Eerie and we should be being next to the largest reserve in Canada. I mean Six Nations students become Grand Eerie students in Secondary so it’s important. It’s also important to make sure that people understand that Haudenosaunee, we have our own history based on space and place. Just understanding that everyone has different teachings based on where you come from. You know the Inuit and their way of life and their beliefs will be different from ours. I will actually be talking about some of that next week because one of the teachers are showing a song by the Jerrycans; a music group from Iqaluit. It’s a song about the Northern lights and it is a beautiful song but yeah I am going to talk to them about the seal hunt. I have some seal jewelry so I am going to wear it and talk to them about that campaign to stop the seal hunt and how the seal hunt is a way of life for Inuit people. I want to allow people to imagine how long they have been surviving on the land and in their space and here we are interfering and judging. So understanding to not interfere in indigenous ways and understanding the indigenous ways based on where you come from and the specific land you are on.
I am trying to build that awareness not just on who we are as Haudenosaunee, but who are the Anishinabe and who are the Inuit and who are the Metis and what is this history that people just don’t know about. The truth of the history of Canada. But I always share it with a caring and kind heart. Always with the idea of let’s learn from the past and let’s not judge each other. I teach about the Two Row Wampum and how we are all represented on that. Even today that is still our treaty together. Children like to hear that. They think “I am represented on that, on that Wampum belt”
S: It allows them to play an active role in it. They should be playing an active role in it, settlers and indigenous youth. If you can see yourself in it, you see how to move forward.
Yeah you can see that we can do this. This is our treaty and it came before Canada and the United States were countries. So I teach that and I teach using the Two Row as two perspectives. This is how I teach about respect, as in I understand the world my way and you understand the world your way because that agreement came together with two worldviews that were probably not even understood at the time. So today it’s like, how do we have a healthy relationship with these two perspectives and honouring that the two perspectives are different but not having to interfere or change that. As in the way I understand things might be different and thinking how beautiful is that instead of thinking that someone else has to believe my way. It’s such a beautiful way to teach individual respect.
I am very lucky that I get to do what I do. I basically got to create my own job. It is a new position and hopefully it’ll get to keep going. But I mean, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory why these types of things are important. It’s so that people understand each other, the truth, the history and how we move forward. Because I think maybe the young people could come up with more solutions after they know because so far they have been denied and just not acknowledged. Somehow we have to move forward in a healthy way and acknowledge our past and our history so that we can move forward.
We talk about equity for all people. As indigenous people we are one group but how do we provide equity for all? In the school system how do we provide the healthiest education for all? I guess the awareness is starting, I mean of certain issues. Right now a lot of people know that first Nation children and schools have less funding for education and that we don’t even have healthy water.
So yeah, the increase of awareness of Mother Earth and where food comes from and being thankful. You know, all of the things that young people are really disconnected from. This work connects us back to the idea of giving thanks and being stewards of the Earth. I mean personally I didn’t know anything about my culture growing up, my mother didn’t know, my grandmother didn’t know. I’ve learnt just a little bit and I am trying to share that as much as I can because so much of it we just didn’t know. I mean it was against the law to practice our ceremonies. So teaching from the past. I remember somebody said well you know this happened in many different places in history and it’s like yeah that’s true but here we actually made treaties. We actually had an agreement. So that’s pretty interesting. It’s something that we can connect back to. We made this treaty together. That’s pretty neat. I think.
In terms of this work I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we didn’t do it. We’ve come so far. Caledonia’s high school has the highest Native population now. In 2006 kids didn’t want to go there, it was pretty scary. There was a lot of judgement and bad feelings. I think the project really helped the communities. The children taught the adults. Through the project they brought awareness of acceptance, non-judgement and historical truth. Moving forward you hear people say know better do better. So it’s like yeah now that we know better we do better.
Yeah, fingers crossed! I saw a little bit of the ugliness during the reclamation of Kanonstaton and it was terrifying. What you were doing and what you are still doing is so important.
Yeah at the time, since I am from both communities, it was really difficult to watch and hear both sides. From Caledonia you’d hear anti-Six Nations comments and in Six Nations you’d hear anti-Caledonia comments. They are both my communities that I am completely embedded in so it was awful. Sometimes you forget how bad it was. And if you were there you know and can only imagine what it was like for the people who live here and the people who were/are connected to both communities. I think it’s had an impact. We’re doing some research to get some stories from former pen pals and maybe doing some documented interviews to see how it’s had an impact on their relationships in their lives.
S: Well thank you so much for your time and sharing this with us.\
Suzie Miller Is an Indigenous Instructional Coach Grand Erie District School Board (Former Student Work Study Teacher-Indigenous Focused).I am a Caledonia resident, worked at Six Nations for 27 years, 12 years as Addictions Counsellor and 15 years as a classroom teacher.My mother was from Six Nations, Mohawk Wolf clan – my father was a businessman in Caledonia.I am the mother of two sons and have been married for 31 years.