The Decolonizing Work of Nancy Rowe
By Xicohtencatl Maher Lopez with Nancy Rowe
It was with this idea that Giidaakunadaad, or Nancy Rowe, a Mississauga, Ojibwe, Bear Clan Kwe of the Anishinaabek Nation, founded Akinomaagaye Gaamik, also known as the Lodge of Learning. Akinomaagaye Gaamik is a grassroots initiative with a mission that began with the intention of bringing back culture to the people living on the Mississaugas of the New Credit reservation and other Indigenous peoples. The lodge also strives to educate not only Indigenous people, but all peoples who are interested in learning about Indigenous ways of knowing, of doing, of living, of history, of health and the environment. Akinomaagaye Gaamik began in response to a lack of access to cultural knowledge and teachings on her home reservation of New Credit, but stems from a twenty-five year journey of coming home to a culture that, thanks to colonialism and assimilation, was taken from her as it was from many other people on New Credit reservation.
“The lodge is all about decolonizing. Learn our language, our history, so we can defend our grandfathers and grandmothers. Learn how to live a good life. The big philosophy and principles in Anishinaabe is to live a good life. We have laws that say this is what you do to live a good life. You be honest, be kind, you share, you be loving. You incorporate this into your life. It’s not a poster on the wall called seven grandfathers, its something inside your being that says this is how to conduct yourself, to be a good human while you’re here. The other big piece of that was bringing Creator. Nowhere in that western way did they bring in Creation as that ultimate teacher.”
New Credit reservation is a small reservation, and in Nancy’s words is “about 5 concessions big, it’s not much land at all. There’s no water here either.” Located in a far corner of it’s neighbour reservation, Six Nations, the Mississaugas of the Credit have lived on this reservation since 1847. When speaking on the reasons why Akinomaagaye Gaamik was built, Nancy told the story of Rita Montour, a woman from her reservation who was nearing a hundred years old before she passed. Nancy said, “Rita, did you ever go to a traditional funeral? Did you ever hear Anishinaabemowin? I was asking her all these questions because she’s a hundred years old, and she can tap another 100 years through her grandmother and great grandmother. And we moved here in 1847, so her memory could go back that far. And she said she had never witnessed any kind of ceremonies here at New Credit.” She explains how there are two lodges built, one that was built eighteen years ago in the form of a large, stretched out tipi in which ceremonies are often held, and the other a wooden roundhouse, and that these lodges, together, bring culture and knowledge that has “never been seen here on New Credit.”
Nancy Rowe decided to do something about this lack of cultural knowledge on her home reservation. Six years ago, Nancy, her husband and other collaborators built the lodge with the intention of attracting Elders of the highest caliber to New Credit in order to provide a direct knowledge transfer between the Elders and those who came to learn. “People were so excited for the lodge they would come and work for food. I would cook all day and the carpenters would build all day. We started in February and had it [the lodge] up and operational by April.”
Akinomaagaye Gaamik attracts many different people— from young school children to deputy ministers from the Government— all seeking to learn more about Anishinaabe ways of life, of seeing, of doing. The lodge hosts programming such as cultural workshops, Moccasin project workshops, and traditional ceremonies. Nancy says, “With permission from elders I share a little culture with them [settlers], not to make them Anishinaabe but to show them just how intelligent Anishinaabe is … We have been working to really position Indigenous knowledge at a higher level.” According to her, education revitalizes ceremonies, and the lodge “gives people exposure to this other world … people call it ceremonies, but it really is education.”
When asked what other kinds of work needs to be done in order for Indigenous people to heal from colonization, Nancy stressed the importance of education being brought to Indigenous people once again. “When I was done my degree with poli-sci, I was pissed, man … I have spent 48 years living under colonial rule. I’m a card carrying Indian, every day of my life is determined by Indian affairs, so I was mad … My teachings say you can’t stay angry, you’ll get sick.”
“If 99% of them [canadians] are ignorant to our issues, I want to bring them out of that [ignorance]. I didn’t want to be aggressive and say hey you’re a colonizer, did you know? You’re reaping the benefits of my land that my grandfathers shared with you. My strategy was I’m gonna teach them the truth … There’s an entire body of people here, suffering.”
Nancy Rowe is also one of the founders of the Da-Giiwewaat (So They Can Go Home) Moccasin project, which seeks to “bring attention to the contemporary genocide that’s happening right now in this country”. Nancy is referring to the canadian child welfare system, and how nationwide the child welfare system disproportionately targets Indigenous families. She says, “The operating policy of the government of canada is genocidal. They still wanna get rid of the Indian … They are after the bigger picture, which is the land.” She then references the statistics in Manitoba which show that 11,000 children are currently in care, and 90% of these children are Indigenous, or statistics such as the one that says forty Indigenous babies are taken from Manitoba hospitals each month. She explains that when one reads these statistics and analyzes the way the system is structured, one realizes quickly that “Indigenous children in the welfare system are basic income units, they keep that ministry operating.”
“I don’t want child welfare to be like residential school. Residential schools operated for 175 years. Child welfare has been around since 1945.” she explains. The destructive, oppressive nature of the child welfare system is what lead Nancy, along with other Indigenous women like Colinda Clyne, to start the Moccasin project. Nancy’s idea was that if Indigenous children in the foster care system were gifted baby moccasins as something to take with them on their journey through foster care, that when they grew older they could begin to question why they had these moccasins, and that this curiosity could spark their journey home. Thus came the name, Da-Giiwewaat, So They Can Go Home. In foster care, very few Indigenous children are able to retain their culture, as it is a system likened to the residential schools, and is a continuation of the Sixties Scoop, seeking to severe the ties Indigenous children have with their culture, their traditional ways of knowing, their language, their land, and their family.
The Moccasin Project, like Akinomaagaye Gaamik, is a shining example of what true action towards reconciliation can look like. Nancy says that the project works closely with educators who seek to highlight the issues of the canadian child welfare system by bringing Moccasin making workshops to classrooms and even to entire schools across the country. The project also fosters new relationships with community based organizations who wish to also support the project, such as friendship centers or community health programs. “It’s doing what it was intended to do, which was raise awareness for child welfare,” says Nancy, who made a promise to Cora Morgan, a First Nations Family Advocate from Manitoba who showed Nancy the grim statistics from Manitoba, that “wherever I go, I’ll talk about this”.
The final question asked of Nancy was on what futures and possibilities she saw for healing in the wake of colonialism, to which she stressed the utmost importance of Indigenous people learning their language and culture. “We can’t even understand our own world yet without our language.” To Nancy, true reconciliation means “putting back what was taken. Period.”
“Everything was taken from us. Our land, our culture, our language. In education, the job of educators and the system is to create opportunity for native children to access their culture and language … Those priests and nuns didn’t have any pity when they were taking that language from our children. We should have no limitations on how much it is gonna take to put that back.”
The importance of education plays a big role in true decolonization and reconciliation according to Nancy, who says, “If one child in the whole school wants to learn their language, then we must do whatever it takes for them to learn.” Assisting each and every individual Indigenous youth is where the role of educators and of the school system appears, and Nancy says that educators should do everything in their power to fully support Indigenous children on their journey home to their culture.
Through her impressive work throughout her own 25 year long journey home, Nancy exemplifies the actions that are necessary to begin the journey of decolonization and reconciliation on Turtle Island. Akinomaagaye Gaamik, the Da-Giiwewaat project, and her own personal convictions and actions are what is desperately needed across the continent to achieve these goals of decolonization and reconciliation to birth a healing legacy. She says of reconciliation, “I really do not see the level of reconciliation that we are going to require in order to put things back to the way they were”. To put things back to the way they were is to heal the traumas, to bring back as much knowledge as possible that has been lost over the centuries, to support future Indigenous generations by building the structures that will be necessary to help each and every individual Indigenous person on this long journey home to their land, language, culture and self- all of which the work Nancy has accomplished has assisted. “Put it back the way it was- that’s reconciliation. Put it right.”
Giidaakunadaad (The Spirit Who Lives in High Places) n’dizhinikaaz (is my name): Nancy Rowe is a Mississauga, Ojibwe of the Anishinaabek Nation located at New Credit First Nation, ON. Nancy holds an honors BA in Indigenous Studies and Political Science. She is an educator, consultant and a Traditional Practitioner of Anishinaabek lifeway’s, views and customary practices and is currently completing a Master’s degree of Environmental Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo.
Xicohtencatl Maher is a 2spirited Tlaxcaltecan Nahua and Newfie, born in Mexico and living currently on Anishinaabek territory. He is an activist, artist, writer, escuincle and shit-disturber, and in his free time enjoys mixed martial arts and going out on the land.