My daughter, River-Jaxsen, is just two years old, but her connection to her homeland is already strong and steady. I credit that, in part, to our decision to raise her on the reservation.
She was born at the Royal University Hospital on Treaty 6 territory, which settlers stole and renamed Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She’s growing up on her father’s homelands, Poundmaker Cree Nation, close to North Battleford, Saskatchewan. This is where generations of her ancestors grew, played, resisted and practised their livelihoods.
Due to forced relocations and land dispossession, many reservations do not encompass or represent the original, traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. Reservations were created by the Crown to unlawfully make space for settlers. Indigenous peoples were forcefully placed on small parcels of land, with a variety of broken promises. Many of them lacked agricultural support, often leaving communities, and whole nations, to suffer. Indigenous peoples were only allowed to leave their reservations to hunt and gather for their nations with a permit from their Indian agent, and many times the permit was denied.
Despite all the disparity and struggle, our relationship to the land—no matter where we live—is vital to our identity. And my partner and I do our best to teach, and ingrain that knowledge, in our daughter.
For us, “rez life” is not what you might think it is. It’s not just what you hear on the news: family breakdown, addiction, violence, insufficient housing, contaminated water, high suicide rates, low graduation levels, inaccessible food, poverty and trauma. Rez life is how we are choosing to raise our daughter.
Rez life is pride. It’s knowing where you come from. It’s eradicating the colonizer’s influence and racism from our daily lives. Rez life is love. Resistance. Rez life can heal.
Rez life is kinship, woven into our children’s lives—and our grandchildren’s lives—for generations. It is the smiles on River-Jaxsen’s grandparents’ faces, and the many hugs, when she walks in the door for a visit with her moshum and kokum. It is my daughter never doubting that she is loved by so many.
A few times a year, River-Jaxsen travels with us back to my Northwestern Ontario Anishinaabe homelands of Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat First Nation), where her Goodchild (Musquash) relatives live, so that she can dance at the powwow and pray with our family.
We also drive two hours south to Saskatoon every week to get the things we need—supply runs, we joke. After a few hours in the city, we hear our daughter’s little voice from the backseat, telling us from her car seat that she wants to “go home.” She’s tired of the lights and sounds around her. Her connection and understanding of where home is, and what it means to her, is there already. She feels safe—and a sense of belonging—in the wide, open spaces that nurture her as she grows.
Above all else, the reservation is where I teach River-Jaxsen (and in turn she teaches me) how to care for the land, how to walk among it, and how to treat every life form with whom we share it.
This winter, now that she’s old enough, I’ve been bundling her up to help me outside. Sometimes it’s minus 25 degrees out when we complete this portion of our daily routine. As I pull her snow pants up, she knows what the plan is.
“Go outside, Mom?” She looks at me, smiling.
“Yes, my girl, we are going outside.”
“Check rabbit snares, Mom?” she asks again. I smile and nod.
We step outside, feeling the cold Prairie winter wind against the only part of our skin that is showing, around our eyes.
“Ready, my girl?” I ask her.
“Let’s go on bush trail!” she says excitedly.
The trail where I set my rabbit snares is about 20 minutes through the bush and down the hill to the ravine. I carry her, then set her down next to me while I re-adjust or unravel a rabbit caught in my snares.
“Where wapoose go?” she asks on the days we don’t get anything. (“Wapoose” is the Anishinaabemowin word for rabbit.)
She knows to stay by my side on the snowy trail. She has a hard time moving around in her snowsuit, so she usually sits on her knees, eating the untouched snow around her.
I tell her stories of the animals we might see, of how we need to be careful and cautious as we interrupt the land’s natural way of doing things, and she watches me pray for the land and animals that we may disturb as we walk. Quietly taking it all in, she listens to me whisper the prayers for the wapoose we may catch for some soup later.
Climbing up from the ravine and back to our home is always challenging—I do my best not to slip in the snow with her in my arms. But her smile and excitement is so rewarding. I usually stop about halfway up, where we both look across the ravine, to the hills and valleys around us, and I whisper, “Wow.”
Once we make it to the top, she lays in the snow and makes a snow angel.
“Mom, make snow angel too!” she always says to me.
And I do, smiling. Because teaching my daughter how to love the land, how to play on the land, and how to be grateful for the land, is what living on the reservation is all about.
It is my responsibility, as an Indigenous mother, to ensure that my daughter knows—and understands—who she is and where she comes from. It is also my responsibility to show her how to nurture her relationship with her homelands in ways that honour her kinship system and in ways that provide the space for her to recognize her own autonomy as an Indigenous child and person.
There is this false notion that the only way to achieve a successful life is to live away from the reserve—that rez life means a life of dysfunction and struggle. Some people may have left their rez due to family members’ toxic behaviours, or perhaps to set boundaries, but the reservation itself is not the cause of the toxicity. The stereotypes and racist notions about life on the reservation are fed by mainstream media coverage. It is imperative that we begin to break down these assumptions and demonstrate the beauty of life on the reserve for what it really is.
I want my daughter—and everyone else—to know that one can live on the reserve and have a successful life. It comes down to acquiring the tools to work through generations of colonially-created trauma, to release decades of embedded grief, and ultimately, to teach our children these tools as well. It’s also about recognizing the importance of Indigenous land-based practices and viewing them as successful ways of life, too.
Indigenous success is giving away all the meat from the first moose hunt to the kokums and moshums in the communities, and the families who need it the most. Indigenous success is knowing the medicinal plants, and doing everything with prayer, every single day. Indigenous success is speaking our mother tongues, and having our children speak them as well, even in small amounts. Indigenous success is undoing cycles of trauma, violence, and addictions with forgiveness work, prayer, and love. Indigenous love is following our natural laws, every single day.
Our homelands will carry us. Our homelands saved our ancestors, and it will do the same for us, and it will do the same for our daughters and sons.
This article was originally published online in March 2019.