This Spring I had an inspiring conversation with Théo, an Indigenous parent of two kids whom the COPA team met while presenting A Circle of Caring to parents in the Ottawa Catholic School Board one snowy evening in February. I wanted to know what Théo thought about the resource itself, but our conversation ranged far and wide beyond that. We touched upon many subjects and ideas from her rich life and experience.
Théo came to our conversation at the OCSB as the adoptive parent from birth of two Cree children from Saskatchewan, who are now 12 and 14 years old. She is hungry to speak with other Indigenous parents and wished that our meeting and discussion period could have gone on longer. Most of her own social community is two-spirited, and although they are open and accepting of children, not so many of them are parents. Being with other Indigenous parents provides another kind of perspective and support.
Théo was a nanny for 15 years and says that this experience helped her to see people as individuals and to see their strengths and weaknesses, especially as little people grow. She has also worked for years in HIV and AIDS outreach in Ontario Indigenous communities. Now she does a lot of informal trauma work in her home – with her own adoptive kids, their birth mother and others. There is so much need. As she says, the Residential Schools taught lessons of shame. To her, supporting the healing of individuals and families often means encouraging them to find their way back into the Circle, to traditional ways, where there was and is no shaming. Being two-spirited, Théo herself has often been the odd one out. So now she stands outside the Circle intentionally in order to hold space for those whom she feels need to be within, those who need the spirituality of the Circle for healing, but who have not always been welcome and accepted in the years since colonization changed the nature of the Circle.
Théo is Mohawk and Algonquin. Her mother was raised by a non-Indigenous Vietnam War veteran, so she originates from, in her own words, ‘two broken Circles’ – one Indigenous and one not. We spoke about the difficulty and disconnection of raising children while dealing with your own trauma. She describes it in this way: you know about good parenting, and you know what it looks like, but parenting without having been well-parented yourself is like planting a tree in the earth with no roots. It falls over.
How do we build awareness and understanding so that families sprout roots that will ground that tree safely and securely in the earth so that parents and children can grow and heal together?
It is often exhausting work. That is what leads Théo to participate in events like the one held that snowy evening in Ottawa – to speak with other parents, and to find support. And that is why A Circle of Caring was created by COPA in a grassroots collaboration with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Elders, Knowledge Keepers, leaders and community members. The intention was to support safe, strong and free kids, families and communities by encouraging discussion and reflection on many topics; among them cultural pride, helping our children succeed, understanding bullying and discrimination, getting involved in school life, and more.
What Théo liked immediately about A Circle of Caring was the gender fluidity of the Capsule Family characters in the films. She feels it opens up this discussion and highlights the issues of those who have been excluded from the Circle because of gender fluidity. In the past all were accepted in the Circle and had their own diverse gifts to share. She also really liked the fact that the Elder playing the drum is a grandma, reflecting the fact that more and more Indigenous women are taking their place drumming, something that has not been encouraged since colonization.
Théo feels that what has been missing in schools up until now are the deeper levels of understanding of Indigenous culture, and sensitivity about the traumas that Indigenous Peoples have suffered and continue to suffer. She also feels it is important for educators to accept that Indigenous students and their parents can be the experts about Indigenous ways, and to ask for their guidance when needed.
Joining the Circle grew out of A Circle of Caring and was created for exactly the purpose of supporting educators. The goal of it is to share ideas, inspiration, knowledge, strategies and guidance for enhancing the efforts of educators to Indigenize and decolonize their classrooms by providing them with information and tools to support the success of Indigenous students. Educators need and want to know more about the history of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, including the legacies of oppression and their continuing impact; about history, language, lateral violence and more.
An example of what a difference a deeper understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing and seeing can make is when we learn how culturally inappropriate an insistence on making eye contact with an Indigenous student can be, and how uncomfortable it can make a student feel.
Understandably, Théo is sometimes angry and tired. She is dealing with her personal family of origin trauma and raising kids with their own difficult history. She is creating family and community for herself and her kids at the same times as supporting the healing of others - those who are of different spirits, those who have been drug users or who have HIV or AIDS or those who have been in prison. As she says, she used to be a quiet person - but as time passes she has become increasingly vocal and more openly political. She believes that all voices need to be heard – both within the Indigenous community and without. We at COPA agree with her – listening to the voices and views of others can change everything – for them and for us.
We like to ask the people we interview for a book recommendation. Théo’s suggestion for us is One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine and Melody Sarecky. She says her kids enjoyed it and it helped them to understand racism and sexuality on their level.
We at COPA thank Théo for her deep honesty and caring – and for the rich and frank sharing of her perspective.