U of W graduation powwow honours journey of healing, achievement
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As Athena Le Fort-Lynx made her way through the grand entry procession at the University of Winnipeg’s annual graduation powwow, her mother’s voice rang in her mind.
“I love you for always, my girl.”
The words, shared with Le Fort-Lynx in a text message in 2015, were the last things her mom said to her before she died.
“Today, as I walk here, it’s in my head in a loop. She essentially told me she knew I would become everything she thought I could be… That message has driven my education goals.”
The powwow, held at the Duckworth Centre Saturday afternoon, included hundreds of Indigenous graduates, dignitaries, dancers and families.
Drummers and singers performed traditional songs, while elders led the crowd in ceremony. Many who attended dressed in headdresses, jingle dresses and ribbon skirts.
A total of 49 graduates were recognized.
The day marked the 18th anniversary of the event, and the first time it has happened in-person since 2019, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to the Free Press moments after the grand entry, Le Fort-Lynx, 28, recounted her experiences with the child-welfare, criminal justice and education systems — a decades-long journey that culminated with her receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“My education has been a major key to breaking the barriers that I’ve personally faced,” she said.
“Today is something that reminds me I am capable. I am not less-than.”
An Anishinaabe woman from Tootinaowaziibeeng First Nation, roughly 440 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, Le Fort-Lynx spent much of her youth in the child welfare system.
As a teenager, she was abused by an authority figure in her life. He admitted to his crimes in 2017 and a judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
“I am not defined by what happened to me, but I am the sum of my lived experience,” Le Fort-Lynx said. “I’m oscillating between feeling pride for me and my family… but there is (also) an emptiness. It is not necessarily bad, but it’s loud. I look back on my journey of healing and becoming my most authentic self and I think, ‘wow, I finally made it.’”
“I want people to know there is life beyond (trauma).”
Le Fort-Lynx’s story needs to be told. She is a role model who has demonstrated it’s possible to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, said Kate Noseworthy, a kinesiology professor at the University of Winnipeg.
The women met when Le Fort-Lynx was 16 years old, and have since formed a deep bond.
They have lived together for roughly six years.
“She is as much a part of my family as anybody who was born into it,” Noseworthy said, tears welling in her eyes as she watched “her daughter” accept her degree.
“Statistically, she shouldn’t be alive… There was a lot of times I thought we’d never be here; lots of times where she could have had an excuse to quit, and she hasn’t… She fights harder than anybody I’ve ever met to become a better human being.”
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew wore full regalia and danced during the grand entry.
Speaking to the Free Press after the procession, he commended the university for its long-standing tradition of honouring Indigenous graduates.
“There’s a rich intellectual tradition in many Indigenous communities, and to be able to bring the powwow trail into the academy is a great way to celebrate that. To just send a message to the next generation of kids in the community that post-secondary education is a place they belong.”
While the event marked the end of the academic journeys of many in the crowd, it is just the beginning for Le Fort-Lynx.
She plans to pursue a master’s degree at the U of W with the goal of one day becoming a therapist.
In the future, she hopes to create a social enterprise and support youth in the child-welfare system.