A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting down for lunch with Wally Chartrand.

Opinion

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting down for lunch with Wally Chartrand.

He is an Indigenous knowledge keeper, traditional pipe carrier, sweat lodge holder, sun dancer, and a shkabeh, which means helper. He is also on the executive management team at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata in Winnipeg, as the keeper of the spirit.

For columnist Shelley Cook, meeting Wally Chartrand meant much more than just having an interview with the Indigenous knowledge keeper. (Shelley Cook / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

For columnist Shelley Cook, meeting Wally Chartrand meant much more than just having an interview with the Indigenous knowledge keeper. (Shelley Cook / Winnipeg Free Press)

I met Chartrand once before, briefly last year in a sharing circle at the end of a conference we both attended. We barely spoke then, he accepted my Facebook friend request after the conference wrapped.

More recently, he graciously agreed to meet me for an interview when I messaged him out of the blue last month. Initially, when I messaged him, I wasn’t sure that he’d even remember or know who I was.

"I write for the Winnipeg Free Press. I’m doing a series on elders in Manitoba and I’m wondering if you would be interested in being interviewed…" read part of my message.

"Yes, I remember you and yes, I’d love to contribute to your story," he responded.

Leading up to our meeting, I was both excited and nervous. For me, this was more than an interview and a story.

Being able to write this story was an honour and it gave me a reason and access to reach out, but in a deeper and more personal way, I was so grateful for the opportunity to sit down and listen to him, and to learn from the knowledge he keeps.

The first time we met it was at the Cork and Flame restaurant on Portage Avenue. I offered Chartrand a tobacco tie and thanked him for meeting me. We sat for nearly three hours. He was generous with his words and knowledge, speaking softly but steadily while I listened. He welcomed my questions and assured me that there was no such thing as a bad or stupid question.

"That’s how we learn," he’d say.

I am only just starting to learn about my Indigenous culture and, if I am being honest, I often have an overwhelming feeling of imposter syndrome.

I didn’t grow up in ceremony or learning about or practicing a traditional way of life. I’ve always known who I am on the surface — a card-carrying Indigenous person from Brokenhead. But I have always felt disconnected from my roots, and when I was young I used to pretend that I was someone and something else, because I felt a lot of shame and internalized racism for who I was.

I know I am not alone in this. I have heard other Indigenous people tell me how heavy the imposter syndrome gets for them. The journey many of us are on to reclaim ourselves and our culture can be difficult because it has no map, and it’s hard to figure out where and how to even start.

Of course, it’s hard. The Canadian government did everything in its power to try to kill our culture. It went so far as to ban Indigenous ceremony and cultural practices through the Indian Act in the late 1800s in an effort to assimilate Indigenous people into the colonized Canadian society.

So many of us are still feeling those effects and trying to find our way back to a path that our ancestors were push off of.

Thankfully, there are shkabeh’s like Chartrand to help us find our path.

During a second interview at the Ma Mawi offices in Headingley, he said something that caught my attention. A teaching he collected from someone else many years ago.

"Now that you’ve heard this story, now it’s your story. It belongs to you too," he said. "Nothing belongs to us, just like Mother Earth doesn’t belong to us. The same goes for our stories, they don’t belong to us, but they’re there to be shared."

You can read the story I wrote about Wally Chartrand in the March 12 edition of the Free Press or online at winnipegfreepress.com.

shelley.cook@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @ShelleyACook

Shelley Cook

Shelley Cook
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project

Shelley Cook is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and manages the paper's Reader Bridge project, which seeks to expand coverage of underserved communities.