Manitoba elder Dave Courchene Jr. died Wednesday at age 71, after decades of reviving Indigenous spirituality across North America.
In 2002, Courchene founded the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness. The facility on Sagkeeng First Nation, some 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, focuses on sharing intergenerational knowledge, revitalizing Indigenous language and environmental sustainability.
Courchene said the idea came from a dream about an Anishinaabe prophecy that all peoples should gather at the heart of Turtle Island.
He quit his job as a school superintendent to launch the centre as a charity that would be fuelled by the medicines and food the land provides, deliberately avoiding government funding.
Mary Maytwayashing, a knowledge keeper at Turtle Lodge, said even in 2002, it was rare to have someone reject a colonial system and focus on traditions Canada had suppressed for decades.
"He was not afraid to bring those ceremonies out into the open," she said Wednesday. "Of course, people made a mockery of it; people did not understand what he was trying to do."
But Courchene was steadfast, which Maytwayashing attributes to his upbringing.
His father, David Courchene Sr., was the first grand chief of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, the forerunner to the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. His mother and grandmother instilled the values of humility and empowering people, Maytwayashing said.
"He felt everyone was born with a gift and a purpose — and he served his purpose, so immensely that he has had a huge impact on many nations, across the country."
Ray (Co-Co) Stevenson recalled meeting Courchene at the Windy Hill spiritual camp at Hillside Beach some 34 years ago.
Stevenson, who grew up in the North End of Winnipeg, felt inspired by Courchene’s singing and how clearly he explained spiritual teachings.
"The guy probably saved my life," said Stevenson, a singer at Turtle Lodge who teaches youth to drum for powwows.
Stevenson said he quit drugs and alcohol when Courchene taught him to ask for help from a higher power. "Ceremony is what fulfils some of the needs that you have, when you’re having trouble and struggling."
Courchene was known formally by his Anishinaabe name, Nii Gaani Aki Innini, meaning Leading Earth Man, or more commonly as Elder Dave to the youth he inspired.
Erica Daniels, a 30-year-old filmmaker, said Courchene had a profound impact on her life since they met a decade ago.
"Everything he did was out of the kindness of his heart, to uplift people," said Daniels.
In June, she published a series of videos where Courchene explains the seven sacred laws that form the backbone of First Nations spirituality: respect, love, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth.
"Before meeting Dave, I didn’t know about my culture of my history as an Indigenous person. He’s what built the pride I have today," said Daniels, who grew up in Winnipeg.
She said Courchene taught her generation it is strong and resilient — a message he repeated when she recently sought his advice.
"He gave everybody hope and encouragement, to follow their gifts and to live those gifts," she said through tears. "That meant so much to me."
Last month, Courchene was commemorated by Indigenous leaders at a Turtle Lodge event. Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon sent a video greeting, commending him for work in reconciliation and environmental preservation she called years ahead of the curve.
Courchene’s death prompted condolences from across the country.
"Elder Dave Courchene was deeply respected in every corner of the country," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter. "His passing is an extraordinary loss."
Turtle Lodge said Courchene passed peacefully at his Sagkeeng home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
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