This is Valerie Desjarlais from Kawacatoose First Nation, originally from Muskowekwan First Nation in Saskatchewan. Since 2010 she has been the Health Director for Touchwood Agency Tribal Council. Formerly she was an in-school liaison worker and counsellor for the four communities of Day Star, Gordon, Kawacatoose, and Muskowekwan. As well, she has done work in street outreach programming for sexually exploited women, street workers and victims of domestic violence in Regina, Saskatchewan. While in Regina, Valerie worked by day and went to school by night and obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Human Justice. She also has her Chemical Dependency Addiction certification and went on to specialize in programming such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Focusing Therapy at Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 2007, she obtained Master Practitioner in Neurological Linguistic Programming.
Among all of her achievements in education, the essential teachings she has received is the concept of life-long learning, thanks to the people in her life that have influenced her perspective. Life-long learning is more than just learning through academia; it comes through life experiences. Our history, the way we grow up, and the connection to who we are is key in life-long learning. Cultural and traditional values and belief systems today are fragmented as a result of assimilation, acculturation policies, and colonization that has been implemented on Indigenous peoples for generations.
How we may pass on knowledge for life-long learning is through the acknowledgement of who we are, claiming our identity, and understanding where we come from. Teachings of identity is a spiritual process. Understanding family linages, clan systems, the significance of getting Indian names helps in learning your role and responsibilities in life and it is empowering.
Life-long learning is not just from Pre-K to a doctorate degree, it’s about preparing for our role in society. How things are today, we rely on institutions to teach our children what education is about. Back in the day, life was about survival and functioning – that was empowering and spiritual. Traditional ways of parenting helps shape children, and learning starts in the womb.
In traditional teachings, young moms were told to never be angry because the fetus picks up on that anger in the womb. Creator has given the gifts of our five senses, and those senses – some start in the gestational period – help how the baby is shaped when it enters this physical world. The fetus can hear its surrounding environment, so singing lullabies, being in a happy state has a positive effect. The fetus in gestation chemically absorbs what the mother is ingesting, so it is encouraged that mothers stay away from alcohol.
As well, pregnant women are discouraged from attending wakes or funerals because of the belief that the loved one who has passed may take the baby with them as they transition from this physical world to the spirit world.
Kêhtê-aya1 is the Cree word for “old wise ones,” and that is fulfilling the life-cycle of teaching. Some of the responsibilities of parents, grandparents, and the community as a whole is about empowerment from the offset – the time of conception of the next generation.
Today, we are dealing with a crisis of illnesses, diseases, addictions, poverty, and malnutrition; so our way of learning has been disrupted and has been for generations. Key aspects of life-long learning is about care and respect, especially for the baby in the womb. Teaching and passing on that knowledge of care starts by having respect for the woman carrying the child.
Back in the day, we were hunters, trappers, and gatherers for survival. We survived because of respect for life; the passed-down knowledge that animals – our brothers – were essential for sustenance; and the plants – what animals ate – were our medicines too.
As a child, Valerie remembers her family living in a mud shack and experiencing love, care, and respect for each other. However, the arrival of alcohol in her community had an effect on the values and belief systems of the people in the decades following. As a result, we are not as connected to the elements, such as: fire, water, and land, like we once were. Valerie believes if our people could go back to our roots, it would not take long for the sickness, illness, and addictions to subside because we would become reconnected in a spiritual way.
Spiritually is key and should be the result of everything that we do, and it does not matter how it is practiced as long as the intent is the same. Whatever is in our hearts should be expressed through our thoughts, through our speech and through our actions.