Amy Smoke, 41, UW Aboriginal Education Centre events coordinator, Mohawk Six Nations, Turtle Clan
“The first time I ever heard the big drum, I cried. I was 17 and had never been around it before. But Skye is growing up with it. She knows what regalia is, she knows all the songs. It’s normal for her. She will know her culture as she grows up.”
Three-year-old Skye Smoke holds her moccasins close, asking her mother if she can wear them. Older sister and grandmother watch as Skye calls each article by its proper name. “This is my regalia,” she says. “I wear my fancy shawl at Powwow.”
Geri Duguid sees her granddaughter learn what she herself is slowly trying to master. She fights memories of her father never speaking the language, a fear stemming from his years spent in residential school. In 1975, Geri married a non-Indigenous man and moved off the Six Nations Reservation, giving up her status as a Mohawk woman. “It was a serious decision to make. I wasn’t encouraged to practice my culture in my marriage,” she says.
Her daughter Amy Smoke recalls the confusion and frustration she felt as a young girl. “My mom had nothing to pass on to me. I grew up in Kitchener and was removed from any traditions.” In missing a sense of identity, Amy flunked out of her first year of Conestoga College and started down a path of crime and incarceration. At 22 years old, she was sent to a healing lodge in Toronto called Pedahbun, an Ojibwe word meaning ‘place of new beginning’.
“For the first time I was around native people, medicine, smudging, sweat lodge, and ceremony. When I came home I unfortunately didn’t keep up these practices. I didn’t reach out to any organizations in town, and started sliding out of control again.” Her first born, Jaci, was sent to live with her father, a non-Indigenous man who could offer her a comfortable life.
The cycle was to continue, with another generation removed from its culture, until Amy remembered the teachings she had learned at Pedahbun. “I remembered that there was a better way to live,” she says. “I checked myself into a shelter, went to methadone clinics and decided to go back to school. The Aboriginal Services office didn’t exist the first time I tried attending college. I walked in, and they helped me get back into school to finish my diploma. Next thing I knew, I was handling their marketing campaigns, telling other students about their services. I started building my confidence and speaking about my journey. The office helped me get into University of Waterloo, where I became involved with the post-secondary Indigenous services on their campus.”
Amy recently graduated with her second degree from UW, will begin her work as events coordinator at the Aboriginal Education Centre, and continues to speak about being an Urban Indigenous woman today. “Being around everything keeps me balanced,” she says.
With this strong foundation in place, Amy has grown to become the mother she always wanted to be. Last year, she reunited with her daughter Jaci. Now 17 years old, Jaci is the same age that Amy was when she first heard the big drum play. “We have had some difficult conversations about what I went through, why I wasn’t able to be a good parent at the time. I’ve brought her to events, and she’s expressed how nice it is to be in a room with people that look like her. I realized she needed to be a part of it. It was the reason why I was in trouble. Hopefully she finds the same peace and balance that my mom and I have found.”
Education and campus resources proved to be just as healing for grandmother Geri, who graduated from the Social Service Worker program at Conestoga College just as Amy did. She is now an Elder on campus to provide support for Indigenous students.
“A lot of First Nations women go back to school. My mother always says it’s never too late. Now that she is learning, she’s happier than she ever was,” says Amy.
The determination of these women has lead the way for little Skye. While her family works to reclaim something once lost, she basks in its normalcy. She dances to the drum in her fancy shawl, her moccasins snug on her feet.
“The generational impacts of historical trauma have affected us all. We have each reconnected to our culture in our own time and in our own ways, but Skye has known the beauty of ceremony, music, language, and stories since before she was even born.”