‘Lead with culture’: Indigenous youth share how they learn from doing so

Coast Salish drummers sing a morning song at the final day of Healing Our Spirit Worldwide. Haley Lewis / Global News

What does it mean to lead with culture? It’s something both Ferrada Lightning, a 26-year-old from Maskwacis, Alta. and Megan Metz a 24-year-old from Kitimat, B.C. do every day.

“When we come back to culture, we come back to reconnecting with our ancestors wisdom, their strength and the connection of the community, because our ceremonies are beautiful practices and that that is who we are,” said Lightning.

“Culture is who I am, it’s my connection to my community, my elders — it’s changed my life.”

For years, Indigenous people were taught to hide who they were, to be ashamed of their culture and practice in private, but over the course of the past several decades that’s changed — and both Lightning and Metz are taking part of that change in their communities.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous artisans connect to their cultural roots at PNE'
Indigenous artisans connect to their cultural roots at PNE

The pair spoke at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide gathering this week which saw almost 4,000 Indigenous people from all over the world convene in Vancouver.

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“It’s very powerful to see all of these connections be built and see these relationships formed between people who wouldn’t have necessarily had a whole lot of contact with each other yet share very similar histories, very similar core beliefs and values,” said Metz.

“Being able to come together, share our hearts, our stories, our visions for the future and what it could be is very empowering.”

Teachings and language

While finishing up his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Mount Royal University, Lightning also works in Maskwacis as a climate justice coordinator and program manager — bringing his culture into what he does.

“My moshum (grandfather) teaches me everything that I know,” said Lightning. “A kokum (grandmother) once told me that your real battle isn’t with your fists, it’s with your voice and that changed my whole life.”

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Lightning said he grew up an angry individual, in crisis not realizing his negativity was hurting the people around him. Through the teachings of his moshum, he was able to turn that around.

“I’ve dedicated my life to using my voice for good because the last thing I said to my mother before she was murdered was, ‘I f–ing hate you and I wish you would die’ … and then she did,” said Lightning.

“I wanted to take that back for so long, but I’ve learned my lesson and culture helped teach me to change hurt into power, to change mistakes into learning.”

Lightning said some of the best advice he has is to learn — learn culture, learn language and learn how to be gentle with yourself.

“I listen to my moshum and kokums because I don’t know anything,” he said. “There won’t be a period in my life where I know something because I’m on this earth to learn, and every single day is an opportunity to do that.”

Youth gathered to share their thoughts and priorities through a live graphic recording by Sam Bradd. Haley Lewis / Global News

Metz wears multiple hats. In her community she works on language revitalization, teaching beginner classes to adults. She also does archival work and is a strong advocate for mental health.

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“I’m just really passionate about trying to learn as much as I can and teaching it to youth, to other community members that are really wanting to learn,” she said.

As a Haisla speaker she’s empowered by those who have taught her to get comfortable teaching.

“I’ve learned that it is just as important for you as a language learner to teach as much as you can, as soon as you can,” said Metz.

“There’s a lot of power in that, rather than waiting until you’re fluent — time is kind of of the essence when it comes to language revitalization.”

Being a language teacher helps keep her mind sharp and retention up. “I love infusing culture into storytelling and that’s something I’m really passionate about,” said Metz.

“So when it’s potlach time or ceremony time just sharing words and phrases that have to do with that is so important.”

Click to play video: 'Nisga’a Nation totem pole begins journey home'
Nisga’a Nation totem pole begins journey home

Healing Our Spirit Worldwide centred healing, reclamation and health.

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Richard Jock, CEO of the First Nations Health Authority, said the conference “emerged out of interest in pursuing approaches that work for communities.

“Our approach is wellness and that within wellness, part of our instructions from the First Nations people of B.C. is to lead with culture,” he said.

The week saw Indigenous people from across Canada, the U.S., Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia share resources, expertise and challenges.

“This time helps provide inspiration to continue with the work as some of this is quite challenging — like residential schools, effects of colonialism, the continuing effects of drugs and alcohol — so I would say this is really a source of inspiration,” said Jock.

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“But also some of those practical models by which we can hope to improve lives of our people.”

“Things can be quite heavy in the world sometimes,” adds Metz. “It’s nice to be in a space like this where you can just be filled with hope of what is possible when we come together.”

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