Anishinaabe elder Albert Choken, a residential school survivor, cultural icon in his community and resident of Queenston, spends his time helping troubled Indigenous youth and men.
It's important to connect Indigenous youth with their culture, he said during a smudging ceremony Saturday as he cleansed the grounds of the St. Davids Lions Club and helped the spirit of a wandering soldier find peace.
Choken performed the ceremony with the aid of two helpers. One was a 14-year-old Mohawk from Buffalo.
“He’s one of our youth that has gotten into trouble. So, I was assigned to take care of him and help him with his troubles,” Choken said of the young man.
His problems began with being bullied in school, the youth said in an interview.
The youth was reluctant to share the details of what happened but the elder was a bit more forthcoming.
“He was getting bullied at school, so now he can’t go to the same school — because he got beaten up,” Choken said.
The affable Choken speaks in a relaxed manner. As he sat on a blanket in the middle of a large circle of about 25 people, he laughed often and talked softly.
Choken said the young man had been getting in recurring fights with a bully at his school.
The youth got kicked out of school for fighting. His family entered him in the “I’m a Kind Man” program at the Niagara Regional Native Centre, Choken said in an interview later.
He works with troubled Indigenous youth and men in the program.
“We teach them respect and forgiveness. Teach a man those two things and wherever they go in life they’ll be alright,” he said.
The youth was doing well in the program but Choken said he was worried the boy would not go back to school and end up another Indigenous person over-represented in Canada’s penal system.
Choken said during the smudging ceremony in St. Davids he prayed he'd return to school.
And, late Wednesday, he received word that the boy would be back in school today.
“It could be a coincidence or it could not be a coincidence,” Choken said.
At the St. Davids Lions Club, his young helper walked around the entire grounds with a bowl of burning sacred herbs to cleanse the area.
The essential aspect of the smudging ceremony is the collection of four sacred herbs to be burned together in a small bowl. These are usually sage, sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco.
Choken said helping Indigenous youth and men is essential in dealing with the wounds of the past and current traumas that remain from the residential school system.
“Native people are going through a hard time right now with the churches and kids being found,” he said.
“Today, we take care of our youth and we are trying to fix everything so we can all live as one again. In the beginning we lived as one, we were all given equal gifts.”
Choken is no stranger to the troubles that confront Indigenous youth. When he was a child in Manitoba he was taken from his family and forced to attend a residential school, cutting him off from his culture, language, family and traditions.
“It’s hard for me to go home because my family are strangers. I don’t really know my brother or my sisters, my aunties and uncles,” Choken said.
But people who help him, like his youthful charge, "They’re my family here."
Choken had a good reason for staying in Niagara.
“I only stayed around here because I found a woman,” Choken laughed. He said he also liked being near Niagara Falls and didn't plan on returning to Manitoba.
Passing spirituality, language and traditions on to younger generations is at the heart of what Indigenous elders do, he said.
But religion is a difficult topic after the suffering Indigenous Peoples in Canada have endured.
“Along the way we found ourselves coming away from religion. Especially today, to believe in God it’s really hard through the church because of what they did, what they did to myself — I know.”
Through will and the teachings he was given as a child, Choken was able to retain his connection to Anishinaabe culture. He also thanked his mother.
“I fought all my life to keep my language. Today I can speak it fluently and I think that’s because my mother is still alive. I call her all the time, she doesn’t speak English. I had no choice, if I wanted to talk with my mother I had to learn the language,” Choken said.
In conjunction with the Friends of St. Davids, he and his helpers performed the sacred ritual of smudging meant to cleanse spirits both within and without the individual.
Dorothy Walker and her husband Greg organized the event. The impetus was an unexplainable feeling she was getting in St. Davids, she said.
“I started feeling something and I really didn’t know what I was feeling and I’d never felt it before,” Walker said.
She ran into Choken while he was sitting on a bench at the Niagara Regional Native Centre.
“And I explained to him what I was feeling and through our conversation Albert suggested that he could do a smudging ceremony.”
After smoking tobacco out of a sacred pipe and singing a song accompanied by a drum, Choken identified what had been bringing the negative feelings to St. Davids.
“There are a couple of spirits that come forward. One of them is a soldier, he was killed in a war. He’s a wandering spirit,” he said.
He said the soldier was hungry and wanted to smoke some tobacco.
“Those soldiers liked to smoke,” Choken laughed.
He offered the spirit a plate of food with a few cigarettes on the side and sang to help the spirit find peace.
But this was a stubborn soldier.
After his first song the smudge bowl was no longer burning and Choken noted the spirit refused to leave. So he sang two more while his helpers fanned the burning herbs. Still, the spirit stayed.
Choken instructed his helper to take the plate of food and smokes into a more secluded area so the spirit could dine and smoke in peace. After one more song the elder said he had left.
“We had to do this several times because before the spirits do anything they want to eat and they want to smoke,” he said.
Choken spoke about the importance of presenting the spirit with food.
“We live a dual life being physical and spiritual beings — we have a soul. And one day, when you die, your body will leave your soul and you’ll be a spirit,” he said.
“And if you die suddenly or violently or while you’re drunk driving, when you die like that you become lost.”
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report