A sacred fire to honour Indian day school and residential school survivors welcomed Kahnawa’kehró:non earlier this week.
The ceremonial event began at 6 a.m. on Monday, July 26, and concluded the following evening of Tuesday, July 27.
In addition to the fire paying tribute to survivors, the event was also an acknowledgement of the continued impact of intergenerational effects, along with a sign of respect to Onkwehón:we whose lives were stolen and bodies only recently uncovered.
“In the community, it’s bringing up a lot of trauma and feelings of people’s own experiences,” said Mohawk Council of Kahnawake grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer.
“It’s important that we continue to create safe spaces for community members to come engage and feel supported. Especially right now with everything about these mass graves.”
Through his role as a traditional support counsellor for Kahnawake Shakotiia’takehnhas Community Services, Tom Dearhouse is distinctly equipped to assist families in need of cultural and emotional support.
While tending to his tasks as firekeeper, Dearhouse’s role was, in more ways than one, also a continuation of what he does at the family centre.
“For the traditional way of doing things, a fire is always used as a gathering place for counselling and advice. It provides heat and light – all the basics,” he explained. “It also offers a chance to burn tobacco. It’s a respectful place, a safe place for discussion.”
These intentions are what attracted community members to the fire held in the field next to the Mohawk Legion building.
Louise Mayo, Indian Day Schools Settlement Project coordinator, was also present to assist members through this emotional gathering.
As a former student of the federally-run schools, Mayo’s knowledge has driven her to take a more holistic approach to the position where she assists Kahnawa’kehró:non every step of the way.
“In many cases, this is the first time someone is sharing their story or expressing their anger about how they were treated in school,” she explained. “With COVID, the unmarked graves, and talks about Indian day school – it’s all created a really strong sense of dialogue amongst people that don’t normally talk to one another.”
This latest sacred fire represented an opportunity for both a meaningful community gathering as well as a chance to further inform and assist former students with their Indian day school claims.
At the same time as people met around the fire, in-person claims assistance sessions were carried out through the Indian Day Schools Claims Assistance Program.
Mayo expressed a sense of fulfillment upon realizing a total of 80 claims had been filed between Saturday and Tuesday alone.
With an approximate 5,000 Kahnawa’kehró:non eligible to file a claim, the coordinator continues to encourage members to contact her for help ahead of the deadline on July 13, 2022.
Dearhouse underlined that the openness to dialogue fostered by the sacred fire is an aspect of the traditional gathering place, which is intrinsically tied to its ancestral ways.
“The fire will contact the spirits and the ancestors – this is a reassuring thing, knowing you have your ancestors behind you,” he explained.
“It can be hard emotionally at times to recount facts and memories. It can all be challenging to go through, but I was proud to be fire keeping,”
The ability to meet in person for this event is an opportunity the grand chief said she hopes to see more of as Kahnawa’kehró:non continue to persevere through these difficult times.
“As a community, I think that’s the way we need to move forward with our collective healing, by continuing to create safe spaces and show support. We’re all going through this together.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door