In her grandmother’s footsteps: Woman travels north to reconnect with Dene family

·5 min read

A woman’s spiritual journey to find out more about her maternal Dene family is helping her to reconnect with the land, her culture and herself.

Guided by dreams, Cassandra (River) Blondin-Burt was living on Gabriola Island, in B.C., when she decided to travel north to find out more about who her grandmother Georgina Blondin was.

Georgina passed away nearly 30 years ago, so Blondin-Burt never got to know her well when she was alive — but she feels a deep connection to her.

Blondin-Burt grew up with her father, a single parent with Scottish/Scandinavian bloodlines, who immersed her in the arts at a young age in Vancouver. She was separated with her mother Fiona Blondin shortly after she was born and around the same time that Georgina passed away.

Although she had a rich childhood, Blondin-Burt still had a yearning to learn more about her mother’s side of the family, and knew she had many relatives that she wanted to connect with.

“Being a young First Nations [person] with no relations, it can be hard to find your place in this world,” she says.

Blondin-Burt’s journey truly began while she was grieving her paternal grandmother. She speaks of having visions of Georgina, in both her waking and dreaming life, at a time when she was very lost.

She says she felt like Georgina was guiding her in a journey of healing and self-discovery, leading her to immerse herself in the teachings of plant medicine.

Georgina was the daughter of the legendary Dene storyteller George Blondin, who wrote about the power of traditional medicine in books like When the World was New.

“Plants are what brought me back,” Blondin-Burt says.

“It was gentle enough, and life-affirming enough, that there was something between that and the dreams I was having with my grandmother.”

Without a concrete plan of how she was going to fulfill her goal of returning to the north, Blondin-Burt bought foundational ingredients like apple cider vinegar with what little money she had, and began to gather plants to sell to make enough money to travel.

“It was elderflower season on the Gulf Islands, and I knew I could gather yarrow, and there was a local place that would allow me to gather lavender from them,” she says.

Blondin-Burt utilized the plants to make infused vinegars which she sold at the local market on Gabriola Island.

She began to seek out formal certification to become a herbalist but soon realized that she could learn much more from her Elders. The Elders’ lessons, Blondin-Burt says, were a big part of why she went up north. She knew she wouldn’t have the same teachings if she wasn’t able to sit down with the Elders.

“It’s not the same as being able to go to an Elders house and sit with them and have tea with them,” she says.

She says her journey has felt like being guided by a force that she is following faithfully, wholeheartedly and with an open mind — a force that she believes is being directed by Georgina.

After raising enough funds through her successful small business venture, Blondin-Burt travelled to the capital of the Northwest Territories this past summer.

It was there that she began to find answers about who her grandmother was.

She was met with open arms on her mother’s side of the family when she arrived.

Blondin-Burt posted a request on Facebook shortly after arriving, asking anyone who knew who her grandmother was to come forward. The response to her Facebook post was overwhelming, with hundreds of responses from people who wanted to help.

“When people speak about Georgina they light up. They get excited. They get happy,” Blondin-Burt says.

“There’s something about speaking about her that brings a lot of people joy and that’s part of the reason why I keep doing it. … meeting with people who have known her and who loved her is remarkable.”

She says meeting with people who knew Georgina is spiritually affirming, as well, and brings her a sense of peace and joy.

“The more I talk with people who knew her, the more I recognize the woman that I encountered in my dreams,” she says.

What Blondin-Burt has learned of her grandmother continues to amaze her.

Georgina was a scholar in the 1960s at a time that it was remarkable for any woman to be a scholar — let alone an Indigenous woman. Georgina travelled extensively as an activist and had one child, Blondin-Burt’s mother.

Blondin-Burt is documenting her journey of reconnection to her grandmother in writing and hopes to one day develop it into a possible theatre piece called “Conversations with My Grandmothers.”

She says it would be an honour to sit with other Two Spirit artists to trace back and discuss their grandmothers’ journeys and “who we are in this time, in the context of the journey that they walked in order for us to be here.”

Blondin-Burt herself is enrolled in Vancouver Island University, completing a Bachelor’s Degree in philosophy and creative writing.

As for how long she will continue this journey, she doesn’t quite know, but one thing is for sure — her grandmother is still there with her.

“Sometimes I feel like I can hear her laugh or I sense her approval,” she says.

Blondin-Burt is continuing to seek information about Georgina, and is asking anyone who might have a story about her to reach her via email at cblondinburt@gmail.com.

Catherine Lafferty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse