tahkohci kīsikohk iskwēw
Top Sky Woman
Sweetgrass First Nation – Cree
The Cree teachings of the Sweetgrass First Nation depict four seasons of a woman’s life. At 68 years old, Sylvia Weenie is in the winter season of her life. A phase where her role as an elder woman is to teach. Sylvia fulfills that role by instructing her daughter in the womanhood knowledge and roles of life’s four seasons. She perceives how the teachings connect back to the spirit world, cyclical, like the seasons themselves.
The spring season of Sylvia’s life was spent in residential school. Sylvia calls herself a residential school survivor, she lived through the trauma of separation and assimilation, but lost her language and her self-identity. Although she walked away from the school without them, she carried with her a determination to find them again. With the support of her great grandmother, an uncle, and her late husband, she was able to recover what was taken from her. Sylvia’s experience created a resolve in her heart to teach her people’s way of life to the children and youth. She wants them to know their place in society and their nation. She lives her life demonstrating the importance of being nehiyaw—Cree.
The path Sylvia took in her summer and fall seasons of life led her to become a teacher. With a master’s degree in education and curriculum development, Sylvia has both taught and developed curriculum on the Cree language, culture, history, and worldview. She understands the emotion of learning your own people’s language and the fear of pronouncing something wrong. She is ready to help people overcome that fear. Language is powerful and words can produce happiness. Sylvia experiences deep joy with every Cree word a child speaks.
“Women are the sacred fire keepers,” Sylvia teaches. She explains how this is demonstrated through the power and meaning of a word, the Cree word for fire—ISKOTEW. ISKOTEW comes from two Cree words, the word for woman—ISKWEW, and the word for heart—MIHTWE. “Women are the heart of the family, the home, the camp, the nation.” Sylvia passes on this fundamental knowledge to those outside the classroom in the community through role modeling and in ceremony. As a ceremonial woman, she explains that ceremony “is where language, protocols and other important indigenous ways of knowing are felt, heard and learned.” She knows how it nourishes the spirit and gives knowledge that is life sustaining. In her final season of life, Sylvia is setting about to ensure this knowledge and the lifeways of her people are passed to the next generation so they can “move forward in a good way.”