‘Not only are we surviving, we are thriving’ 

Collage showing Kaeliana Smoke holding up the Hiawatha Belt, alongside images of maps.

Inspired by her grandmother’s experiences and immense ability to forgive, graduate student Kaeliana Smoke is studying intergenerational healing in the families of Residential School survivors.  

Anthropology graduate student Kaeliana Smoke is researching, mapping, and analyzing the intergenerational healing of Residential School survivors and their families.  

Her research focuses on recording the stories of Residential School survivors and their families to learn about and celebrate the healing that many of these families have been experiencing for generations.

Here, Smoke shares more about her research and how her own family history led her to it. 

She:kon sewakwekon Katsitsianentha ionkats.
(Hello everyone, my name is Katsitsianentha — When the Wind Blows Over the Flowers.)

When I first came to McMaster, I was not sure what I wanted to research. I did not know what to expect from graduate school or a master’s program. However, I did know I wanted to study under Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill, the first Indigenous cultural anthropologist in Canada and truly a giant in the field of Indigenous research at McMaster.

In the first few months, it took some time for me to figure out what my research project would be, but in a moment of clarity one day, while tossing around some ideas with my supervisor, I realized what my project was going to be, needed to be.

Before I tell the rest of that story, I have to tell another one instead: The story of my family’s matriarch, Cecilia Jacobs, or as my family and I better know her, Gramma. This story is not an isolated event, but it is something that happened to many Indigenous peoples and families across Canada.

Gramma was born on Jan. 24, 1926, to Paul and Mary Sawatis Lazare and returned to the Spirit World on May 4, 2016. When Gramma was young, she and her sisters Anna and Sue were taken from their family and sent to the Spanish Residential School in Spanish, Ont. When my Gramma returned from Residential School, she did not know how to speak Kanien’kehá:ka, the language her entire family spoke.

But Gramma didn’t let the Residential School take her language from her forever. She took the time to relearn the Kanien’kehá:ka language and used it to communicate with her entire family.

Those at Spanish Residential School attempted to take more from Gramma, but she never allowed them. Even after the abuse she endured and witnessed at the hands of the staff, she still forgave them.

She even forgave the nun who was the meanest to her when she would meet her face to face years later, not as a child, but as a woman and mother.

Gramma was kind and offered forgiveness to those who hurt her, who hurt all of us. And because of that, I believe that the generations that came afterward carry an echo of that kindness and that strength to offer forgiveness in the face of someone who was unbelievably cruel to a child.

She was magic. And her magic lives in the generations that came after her.

My research

I decided to focus my research project on Residential Schools, a topic I have researched in many ways since high school. But this time, I realized that I needed to look at it a different way than I previously had; I did not want to look at the intergenerational trauma that it had caused for Indigenous peoples and families for generations; I mentally could not endure that type of research.

I wanted to focus on a topic that would honour Gramma, that would honour all survivors of Residential Schools. I decided to focus on the intergenerational  healing at the individual, family, and community levels of Residential School survivors and their families. I wanted to record stories of healing, of how, despite everything that Indigenous families have endured because of Residential Schools, not only are we surviving, but we are thriving.

We are rekindling our connection with the land, relearning our language, and learning new tools that continue our healing journey and will be passed down to the next generations. This is what I witnessed in my own family it inspired me to believe that other families have to be feeling this and seeing it. This is where my research project was born.

This project, which is currently in the ethics approval process, would help change the perspective of not only the overall Canadian population but even those outside of Canada.

I have been conducting this research for nearly a decade, and I have noticed a theme: It focused on the negative impacts that Residential Schools have had on Indigenous peoples, and that is where the story stopped.

But there is so much more to the story than that. I want people to hear the rest of it; I want them to hear how Indigenous peoples fought — fought for their children back, fought for their language back, for the connection to the land, to their culture, and each other. Indigenous families and communities rebuilt themselves without the help of the Canadian state or anyone else, especially from my community of Akwesasne.

Both researcher and participant

My research is unique from typical anthropologic ethnographic research because I am both the researcher and participant, as I am a descendant of a Residential School survivor.

But this is a very common experience for Indigenous researchers: My peers could not relate to me; they were researchers looking in while I was a researcher in the community, part of the demographic, and had more insight and knowledge than a typical researcher.

I had to figure out how to navigate, especially when attempting to do research in a colonial institution that historically was not designed to support Indigenous peoples and their way of knowing.

Western academia has been an enemy, a weapon, used against Indigenous peoples, especially in the forms of research. Having Indigenous Ways of Knowing at the forefront of Indigenous research and seen as an equal or greater form of knowledge to Western knowledge, or even greater in some cases, is necessary for the future of research to benefit both Indigenous peoples and Western academia.

It is hard at times for Indigenous peoples to see ourselves in Western academia, especially as we are taught Western ways of thinking, and we learn about the historic white academics that don’t look like us. We need to feel welcomed in these spaces, the spaces that have worked so hard to keep us out of them.

I think McMaster is making waves; they are moving in the right direction, especially as they listen to the Indigenous peoples from the community at McMaster and the original stewards of the land that McMaster resides on.

While at McMaster, I have witnessed some amazing programs that McMaster has unveiled that will allow more Indigenous peoples to attend the university.

Our ways of knowing will come with them, especially with the Indigenous student bursary, but McMaster also has to keep creating the spaces for us,  spaces for our ways of knowing, our ways of doing things, our elders, our knowledge keepers.

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