“I am my ancestors wildest dreams”

Lois Aspenes Award winner Gordon Naylor connected to his Cree culture while a student at Augustana — and now, works to inspire the next generation of young Indigenous students

Anna Schmidt - 18 January 2023

Photo of Gordon Naylor

In the final year of his undergraduate degree, Gordon Naylor, ‘11 BSc, ‘13 BEd, helped plan Augustana’s first round dance.

It was also his first time attending one. “It really was the culmination of my journey to reconnect with my culture,” says Naylor, who is a member of the Muskoday First Nation. “I didn't grow up with too much culture in my life…When I went to Augustana, just a small city in the middle of the prairies, it allowed me to confidently explore what it was to be a Cree person.”

Naylor attended Augustana from 2006 to 2011, graduating with a bachelor of science in math and physics. Now, he is a member of the campus’ Indigenous Engagement Advisory Committee and the 2022 recipient of the Lois Aspenes Award — an honour awarded to an alumna or alumnus for their contributions to life at Augustana.

“Someone once said that I missed out on the university experience by going to a small campus. And I just disagreed with them because I thought Augustana was such a special place…I met incredible people that forever impacted who I am,” says Naylor. 

During university, he spent four years working for Residence Services, which connected him to Indigenous Student Services (at the time, it was called the Aboriginal Students’ Office). In the mid-2000s, it was just a tiny room on the second floor of the school’s Faith and Life Centre, recalls Naylor.

Despite the small space, the office, and Naylor, were a part of big steps for Augustana at the time. He participated in the conversation where the campus decided to hand out Métis sashes and eagle feathers to Indigenous graduates at convocation. Alongside other Indigenous students, Naylor collaborated with a designer to create the kâsihkiskawiht kahkiyaw ayisiniw (uplifting the whole people) banner. It still hangs in the Forum today, signifying the presence of Indigenous peoples on campus.

These experiences, alongside his role with Residence Services, sparked Naylor’s desire to support other Indigenous students on their learning journeys, he says. Following his time at Augustana, he completed an education degree at the University of Alberta. “It led me on a path…to pursue employment on reserve so I could be a good role model to the young, particularly Cree, people I’d be teaching.”

Naylor is now the assistant principal at Maskwacis Cree High School. His experiences teaching on reserve have provided opportunities for Naylor to continue learning about Cree culture in ways he didn’t experience in his own grade school education. 

“Very few young men where I grew up had long hair, let alone braids. The first day I walk[ed] into Ermineskin Junior-Senior High… I saw a dozen boys with braids. It was such a powerful moment… It’s a big reason why I have grown my hair out.”

In early 2022, Naylor joined Augustana’s Indigenous Engagement Advisory Committee to help support campus-community relationships, particularly between the university and his high school students. This past fall, Augustana’s basketball teams visited Maskwacis Cree High School, where Elders shared stories and knowledge, followed by a joint practice between the university and high school teams.

“The biggest thing is creating possibilities for the students — showing them that they should dream big; that it's okay to leave the reserve, go acquire other knowledge and then come back. And you don't have to go far,” says Naylor. “I want to continue building the relationship between Augustana and my school board, because it's all about the act of reciprocity, right?” 

As he reflects on his learning and teaching experiences, Naylor recites a quote by Brandan Odums: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

“[I’m] thinking of what my grandma had to go through during her educational journey…and how education can be such a powerful tool for Indigenous people to affect change. We can no longer be viewed as passive members of this treaty. We are the active members of driving this relationship with the crown. I hold my eagle feathers in as high of esteem as the two pieces of paper I have on my wall.”