Wâhkôhtowin: The Value of Relationships Amid Crisis

Shana Dion, Assistant Dean (First Nations, Métis and Inuit Students), shares the Cree teaching wâhkôhtowin, and the importance of staying connected while we must be apart.

Image for PostThe U of A Annual Round Dance, 2018 (photo supplied)

I value relationships; it is the wâhkôhtowin I have been taught through my Cree teachings since I was a little girl. Nohkom (my grandmother) taught me that sharing and kindness is vital in all relationships. Sharing shows that we care. Kindness shows that we are concerned about others' well being.

wâhkôhtowin refers to the interconnected nature of relationships, communities, and natural systems. Its literal meaning is kinship, though it is often used to refer to Cree law.

The very essence of wâhkôhtowin drives us in times like this, as we reach out to our colleagues, friends, family and communities to see if they are okay. What is beautiful within our teachings is that no matter what is happening - no matter how many little ones or old ones need shelter or help within the circle - there is always room. No one is left out in the cold. We take care of others who need protection and guidance.

wâhkôhtowin is that movement to be part of the circle. It is vital in the work that we do within student services, like First Peoples' House, especially now. It is what inspired us to connect with our Elders - in particular our First Peoples' House Elders-in-residence Francis and Elsey - to ensure that they remain connected to our students, our staff, and our broader community.

A few weeks ago, Elders Francis and Elsey shared a ceremonial song for us on social media. It was the first time either had ever used social media. They received more than 35,000 views.

Their video gives just one example of our community's desire to connect: Elders are essential to our community, just as we are their community. They are isolated and alone right now, too - a part of the vulnerable population that we cannot exclude. Our Elders, our ceremonies, and prayer will be what grounds us to get us through the journey ahead. Supporting one another will be what lets us step forward.

Gifts of our time, our willingness to listen, and our desire to share what we have all make a difference. At this moment, I'm thinking about how to help the staff, students, and Elders at our Tribal Colleges, whose students may live in remote and isolated communities. I know you are thinking about how to help the communities around us, too - whether you're one of the students who volunteered to provide childcare to those staff on the frontlines in our hospitals, or a researcher racing to find a vaccine. We all have the opportunity to support those around us.

Our surrounding communities - including fellow schools, local neighbourhoods, remote villages, global cities - they need us, and I feel we need them. After all, why do we do the things that we do? Community! It's the wider community that inspires us to create, to explore, and to seek understanding.

We talk about community engagement every day on our campuses, and I truly believe that cannot stop in times of crisis. We can still bring sharing and kindness to our relationships in times like these, just as my Nohkom taught me. We can still be both inspiring and inspired.

Our Elders teach us that sometimes the world gives us a window of opportunity that may never come around again. I believe there is a window of opportunity to give back to the communities who give so much to us. Let's seize this moment to use our creativity as we answer the question: how can I help?

This is our time to live our wâhkôhtowin.

Kinanâskomitin (thank you),


Shana Dion - Assistant Dean (First Nations, Métis & Inuit Students)

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Tânisi osâwâw acâhkos nehiyaw iskwew niya Kehewin Cree Nation ochi niya. Hello, my spirit name is 'yellow star', and I am a Cree woman from Kehewin Cree Nation. It is important that I introduced myself in Cree because it grounds me in who I am, where I come from and who I am accountable to. I am a mother to a beautiful soul named Delton. As Assistant Dean (First Nations, Métis and Inuit Students) I am dedicated to supporting, guiding and delivering holistic supports for First Nation, Métis and Inuit learners. I believe that practicing traditional ways and sharing traditional knowledge on campus will provide the space to bring together the larger campus community to engage, educate, and embrace our communal history!