nohtawiy: My Father’s Story

I am a first generation survivor of Indian Residential schools—the very foundation of who I am goes back to kokum (my grandma) ekwa nohtawiy (my dad).


tanisi nitotemtik. miyo kisikaw. shana dion, nitisiyihkâson. nehiyaw iskwew. kehewin cree nation ochi niya. maka niwikin amiskwaciwâskahikan. nohtawiy, George Dion ekwa nikâwiy Arlene Dion. nikosis Delton. niya nêhiyawêwin (my Creeness) comes from nôhkom (my grandmother) Sarah Youngchief. 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 first generation survivor of Indian Residential schools—nohtawiy (my dad) George was stolen from his mom Sarah between the ages of 7 and 11 and was forced into Blue Quills Indian Residential school. 

Orange Shirt Day is about honoring our Indian Residential school survivors and the ones that we have lost along the way—though as I sit here I admit I am struggling to find the right words. I am trying to figure out how to live in a world where nohtawiy (my dad) ekwa nimis (my sister) Nadine no longer exist. I simply cannot separate my work from my life or my life from my work because this is where the blood in my veins goes back to: nitisiy (my belly button). The very foundation of who I am, where I come from and who I am accountable to all goes back to kokum (my grandma) ekwa nohtawiy. I am asked many times, "how come you are the way you are and not like them” (a gentle way to ask why am I not an alcoholic—a common myth that all First Nations are alcoholics). To be honest I never knew how to answer such an ignorant question. What I want to say, yet most humans would never ever comprehend is: I was never supposed to survive, I am not meant to be right here right now. It’s actually impossible that I am here, that I am alive. 

Our ancestors, including Indian Residential School survivors—including nohtawiy—were warriors who left us with an incredible legacy of a beautiful culture, traditional ways of knowing and being, nêhiyawêwin (Cree language), and deeply rooted sacred ceremonies. 

It is in the intimate moments of Cree ceremonies that I feel overwhelmingly blessed by the beauty that surrounds me: the depth of knowledge and teachings of the elders, hearing the language, and the feeling of power beneath my bare feet. I allow myself to just be free, as I stand there fully recognizing that I am not the dirty Indian that I was called in the most vulnerable stages in life. 

I am a strong Nehiyaw Iskwew who stands on the shoulders of strong Nehiyaw Iskwewak. All I know is that I am here because my Cree ancestors, elders, parents, aunties and uncles loved me so much. I come from a Tribe that chose to survive through all of the trauma: the stealing and exploitation of land; the violent erasure of our language, ceremonies and people; the exploitation of our teachings and medicines; racialized violence within the judicial systems; the mass removal of our children; and missions of genocide against our children, men and women to this day. 

To all First Nation, Metis and Inuit students and colleagues; our ancestors, Elders, and Indian Residential School survivors kept the language alive, ahkamêyimok.

They kept the ceremonies alive, ahkamêyimok.

They kept the songs alive, ahkamêyimok.

They kept the traditions alive, ahkamêyimok.

Because they inherently knew there were going to be many generations that would come after them. 

That is me, that is you. 

I persevere because I know how much my ancestors, kokum, nohtawiy, nimis endured for me to be standing here today. ahkamêyimok in nêhiyawêwin, means don't give up in the face of adversity. Our beautiful Elders at the University of Alberta and my other parents nipapa Dr. Francis Whiskeyjack ekwa nimama Elsey Gauthier remind us all about how this one word has such deep meaning - ahkamêyimok! They both have brought so much encouragement and teachings to the students and this institution over their time here. I’m so grateful to both of them.

Every Indian Residential School survivor has their story—a story representing the “Indian in the child” that was to have been killed off, yet survived. I am in awe at times when I think of all that nohtawiy endured: his story, which we never heard. I look back now that he’s gone. Pieces of me wanted to hear his story; other pieces of me realized we didn't have to hear it. We witnessed it through his 76 years on this earth, until he passed away May 4, 2021. Intergenerational trauma has impacted us as the first generation of survivors so deeply—including my beautiful sister Nadine, who passed away March 11, 2019. The truth is, I believe they were both slowly killing themselves as loudly as possible so everyone around them understood how deep their pain was. 

Many people have experienced trauma—so what makes this story different? What makes this different is that my story is based simply on the hate of a race—my people—and on the desire to “kill the Indian in the child” which was the foundation of Indian Residential Schools. The expectation was that all the little Indian boys and girls would simply give up and give in to embracing and accepting the European language, culture and religion. This was a highly aggressive assimilation system to eradicate the Indian and rip them from their roots of who they are, where they are from and where they belong. To cut each child from their family and cultural ties so they cannot freely be themselves and instill an unsettling within their souls. By doing this it denied and undermined my kokum’s right to be a mom and disrupted thousands of families for generations. This is now what people understand as intergenerational trauma.

The truth is: Canada’s history will continue to be dug up until everyone comes to an understanding of the truths of this land. Mother Earth will continue to expose the truths, the heartbreak, and the realities of this land. We have spoken; now Mother Earth is speaking along with us. We tried telling the world of the atrocities of this land, yet some didn’t believe it was real. So it took the little ones in unmarked graves, who whispered to each other “it’s time that they find us.” The bodies that are being discovered today are our ancestors still speaking the pain of untold stories. The bodies in unmarked graves are the intergenerational pain that we inherently carry deep in our souls—a truth that many of us didn’t even know we were carrying. Our First Nation babies don’t come into the world wondering if they matter. The world around them shows them whether or not they do.

If I were to dream, it would be that—not just on Orange Shirt Day but on any given day—everyone in Edmonton, Alberta and Canada would begin to unpack the history they have learned. If you have the privilege of living in Edmonton and within Canada—or for that matter working or studying at the U of A—you have the responsibility of learning the true history of this land and territory. I believe that this is how we become more appreciative of each other and our neighbors, and no longer simply stand in judgement of the First Peoples of this land.

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

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.