Stop and smell the cedar: Reflecting on eight months in Grassy Narrows

By Elizabeth McSheffrey

I have less than a month left in Grassy Narrows with the wonderful people of Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek.

The imminence of my departure is starting sink in as I fill in the last few columns of my spreadsheet, submit outstanding paperwork and collect final surveys from community members I’ve been working with since the spring.

As I breathe in the cool autumn air, watch the leaves turn from green to orange, and brush snow off of the ailing red Journo Mobile in my driveway, I’ve had time to reflect on eight months spent in this northwestern Ontario First Nation.

Representing Grassy Narrows at the Sasquatch Bush Crawl charity race in Kenora, Ont. on Sat. Sept. 22, 2018.

During a recent feature writing workshop with a Grade 11 class at Sakatcheway Anishinabe School, the students asked me, “What have you learned since you’ve been here?”

Caught somewhat off-guard, I thought about it, grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote on the board: “Stop and smell the roses.”

The expression, I explained, isn’t really about smelling flowers, but about learning to slow down and live with a deeper appreciation for what’s around us.

They nodded understandingly, and with their English teacher, gave it a good old Grassy twist:
“Stop and smell the cedar.”

Cedar tea brews at the community’s Minnowsaywin building — an excellent remedy for an upset stomach or a common cold. Photo by Annie Sneaky

I laughed, wiped ‘roses’ off the board and replaced it. Stop and smell the cedar — it was brilliant, cheeky and culturally appropriate, given the significance of cedar in Grassy Narrows’ traditional medicine, pow-wows and other ceremonies.

Photographer Steve Land, a participant in the media skills program, documents Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde’s visit to Grassy Narrows on Tues. Oct. 9, 2018.

It also encapsulates my experience here. Over eight months, I’ve felt fuller and brighter as a person because of the way I’ve learned to live: slowly and simply, based on meaningful interactions with nature and the people around me.

Here are some of the highlights:

— Catching six fish on my very first trip on the lake with an elder
— Learning to make cedar tea and moccasins at the community centre
— Being covered head to toe in flour while cooking bannock for a crowd in the woods
— Shooting an all-girl rap video in the Journo Mobile with youth, just for fun
— Chaperoning a trip to the water park in Winnipeg, and taking silly photos on the bus
— Singing in a sacred water ceremony during the annual Women’s Healing Gathering
— Finishing the Sasquatch Bush Crawl charity race with a team from Grassy Narrows
— Placing second (to my surprise/embarrassment) at a street-clothes pow-wow competition
— Watching a fox pee all over my camera, then pose in the sand for a half-hour photo shoot

These are just some of the more memorable personal experiences, which don’t begin to cover how much I’ve enjoyed my actual job here as a journalism trainer. Grassy Narrows is full of talented artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers, who have welcomed me warmly into their lives.

Photographer Steve Land, a participant in the media skills program, documents Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde’s visit to Grassy Narrows on Tues. Oct. 9, 2018.

In fact, more than 120 community members have extended me this courtesy in more than 160 workshops held since March. Together, we’ve covered media literacy, reporting skills and creative expression — sometimes over snacks, sometimes late at night, sometimes on a beach, and sometimes, in the back of the bus, unknowingly sitting on a box of donuts.

To date, 51 of these participants have had their work published, either in the community or by mainstream media outlets.

Here are some of those highlights:

— Publishing two wildly popular videos about the children’s slime craze in Grassy Narrows
— Broadcasting a six-minute television newscast about school events and programs
— Reporting the results of an entire season of baseball from start to finish
— Launching the community’s first local news website
— Partnering with Ontario Works to deliver an intensive, two-month adult media skills program
— Publishing seven local photographers in regional news outlets, including the Kenora Daily Miner, Lake of the Woods Enterprise, Q104 FM and Wawatay News
— Filling a page in the Toronto Star with essays and photos by local youth that capture the community’s strength and resilience
— Bringing Grassy Narrows to the international stage through a local youth, whose photography was published in the major British daily, The Guardian
— Sharing more than 60 locally-produced print, video and photo-based stories with the community through social media, news bulletins, websites and TV screens

I’m proud as punch of these numbers on paper, but looking back over time, I know they don’t capture the real range of achievements involved in producing them.

A small red fox poses for photos on the old reserve in Grassy Narrows, after having the audacity to pee on the program’s camera. Photo by Darwin Fobister.

When the Indigenous Reporters Program began here seven months ago, many of the people I worked with had never used camera, had seldom used a computer, and were intimidated by the prospect of having their work published in the public domain.

Instead of letting that stop them, they spent hours learning camera mechanics, improving their writing and mastering editing software — often resisting the temptation to do less taxing activities, like join a volleyball tournament, play video games, or go for a swim.

They took a chance, tried something new, persevered, gained confidence, and in the end, produced a powerful portfolio of stories to be shared and enjoyed by the community in perpetuity. That kind of achievement, in my view, can’t be quantified by numbers.

Scraping meat off a moose hide at the community Fall Harvest on Wed. Oct. 17, 2018, with a 2,000-year-old tool left behind by the ancestors. Photo by Janae Necanapenace.

My last few weeks in Grassy Narrows are shaping up to be quite hectic: the annual Fall Harvest is underway, I have a small graduation party to organize for the media skills program, along with classes to teach and workshops to hold, and a weekly Writer’s Club to run.

I have vowed, however, throughout this time to stop and smell the cedar, which means hugging my kiddies a little more tightly, inhaling the sage smoke a little more deeply, and dancing with a little more reckless abandon around the drum at feasts and pow-wows.

There is no word in Ojibway for goodbye — only paamaamiinowaa, which means, “see you later.”

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