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Study: First Nations Grandparents Blaze Path for Future Generations


New research shows that First Nation grandparents are overcoming the damage caused by residential schools to blaze a bright future for their grandchildren.

Researchers led by Grace Thompson of the University of Toronto interviewed 15 First Nations grandparents from two different Canadian cities, both with large First Nations populations.

The results show grandparents promote positive intergenerational relationships and renew First Nations traditions.

The findings were published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Vol. 76, No.1, 2013).

Fostering intergenerational relationships

According to the study, all participants set out to cultivate strong intergenerational bonds with their grandchildren.

Almost all the grandparents attended residential schools as children, so they first had to reclaim their First Nations knowledge, spirituality and cultural practices.

Participants said becoming a grandparent marked a significant event in their life journey.

One grandfather described the grandparent role as "walking the red road."

He explained: "Now that I am older I behave like an older person and I’m supposed to be providing wisdom and . . . protection."

Most participants talked about the importance of spending time on the reserve.

As one grandmother remarked, "If it wasn’t for me, they probably wouldn’t . . . even be on a reserve or anything like that."

Another grandmother used summer vacations to instill love of the land in her grandchildren.

We’re gonna be going home this summer, sort of like a reunion, and hopefully a lot of people will go. And I’ll take them in the canoe. They have never set foot in a river, you know, the wild river. Cook by outside. So that’s the things I am going to teach them.

Along the same line, "Mable," who was adopted into a white family at an early age, noted: "We’re just trying to find the family, like the connections, and . . . going back every year to the reserve it’s, I mean, it’s home for me. My [biological] mom is there."

Protecting First Nations identity

The grandparents in the study were eager to introduce their grandchildren to the traditional teachings and ceremonies of the First Nations.

Among them:

  • the creation story
  • stories from the longhouse
  • sacred colours, and four directions
  • pow-wow ceremonies, and
  • traditional singing and dancing

They talked about sacred ceremonies, such as the feasting of the feathers and receiving spirit names. Some mentioned the importance of sacred herbs and purifying themselves through the act of smudging.

Grandparents also taught the traditional arts such as beading, doll-making and oramental dressmaking for traditional dance competitions

Others explored the power of dreams, a way of understanding the future.

Second chance

Some participants identified taking on the grandparent role as an opportunity to make up for past mistakes: "I don’t think I was a good mother. But I think I’m a hell of a grandmother . . . This second chance . . . you can’t pay for this."

They also talked about the satisfaction of knowing their grandchildren will grow up with pride in their First Nations identity.

Said "Sylvia": "I want then to understand more about our culture, the meaning, the fasting, the sweat lodge and everything. I’m so proud of it. My son is proud of it. I’m glad I’m doing it."

Another grandmother described her desire to learn Ojibway as a way to teach her grandson the language: "If I could learn it, I could still pass it [on]."

Historically, grandparents have held a powerful place in the lives of the First Nations.

These grandparents demonstrated resilience, coming to terms with their own difficult past, to strengthen family bonds and bring traditional values to the next generation.