In July of 1993,1 had the chance to speak from my heart with an intensity and fire that came from within, guided by my late Aunty, my late Elder and the great spirit Wandjina. Sometime very soon after, Uncle Robbie Matthew took the microphone of the Second World Indigenous Youth Conference, held in Darwin, Australia.

He like my other Elder countryman, Uncle Bill Neidjie, spoke directly to my heart, mind, body and spirit. Uncle Robbie (I have “adopted” him as my Uncle in keeping with my people’s tradition of showing respect to Elders) stuck with me for many months. His words about the importance of listening to Elders to quell mental machinery with spiritual truths never left me.

Again at the Third World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education in December of 1993, I had the fortune of crossing paths with the Crees of James Bay. Aunty Janie Pachano came to me to gauge my interest in visiting the schools in the eastern James Bay communities. Two days later Aunty Janie was joined by Diane Reid and Lisa Petagumskum in inviting me to travel within the nine communities. Being invited was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever faced. I was thankful my dear friends Leslie West and Mark Paulson were with me. There was a lot of shared tears and an enormous amount of spiritual energy that gave us all strength from that gathering.

I left the country only three weeks later to travel for hours to the exact opposite side of the world. I really didn’t know exactly why I was going. But I knew I was meant to. Something inside was calling me. I travelled with the Golden Eagle feather that was presented to me by Diane at Wallongong. The story behind that is rich in itself. It was felt an indigenous youth from somewhere else might be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in healing the spirits of Cree youth. And what beautiful spirits they are.

As I get hour after hour, mile after mile of distance away from my home and my family, the fears started: sharing me and my family’s experiences in the hope it will help someone somewhere is a humbling thing.

Cree youth suffer from but survive the same things our young people do: suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, solvent abuse, self-abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse and the results of a lot of other associated addictions.

I left Montreal on January 17, headed first for Mistissini. When I left Australia, I got on a plane with a T-shirt and a pair of shorts— it was 35 degrees. So by the time I got to Mistissini, I was wondering if I would survive -35 and -45 degrees for too much longer!!!

That first night we went to the Cree School Board’s Culture Camp to feast on beaver, caribou and rabbit. Now that I liked! I will never forget being totally in awe of the spirits of three Elders in particular who attended that night. When they entered the cabin I was speechless. I guess that was representative of what was to follow in four weeks of intense travel: feasting, lovely people, beautiful gifts and shared spirits.

I brought with me stories of the Dreaming—our creation legends as told by many of my ancestors. I brought with me a message about realizing the gifts of your native tongue—how many of my people don’t even know what tribes they are from anymore, let alone know our language? I also brought with me much pain.

I discovered that every time I gave a talk about Aboriginal youth in Australia, I wound up talking a lot about my own experiences with alcohol and drugs and their effects on me and my family and people. I realize the Great Spirit was helping me heal by me helping others heal. The Great Spirit provides the gifts and it is an honour to meet the Cree youth in such a strong way.

The main messages were: We are all good people, we must all get spiritually clean in our native ways so respect for Elders, Mother Earth, the Great Spirit and ourselves becomes important again. Healing from alcohol and drugs takes true guts and “looking in the mirror” to understand ourselves and what true warrior people must do. The Great Spirit and our Dreaming Spirits are ready to guide us if we choose clean paths.

The spiritual silence caused by pain, heartache and hatred of self can be overcome. Traditional ways of healing from all those abuses are humbling, and alive experiences like our Corroboree (Ceremonial dance) and sacred initiations will come back, your drum, sweatlodge and sacred lore are crucial, the circle is growing.

Youth suicide will be dealt with properly only when the whole community makes genuine efforts towards abstaining from alcohol and drugs, and everyone looking to true inner healing. Don’t focus only on the youth—many times we youth just react to what we see around us. But Cree youth have what I see in my own young Aboriginal sisters and brothers—a strength and wisdom only our elders can help us tap. Money is not the answer.

The strength of our ancestors is coming back very, very strong. So I want to share this: pray in Cree, learn to say “I love you” to yourself, but most of all never, ever be afraid of what you feel and what is inside because that is sacred, it is yours, it is beautiful.

I will never forget crying my eyes out as I left Mistissini, experiencing the magic of a new community, Ouje-Bougoumou being born, ice-fishing in Waswanipi, hearing the drum in the CRA office in Nemaska, being honoured by Chief Billy Diamond and Gerti Murdoch and the Waskaganish crew, meeting the North Wind and a meeting with seven elders in Eastmain, feeling totally alive in Wemindji, shooting a caribou in Whapmagoostui and speaking with Uncle David Neeposh next to me in Chisasibi.

Nor will I ever forget the deadly times I had in every community for the deepest parts of my soul. THANK YOU! MEEQUETCH! MERCI!

To all the youth out there, remember:

You are Indigenous!

You are intelligent!

You are good looking!

So watch out!

My heartfelt thanks go to the Cree School Board for their commitment to this journey, all the families I stayed with, all the Youth Councils and all the Elders, but most of all—all of yous mob! I ‘II come back soon when it’s warmer.

My deepest respect, love and gratitude.

Greg Phillips is an Aboriginal youth from Australia who spent a month in the Cree Territory.