A trip of a life-time to the Fifth World Indigenous Youth Conference in Waitanga, New Zealand
Kia Ora (hello). It was hard to imagine that here we were at the Fifth World Indigenous Youth Conference. It was only a short while ago I remember being on the Mistissini Youth Council when James Shecapio presented the idea of a world youth conference. James then dedicated the next year to fulfilling that dream by locating a meeting place, contacting indigenous youth from around the world, fundraising and everything else that goes with a project of that magnitude.
As a result of his efforts, in 1993, on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City the Cree Nation Youth of James Bay hosted the First World Indigenous Youth Conference. This was only one example of the work James did to enrich our lives, as he made no secret that youth were always his priority. Arriving at the Fifth Conference was special because it was something that James started and it had traveled from Canada to Australia to Ecuador to Samiland (Northern Europe) and now it was in New Zealand. When James presented this idea to our youth council it was with the purpose of gathering the indigenous youth of the world so we could share concerns, issues and experiences, and hopefully create a way that we could always stay in touch and be there for each other.
On the second night of the conference, we did a tribute to James. It began with Joshua Iserhoff singing. The Moari use song in all of their ceremonies so they responded well to this. Youth Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff then spoke of James’ life and his contributions to the youth and the conference. After, we handed out candles to the audience to accompany the rest of the singing portion of our tribute. Lorianna Kitchen and James’ sister, Evelyn, started the lighting of the candles. Next, dancers from both our delegation and the other Canadian delegations performed in full traditional dress. Each performer explained the significance of their outfit and their dance before starting. A crowd favorite was Jonathon Sutherland who demonstrated the hoop dance. Although he did not bring his hoops and had to make replacements, he worked magic with all the designs he created. Overall, the tribute was good and the assembly enjoyed our presentation immensely.
This Fifth Conference was hosted by the Moari tangata whenua (indigenous people) of Aotearoa (Land of the long white cloud:
The Moari sang to us at the airport and then took us to their mauri (meeting house) where we were greeted with speeches, songs and food. It was there that we learned of the way that Moari people greet each other. They rest their foreheads together and touch the tip of their noses and wait until they share a breath. It is believed that your breath is life and that by this closeness you are allowing your life-force to meet as well as the spirits of your ancestors. From there we were bussed to Waitangi where we were greeted by speeches from Elders representing the different hapus (clans) and a chorus of Moari youth. Each speech was followed by a beautiful song.
It was held in Waitangi which has special significance for the Moari as the place where their ancestors first arrived in Aotearoa. It is also the place where the te Tiriti (treaty) of Waitangi was signed with the pakeha (New Zealander of European descent). During the conference, a ceremony was held where the Moari flag was flown at the Treaty House for the first time since the signing of the treaty over 150 years ago.
One of the women in our delegation commented that she did not like the way that the women had to sit behind the men during the ceremonies. Later, it was explained to me that the seating was so because women carry the next generation of a people. Therefore, the men are placed in front in case anything happens; the women have time to prepare to defend themselves and the men take the first attack.
During the Moari songs, we noticed that the women were shaking their hands while singing and some were kicking their feet back. So, I asked about it and found out that the hand movements were used to distract their enemies thereby giving their warriors an advantage in battle. The foot movements were used to kick up a cloud of dust so that the enemy could not determine the number of warriors that were standing behind the women. Although it was the men who we saw doing battle songs and cries during the conference, we learned that the women who were more proficient with the weapons. Sometimes the men would stand in front of the women before a battle and when the enemy attacked the men would part and the women would strike first; then the men would strike from the sides.
After the welcoming ceremonies at Waitangi, the Moari moved their Elders from one of the buildings to give us a room large enough for all of us to sleep together. They laid 50 mattresses on the floor for us. We asked why they would move their Elders; they responded that the Cree family should stay together and that everything was as it should be. The Elders were moved to a mauri. Sleeping in the same area was a good chance for us to get to know each other better.
We had the opportunity to choose the workshops we wished to attend. I chose to attend the workshops on Traditional Healing and Education. The healing workshop started off with a Moari stretching exercise which was in the same genre as Tai Chi. We then practiced massaging techniques on each other to relax. The facilitator of the workshop, Maria Barnes, was from a line of traditional healers, and was learning and practicing this art. One night she prepared a special drink which cured a singer’s voice before he was scheduled to sing. Maria talked of how she uses a Tupakihi plant which is usually poisonous but when boiled and prepared properly can either be wrapped on an open gash or drunken to heal the wound internally. The other delegations talked of how little they relied on doctors and hospitals. They talked of how plants properly prepared are inserted into the skin and heal broken bones within a week. They talked of how traditional cures were used to eliminate diseases in their communities. It makes me think about what traditional medicine that our Elders know and if they are still in use in the bush. If you have knowledge of any, I would be interested (Box 38, Mistissini Lake, Quebec, G0W 1C0).
The education workshop revealed that most of the other indigenous peoples are working towards objectives that we have already achieved in our nation. Most other nations are trying to incorporate more of their language or culture into their education systems. Some have created separate schools which teach traditional values that their children attend after conventional school.
The conference ended by deciding to set up a World Youth Secretariat (Council) that indigenous youth of the world could use as a platform to bring their concerns and as a network for youth to stay in contact and support each other. This was the intention of the First Conference and continues to be a priority. Cree Youth Ambassador Samson Weistche will be on the committee to help create this world organization.
It was a long journey to Aotearoa but one that hopefully all of us will come away from a little wiser and more confident in who we are. It makes you think about who you are when you explain to other youth about your people and traditions. It makes you proud to be Cree and indigenous. The conference teaches you as much about yourself as it does about other cultures.
The Sixth World Indigenous Youth Conference will be held in Greenland in the Year 2000. It will be hosted by the Inner Inuit Arctic Circle Council which is comprised of youth from Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Sandra Inutiq, president of the Council, promises to make it a conference you will not forget and that their hospitality is second to none. So, if you get the opportunity, events like these will strengthen, encourage and help you; also, you will meet some of the best youth in the world.
A special thanks to Glen Cooper for all his work coordinating most of the trip for us, as well as giving inspirational speeches on behalf of the Cree youth at the conference and showing traditional dances. Also, a special thanks to the Cree School Board and the Regional and Local Youth Councils for their financial support which allowed 43 Cree youth to attend this conference. E noho ra, ma te atua koe e tiaki. (So long, and may God go with you.)