My sister, Donna, sadly passed away on May 11th, 2018 in Edmonton where she lived for the last 40+ years with her husband. Her Blackfoot name is Natoo sipitaki or Holy Owl Woman in English. She also attended residential school at the Old Sun Anglican school. Siksika Nation AKA Blackfoot Reserve #146 had two residential schools: the Catholic school was situated on the east end of the reserve, while the Anglican school was more or less centrally located. Even back then the schools divided us by the two religious denominations on the reserve - it is still happening today.
My sister trained to be a Certified Nursing Aide back in the 60s; looking back, she had a nomadic life and career as a nurse’s aide. She also became an “Eh soo ki nakii”, a Blackfoot word which means “healer” in English. What she really did without her knowledge was create a path for us in the healthcare field. Most of my siblings including me went into healthcare. My older brother became a Nursing Orderly and worked in various hospitals in Calgary as well as in Edmonton, namely, Misericordia. My other sisters worked as nurse’s aides back on the reserve at the Elders lodge where they enjoyed working with the Elders living at the lodge. Before I went into Social Work, I was a Registered Nursing Assistant and worked in various hospitals in Calgary, as well as homecare work and spending some time working at a group home for spinal cord injury. My older brother and I both worked at the old Calgary General hospital although in different units. I worked in H4 (orthopedics) and he worked in H6 (Rehabilitation). He was my mentor as he had worked in the healthcare field a lot longer than me. The Calgary General hospital was later imploded on October 4th, 1998. Furthermore, some of my nieces went into the healthcare field and trained and became Licensed Practical Nurses. Some are working at the Elders Lodge or at the Siksika Health and Wellness centre which opened in 2007. Lastly, my daughter will be entering her final year of nursing this fall at Mount Royal University (MRU). She changed her career path to nursing even though she got a Bachelor of Communication from MRU in 2012 with a specialization in Information Design. When we informed my late sister’s husband that our daughter was entering her final year of nursing, he said “Oh good for her, she’s following in her Auntie’s footsteps”. I want to reiterate: what she really did without her knowledge was create a path for us in the healthcare field. Knowing my late sister’s humbleness, she would shrug it off.
Naato sipitaki’s nomadic life as a nurse’s aide took her places that I don’t think I would care to go, such as Inuvik in the Territories or Fort Smith where the winter temperatures dip to unbearable conditions. She also worked in Edmonton as well as Calgary. She even went east to Thompson, Manitoba to work there while her husband worked at the nickel mine. She came home to the reserve now and then and had no problems getting work at the Blackfoot hospital that we had on the reserve. I am sure she was an asset there since she still spoke the language and many of the patients still spoke Blackfoot. She probably served as an interpreter. Naato sipitaki was still our big sister and will always be our older sister. When she came home, we were all glad to see her and doted on her. Of course, she had money, too. Money for candy at Jackie’s store in the town of Gleichen.
My sister was also a victim of the Indian Act that discriminated against women that married outside of their bands. She married a non-Siksika back in the early 60s and was enfranchised and no longer a member of the band. Conversely, if an Indigenous man married a non-Indigenous woman, then she would gain Indian status and their children would have Indian status. I have a brother and a relative who married non-Indigenous women and they are still band members. She was ousted through the Act from the band even though my family didn’t see it that way. She never gained back her status but became a member of her husbands’ band when they got married. Even when Bill C-31 came into effect in 1985, she had already married an Indigenous man from another band and Bill C-31 never meant anything to her. In hindsight, I never heard my later sister complain about her rights been violated in her early years of life. She just carried on and accepted what life had bestowed on her.
The way I saw her life as a demonstration of being a victim in so many ways as an Indigenous woman but persevering through all that because she took training as a nurse’s aide and it allowed her to experience a bigger world out there rather than staying put on the reserve. Furthermore, our late mother never had to worry about her because she knew that she could look after herself in this big world that my sister chose to explore. Without her knowing, she also showed us not to be afraid of spreading our wings to experience what the world has to offer. If any Indigenous youth reads this blog, do not be afraid to experience the world and do not be afraid to go beyond the borders of your reserve. Don’t look at life as just the size of a picture frame; look at life as the size of a big picture window. Go out and explore what life has to offer. Don’t be limited by your fear of the unknown. But first get an education to use as your passport. I had a sister that proved it.
Roy Bear Chief