In 2017, First Nations people in Manitoba elected a new grand chief based, in part, on a platform to develop an agenda for action inspired by a 1971 document, Wahbung: Our Tomorrows. Wahbung asserted the inherent rights of Manitoba First Nations to design and have full authority over their own health care, education, and child and family service systems. Despite this foundational step and persistent efforts, many of these rights have not come to fruition, and communities continue to experience a host of challenges, inequities, and growing threats to their culture and wellbeing.
A long legacy of colonial influence had led to fragmented relationships across the 63 First Nations communities in Manitoba. As First Nations leaders sought to reignite the collaborative spirit of the seminal Wahbung document, nearing its 50th anniversary, they recognized the importance of ensuring equal representation across multiple political regions, languages, and perspectives. The leaders invited Reos Partners to guide an approach for co-creating the agenda for action that would reflect a unified voice across the Nations.
In this conversation, Senior Consultant Brenna Atnikov reflects on the partnership with First Nations people in Manitoba. She illustrates aspects of learning and unlearning, healing, and trust-building required for decolonization and dismantling structures harmful to Indigenous communities.
Illustration by Stina Brown
Please describe the cultural conditions under which this project unfolded.
The larger zeitgeist in which this project occurred is the collective action of Indigenous people around the world and across Turtle Island — as many First Nations people refer to North America — asserting their inherent rights to self determination after hundreds of years of European colonization.
Reos Partners tends to enter projects assuming the role of neutral facilitator. However, because we are Canadian, of the dominant system, and ultimately settlers ourselves, we were not immediately accepted by everyone. In the first few minutes of the first workshop, one participant said, “I don’t trust you.”
Western settler methods and approaches have, historically, been imposed — often violently — on First Nations people. We were initially ignorant of the fact that it wasn’t actually possible for Reos Partners to be neutral because we represented the very system that had taken away the rights Manitoba First Nations sought to regain. We did not immediately appreciate that underneath everything is the harm they have experienced for hundreds of years.
In “My Grandmother’s Hands,” Resmaa Menakem, a Black author, illustrates ways that trauma shows up in the body. He writes, “Trauma and people decontextualized over time looks like culture.” In retrospect, we see that, deep down, this trauma was in the room, it was at play. This individual and collective trauma was inevitably going to influence our work together.
What general method did Reos Partners plan to use in approaching this project? Did it work?
Reos Partners initially set out to achieve a braided methodology, which implies an integration of two worldviews. Our team, however, had underestimated how distinct are the two worldviews: Reos Partners, representing the Western dominant culture, and myriad First Nations perspectives and ways of knowing, doing, and being. During the process we learned that each worldview has something important and unique to contribute, but at no point do they ever have to be woven together.
Two-Row Wampum Belt
(Image Source: Trent Magazine as published in Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change)
A metaphor explored in an article by Melanie Goodchild of Turtle Island Institute, and advisor to the project, expresses how two worldviews can coexist. During early 17th century peace negotiations between the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) people and Dutch merchants, the Two-Row Wampum belt was embroidered with purple rows that represented boats traveling down the river of life. The boats symbolized the Mohawk canoe and the Dutch sailing ship traveling side by side, honoring the ethical space in between the vessels, neither one steering into the other’s path. Our work in Manitoba ultimately incorporated this level of mutual respect.
What other methods did Reos Partners bring to this work?
Going into this project, I broadly understood there is an important cultural practice among Indigenous people of sharing wisdom and passing on knowledge through storytelling. I therefore assumed that another one of Reos Partners’ key methods — encouraging participants to engage in collective storytelling to envision possible futures — would resonate with the team we were going to work with in Manitoba.
But during one workshop, a participant pointed to the flip charts and post-it notes on the wall and said, “This is all noise.” He went on to explain how he had been taught to envision the future through solitary quests and sitting in ceremony with particular customs and protocols. The workshop participant wasn’t being critical — he was there to meaningfully contribute. But he wanted us to know that our way of storytelling and his way of storytelling are not the same thing. It was another example of key cultural differences that had to be acknowledged in our process.
As you discovered these cultural differences, how did you adapt and change course?
Those of us on the Reos team individually had to grapple with our own contribution — the contribution we represented as settlers — to the current reality. Through much trial and error, we learned that we had to decenter ourselves and Reos’ process. And by doing so, we decentered whiteness and decentered Western knowledge. All of that had to be pushed aside to make progress.
Eventually, Reos said almost nothing in the workshops, recognizing that we could make more of a contribution by supporting from the side. We ultimately supported our First Nations colleagues to facilitate and lead the conversations.
What role did trust-building play throughout this process?
Trust is a necessary ingredient for collaboration. In reflecting on trust, particularly in this process, I’ve determined it isn’t sequential. You don’t have to wait for trust and then act. You need a certain amount of trust to get started. Then act. Then strengthen that trust by attending to the moments when we cause harm. Trust does not form because we never make mistakes. Trust forms over time, from knowing that when someone makes a mistake, they are going to recognize it and do the work to repair the harm that was caused.
At a certain point in the process, our facilitation team — the Reos and First Nations convening team — became okay at naming when harm had been done. We got better at repairing it, talking together and deciding how we were going to do things differently going forward.
Reos Parters’ Insights on Transforming Through Trust is a resource to help groups make progress overcoming complex challenges. Download it here.
What impact did the project have on participants?
Participants said this project expanded their understanding of what other Nations in the province were grappling with. They developed a sharper understanding of the complex challenges in achieving the pathway to Mino Pimatisiwin (“the good life” in Cree). Our work in developing possible scenarios helped people from different communities come together on the reasons to keep fighting for self-determination, and understand how working together could accomplish that. Ultimately, a greater sense of shared purpose came out of this process.
One participant said of the process, “[It] gives you a very different perspective on what you want your future to be, what you want to achieve every day. When I come to Wahbung, it shows me these different opportunities and what would happen if I didn’t break down the barriers. It shows me what it would look like if I didn’t fight, and what it could look like if I keep fighting.”
What did Reos Partners learn from this project that can be applied to future work?
First Nations people have everything they need to realize and live Mino Pimatisiwin — culture, traditions, customs, medicines, laws, protocols, relationships. For the Wahbung project, First Nations people chose to invite Reos Partners to lend its experience and knowledge, but First Nations people led responses to the challenges and opportunities that they experienced.
In the process of decolonization, Indigenous people will choose what non-Indigenous contributions they want, if any. Non-Indigenous people should await an invitation, and then respond with humility and appreciation for Indigenous people’s values and aspirations. That is ultimately what made the Wahbung process work, and is the learning that can be applied to future processes.
Read more about Wahbung: Our Tomorrows Imagined.
Header image by Design de Plume Inc.