New elder in residence connects with culture

Miigam'agan: elder in residence (Cara Smith)

Miigam’agan is everyone’s family friend. Herself, a mother of three university-aged children, she has taken a position as St. Thomas University’s elder in residence.

For aboriginal students, she will be a resource to help them maintain their ties to their cultural identity while they broaden their horizons. Few could be better suited for the position; cultural identity has been her life’s work.

“I am by nature of a social activist. I started doing classroom protests for better treatment of students when I was in Grade 7.”

Miigam’agan has never had a regular nine to five job. She and her husband, Gkisedtanamoogk, have spent the last 20 years raising longhouses and fighting the system to follow their traditional practices.

“I have been married for 26 years, but it is not recognized in this country or the United States. That has made me who I am, even more determined to begin to open doors and create options.”

For 10 years, Miigam’agan’s eldest daughter was known as “Baby Girl Augustine” rather than Sgoagani on her documents because the Vital Statistics Act required people to be given two names. They did not have access to medical care or any government benefits usually accorded to aboriginals because by using only their traditional names, they were not considered people.

“My husband wrote to Frank McKenna who was the premier at the time, father to father, and reminded him that as a premier he can make that change at a legislative level. And he did. We were awoken by CBC at 6 o’clock in the morning congratulating us for that change. And then we had numerous calls for a whole week, people calling us and thanking us for our work.”

For the last two weeks, Miigam’agan has been at STU getting to know the aboriginal students. They have been eating and laughing together in the aboriginal lounge on the second floor of James Dunn Hall, and brainstorming for the coming year. At 53, Miigam’agan is the same age as many of the parents these students are away from. She understands how important it is to have someone from your own background to connect with.

“When you have a strong foundation when you come out here, you integrate rather than assimilate. That’s a deeper concern for every individual. You don’t want to lose your sense of self in the larger system.”

One of the challenges faced by many aboriginal students is the need to educate non-aboriginals about their culture before being able to tackle the issue they are seeking support for.

“Our native language is a blueprint of our world-view, our whole social structure and values.”

Miigam’agan speaks Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Penobscot, Cree, and Wabanaki. Being able to speak her language is healthy, empowering and nurturing.

“Our language emphasizes our total connection as a family. Everything is in relation to kin.”

Because of her role in the First Nations community, Miigam’agan already knows many of the parents and relatives of aboriginal students.

Miigam’agan is the oldest of eight children from Burnt Church First Nation in New Brunswick. The area has been dominated by the Catholic Church for a long time, and when she first became involved in the cultural revival it was not well received by the community, who saw it as a threat to the chief council.

Despite this opposition, for Miigam’agan it was the beginning of thinking positively about herself as an aboriginal. She went to Indian Brook in Nova Scotia to meet with elders and learn about her heritage.

“I had a spiritual awakening. It was my first time hearing that we are a people, and that we have a beautiful culture. Our ancestors were civilized. And this was all spoken in my language.”

Language and spirituality go hand in hand. As an elder in the first nations community, Miigam’agan is responsible for carrying the songs of her people. These songs hold the history and the events that have shaped the culture for centuries.

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