Sylvia McAdam
Sylvia McAdam

Passionate Indigenous voice

Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum is a passionate woman.

She is passionate about the land but does not describe herself as an environmentalist. She is passionate about correcting the wrongs of the past that have disadvantaged Canada’s Indigenous people but she never calls herself an activist. Most of all though, she is passionate about education, and life-long learner is a description that fits her to a tee.

Saysewahjum, special projects co-ordinator in the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Excellence, has spent her life educating herself and others, and for more than a year, has focused those e orts at the U of S through the Indigenous Voices initiative.

Indigenous Voices was created three years ago, she said, "with a hope and a dream to provide opportunities to faculty and sta to learn about Indigenous ways of knowing. For example, our history is not written in any European textbook; our history is written out on the land and when you destroy the land, you destroy Indigenous history." Education is key, said Saysewahum, who will soon shed McAdam in favour of her family's traditional surname (Her great grandfather went into a residential school with the surname Saysewahum, and came out a McAdam, she explained, "but obviously we're not Irish.").

Education, she continued, "can create one portion of a paradigm shi and that's badly needed because the erasure of Indigenous people in the colonizers' systems is problematic. Indigenous voices need to be heard. ese voices have been silent for a long time and I want to be a part of that."

And she has been for some time, most notably as a founder of the Idle No More movement. Born and raised on the Big River First Nation, Saysewahum pursued life coach training a er high school, then did a degree in human justice at the University of Regina. From there, it was a series of jobs: social worker, radio announcer, firefighter. "I just love learning."

But working as an Aboriginal resource o cer with the Saskatoon Police Service "was an eye-opening job" for Saysewahum. The work involved guiding victims through the systems of laws and the resources available to them, and what she saw was "an unending cycle of children who had been in the system and who have grown into adults and are still in the system."

It was then she decided to study law. While enrolled at the U of S, Saysewahum, a single parent to seven children, worked to support herself and her family, and wrote a book for the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre entitled Cultural Teachings: First Nations Protocols and Methodologies. How did she do it? "I didn't sleep." She graduated 2009.

Law continues to be an abiding interest for Saysewahum, whose second book—Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nêhiyaw Legal Systems—will be released by Purich Publishing March 5. In it, Saysewahum takes the unique opportunity to share Nêhiyaw laws.

The book, she said, "is the first time that elders have given permission for our laws to be written down. I think it's also a part of my people's laws that if you have knowledge to share you must share it. It's an obligation and a responsibility."

When asked whom she believes should read the book, her reply was "absolutely everyone and I hope for other Indigenous nations that this (book) will create a template to revitalizing their laws. is knowledge is diminishing and I'm not going to live forever and neither are my parents. is knowledge is inherent knowledge; it's not hidden and it shouldn't be hidden. It belongs to the public."

Past events prevented knowledge of Indigenous laws being shared nation to nation, she said, "and this is, I hope, a process of correcting that. It's a healing, nurturing, loving, respectful, peaceful process. It's always been there; I've just translated it into English."

Saysewahum said she is pleased with the progress made through the Indigenous Voices initiative "but there's always more that can be done. We can always do better but 500 years of colonization is not going to change in three years."

In addition to creating opportunities to broaden understanding of Indigenous ways of knowing, institutions like the U of S need to be more vocal on many issues, she continued, in particular the doctrine of discovery, the claiming of exclusive rights to lands by colonial powers.

"When we think about decolonizing, when you explore that term, it means, in its international understanding, to give back the land, to give back the resources to Indigenous people. I think we all need to think about that and question why the court system today still applies the doctrine of discovery yet there is not legal basis for it in international discourse."

She applauded a recent paper by Ken Coats, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the U of S, that encouraged provinces to share revenue from natural resources with Aboriginal people. " That's a huge step and we need more of that.

"When I do presentations, I talk about treaty, about the erasure of Indigenous knowledge, the resources that are being extracted in violation of treaties and Indigenous sovereignty, and what the treaties promised in terms of land. That's what I talk about in the book and that's exactly what Indigenous Voices is about."

Although she enjoys her work, Saysewahum's passion for learning appears to be leading her toward a PhD program of exploring land-based pedagogies around the world from the understanding of Indigenous people. " That's totally me. My history is connected totally to the land."

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