Kathleen Sawdo

Boozhoo, my name is Kathleen Sawdo. I am Anishnawbe Kwe from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, Treaty 3 area. I am from the Bear Clan. I was taught to introduce myself this way to honour my people as well as to honour those to whom I am speaking. I am also proud to be part white as well. Some may call me a ‘halfbreed’ and that’s okay. I know I walk between two worlds and I feel truly blessed to have come from such strong and vibrant people on both sides.

I am a mother of two handsome young men and an aunty to one niece and two nephews. My journey, finding my way in both worlds, has been a struggle, like many of us. A significant portion of my childhood years was spent in a physically and spiritually abusive home. I don’t talk about this too often but it has been part of my journey and I am not ashamed of it. I was often called ‘stupid lazy Indian’ or ‘dirty’ because of my brown skin. It was at this time in my childhood, I learned that being an Indian was not a good thing, that being Indian would make someone hate you and want to hurt you. Needless to say, I learned a lot of not so good things from the person who hurt me. But, I have also learned some pretty good things too. I have learned how not to hurt people, how to be kind and how to be strong.

While I still have the scars on my body, it has been through learning who I am, as an Anishnawbe, that has healed my spirit. I have learned that what happened to me was wrong and that being Indian is not bad, it is a gift.

Once I began my healing I started to feel good about myself and I decided to go back to school. I was really scared, thinking maybe I wouldn’t be able to succeed in a university environment. So, I decided to start small, registering myself in the Information Access and Protection of Privacy Certificate Program (IAPP) at the University of Alberta. I completed that program in one year. After graduating from that program, I received my second eagle feather, to honour my accomplishment. This was a huge moment for me and my children. I actually started something, finished it, and more importantly my children saw me do this! I realized I can succeed at university. I am good enough.

I registered right away for the Human Resources Management Program at what was then Grant MacEwan College (now a university). I graduated in November 2009 from Grant MacEwan University with my HR Certificate. I am also proud to say that for my graduation, I requested special permission to wear a traditional shawl over my convocation regalia. Grant MacEwan University granted my request and, as a result, it has formally agreed that any student wishing to wear culturally significant regalia to convocation may do so if requested! I had no idea that no Aboriginal student had ever asked permission to do this but I am happy that my special request will hopefully make it easier for those who will graduate after me. I am now in the last term of the Human Resources Management diploma program at the university. I plan to graduate this spring and continue on to earn a degree.

To help convey some of what my journey has been like as well as my hopes for the future, I have included part of the thank you letter I wrote to Grant MacEwan University.

“I was scared, there were so many people looking at me…some friendly, some not so friendly. I think it was because I wore my hair in braid ties and wore a traditional shawl over the graduation gown (I don’t think some had seen that before).

We were ushered in to take our seats. Then it started….

….with the sound of a rattle. 
…then the drums!

I know that sound and tears began to well up in my eyes. Yes, it’s true. Grant MacEwan University began the fall convocation, this ceremony, with the sounds of my people.

At that moment I felt a huge wave of emotion. I felt so proud and really kind of shocked.

I listened to Asani sing, with tears. It was not so long ago that I remember going to school and having kids spit on me because I was ‘Indian’.

It was not so long ago that I remember my children being bullied because they were the only native kids in that particular school.

It was not so long ago, that people I work with had to fight to get Aboriginal programming to help break down systemic racism in the workplace (that fight still continues).

It was not so long ago, that people I know had to ask the Indian Agent for permission to leave the reserve.

It really was not so long ago at all.

I cried during the song because I thought of all those things. I cried because I thought…look how far we’ve come! I am sitting here as a university graduate. I am sitting here listening to the sounds of drums and rattles, not only during the convocation, but the opening of the ceremony!”

I have worked full time, supported my family and volunteered in my community (sometimes at the sacrifice of my grades), all while carrying a full course load. I don’t tell you this to brag, but rather to let you know, that if you are able to dream, then you have the ability and capacity to obtain these dreams.

Now, I am 36 years old, a mother, a university graduate, the regional representative for the Canadian Association of Professional Access and Privacy Administrators (CAPAPA), student representative for the Leadership Steering Committee for the Government of Alberta’s Aboriginal Recruitment and Retention Initiative. And, I am smiling, not because I am a ‘stupid lazy Indian’, but because I am as the Creator made me. I am Anishnawbe and I am white, and I was made for a purpose!

Editorial note: Kathleen was selected to participate in the Inclusion Works ’09 national Aboriginal recruitment fair last April in Vancouver. We were so impressed with her ability and desire to move the cause of inclusion forward that we have decided to fly her to Toronto to help us at Inclusion Works ’10, April 27-29, 2010 in Toronto.

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