Allies Matter

Funny What You Can Learn When Sharing With Others

Being an Indigenous student in a time when our national high school curriculums are shifting across the country, in a way that has students learn about the history of colonialism and its effects on Indigenous Peoples, can be tough, or at least that’s how I’ve felt for three years. When you’re the only Native kid in a grade 11 Native Studies classroom with 28 other students, and your teacher is talking about things like Residential Schools, or inter-generational trauma, you can quickly become the centre of attention, whether you want to or not.

“Do you know someone who was in a Residential school?”

“What tribe are you from?”

“Do you have a spirit name?”

Luckily for the people who asked me such things, I was always happy to answer because I knew they meant well and were just young people who didn’t know and were trying to learn. Yes, I know many people who went through Residential Schools. While I don’t say I’m from a Tribe, I say I’m Mohawk and a member of the Iroquois Confederacy. Sometimes I call myself Kahnetí:io. I don’t really know if that’s what non-Indigenous folks mean when they ask what my spirit name is, but it means something to me, as that was originally going to be my birth name.  Whenever someone would ask me a question about who I was, who we were as Indigenous People, and what we’re about I would find people who were willing to learn about who we were.

I would later learn that those people were allies in the making.

This summer I worked as a special consultant with Three Things Consulting.  In mid August, about a week ago, from writing this, I found myself (virtually) in front of about 100 young people from across Canada, all participants in the The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award – Canada, a youth organization who have engaged more than 20,0000 youth and 2,600 annually, challenging these  young Canadians to develop skills and tools to improve themselves and their communities by encouraging them to go beyond their comfort zone.  I was sharing with them what it means to me for someone to be an ally to Indigenous People.

What was supposed to be a two-hour educational workshop for aspiring youth quickly turned into what would become one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve had as a young Indigenous (self-proclaimed, though Pytor thinks so too) changemaker.  In the preparation of the presentation, I found myself disagreeing with Pytor regularly when it came to what we thought it meant to be an ally.  We would simply talk about it. Sometimes for three minutes, sometime for thirty.

This was my first big lesson – different people see different things in a good ally, and different people need different allies. I need allies who will help me get through the next four years of university, my little brother needs allies who will help him forge his own identity as he goes through high school, and Pytor needs allies who will help champion his work and be there for him.

Moving forward with this project brought me to lesson two – I am capable of so much more than I initially thought. It was my second day at Three Things when Pytor asked me to take the lead on this workshop. Obviously, I said yes because he’s my boss, but truthfully, I was terrified.  With an entire year of CO-OP placements in a classroom, and my term as an Indigenous Student Trustee with the Limestone District School Board and the most people I had ever been speaking in front of was a small-ish music class of about 25 students. I didn’t think I was capable of going on that Zoom conference and delivering a high quality two hour workshop to so many people. This is a story you may have heard a million times, but I worked through it one step at a time, one piece of content after another, and by the time we were ready to go live at the conference, I wasn’t even nervous.

The two hour session went by in what felt like 20 minutes and I was done before I could finish my cup of tea. It was the moments after where I learned the most. At first, I told myself I felt completely normal, I wasn’t too excited, and I had felt this way a million times before. Turns out I was totally downplaying every emotion that was racing through my head. Maybe it was too much for me to process, but Pytor said I was literally glowing, and who am I to call my boss a liar. I was thrilled. I did it, and if you ask me, it was done almost flawlessly. A week beforehand I was telling myself I couldn’t make such a difference to so many people, but I just did. The lesson I learned isn’t only that I am capable of more than I thought, but that in truth I’m not capable of doing something until I sit down (or stand up) and do it. That’s all there is to it, just start solving problems and eventually you’ll reach the end. Much thanks to the team at The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award – Canada for inviting me to part of their event.

This project has without a doubt been the highlight of my time at Three Things, and this short bit of writing is definitely a good way to send it off. Being here and doing this work has helped me to learn more about myself, and how to tackle challenges in the future. It’s also furthered my ideas of what to look for not only in Allies, but friends as I walk down my path in the future. I know for a fact I’m not done with this kind of work yet, because I’ve only just started. How can I quit when there is so much more for me to learn? As a student I’ve been a catalyst for change in my school, my school board, and now for other students from across Canada. Those are just a few places for me to scratch off the list, and next up is The University of Ottawa.

Wish me luck.

Quanah Traviss

PS:  Pytor suggested that I include some of the things I read and reviewed when learning more about allies – how to be one and how to do it well.  Check out these links if you too want to learn more.

If you want to learn a bit more too, here are a few videos we included in our session: one interview with my Grandmother and greatest teacher, Laurel Clause-Johnson, a second, if you know Pytor, you know he loves TikToks, so the last video is a compilation I collected that we shared in the session.