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Elder Theresa Gladue: Traditional Medicine, Culture & Community

This podcast is produced on Treaty 8 territory, the traditional territories of the many First Nation, Metis, and Inuit. We would like to express our gratitude and respect for this land and all those who reside here, both past and present. We are all treaty people, one nation, one tribe.

Starting university can be both exciting and overwhelming, especially for first-year students. That's why the on-campus Friendship Centre is an important space that supports a smooth transition for students who are entering the community. The first and only of its kind in Canada the on-Campus Friendship Center is located in the heart of the Northwestern Polytechnic campus in Grand Prairie, Alberta, and it serves as a hub for students to connect, engage and build relationships.

It's a vibrant space designed to foster inclusivity and a sense of belonging. In today's episode, Sammy Paquette, a student at the Northwestern Polytechnic, sat down with Cree elder Theresa Gladue to discuss her various roles at the college and why the Friendship Centre is so important for students. Theresa is a storyteller, knowledge keeper, playwright, advocate, and mentor to many. Here is their interview.


A lot of universities and post-secondary institutions offer a space where indigenous people could meet up and learn about their culture and get to know who they are. And here at Northwestern Polytechnic, it's called the On-Campus Friendship Center and it plays a big role in providing students with support. Could you tell me more about this center and what you guys do?


The On-Campus Friendship Centre partnered up with at the time Grand Prairie Regional College so that they could provide external services to the indigenous students that came to the college at the time. So when it changed to Northwestern Polytechnic, the service stayed the same. So, what we do there with students is we provide them with food if they're hungry.

We provide them with mentors. If they need them, we'll also provide tutors and it's just on a help-needed basis, whatever you needed help with. And if we can help them, then we will. And if we can't, then we will find somebody that can help you. And it's also a great way to get to know one another.

A lot of students come, and they don't know anybody, especially if they come from a remote community like Fox Lake. So, they come here, and they come and meet other students so that they can have support and make some friends. So, the On-Campus Friendship Centre is very valuable in that aspect. When I worked at Northern Lights College, what they called it was The Gathering Space, it pretty well did the same thing.

But I find the on-Campus Friendship Centre is a lot better because then they have a Friendship Centre that they can also have another resource to access.


At the beginning of the year, the on-campus Friendship Centre handed out smudge kits. I was one of the students that got them to the people up there who don't know what it is.

Could you just briefly explain what smudging is, and why it is important to students?


The reason that they hand out the smudging kits is because we want the students to learn more about smudging. Smudging is a ceremonial process. You come in and we use Sage a lot, and what Smudging does is it clears your aura, it clears your being were made out of energy.

And a lot of the time we can get a lot of stuff glommed onto us, right? And we don't know why we're acting the way we are sometimes because we have all this energy mixed up. And so, what we do with smudging is we get rid of that energy, we clear it so we can be ourselves again.

And there are a lot of teachings in smudging, but mostly it's a purification ceremony where we clear ourselves. Also, when we buy second-hand stuff, we need to smudge it. We need to clear that aura because when we buy used things and we bring it into our house, we're bringing the energy in there as well. So, it's always good to clean stuff when you buy it, right?

So smudging is very important. A lot of the cultures don't smudge and some of our nations don't smudge, but that's okay because they have a different process. But that's why we hand out smudge kits and whenever you need to smudge or need a teaching, then the on-campus support person will come and say, “Hey, Theresa, Sammy needs to smudge and he needs to know why he's smudging.”And so, then you'll come up and we'll go through the process. And a lot of times you won't tell them why they're getting it, because we want them to come and find out for themselves.


So recently I've been looking towards the medicine wheel and how it represents balance in oneself. And the reason why I was looking towards it is because as an adult I'm starting to get new jobs and balance is something I need to focus more on. Could you tell me a little bit more about the medicine wheel and what it represents?


The medicine wheel represents a lot of things. The medicine wheel represents the four directions, the four colours, the four nations, and the people, and it also represents balance. When we are so busy, we get unbalanced. I find that with the world right now, a lot of people, all they do is they go to work, they exercise, or they go to work, and they don't take care of themselves.

They don't take care of themselves physically. So, we work at desk jobs. We don't get up and walk around, use our body, and then emotionally we don't cry, or we don't laugh enough. We don't use our emotions enough. And then spiritually, I go to the schools, and I talk to kids about spirituality. They don't know what spirituality is.

So, a lot of people will confuse spirituality with religion. And it's not. Spirituality is being out there with nature, connecting with nature. I know that sometimes when I really need to renew my energy, I will go hug a tree and I can just feel the energy coming to me from that tree. We call them standing people. Or if I need to feel the grass on my feet, I'll take off my shoes and walk on the grass. And the energy that I get from the grass is a different kind of energy, but it's a really good energy. So, we don't take care of ourselves spiritually. Mentally, we do a lot because we're working and we're learning a lot of things in our work. So, a lot of people will go to work and do exercise and forget about spirituality.

So, when we want to be balanced, we need to do those four things all the time for ourselves. We need to do something for ourselves. Spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. We need to do those for ourselves every day. Unfortunately, we don't. Then we become unbalanced. And then as we become unbalanced, we become unhealthy. And when we do our physical weakness, we can get sick because we're not using our body. And if we're not using our minds, we could get dementia. So, it's really, important to keep balance. And that's what the medicine wheel reminds us to do, that we need to take these four aspects of our lives because if we don't, then we become unbalanced and we become unhealthy.


Could you tell us a little bit more about sacred medicines and why we use different medicines?


So, with tobacco, it's our first medicine and we use that to pray. When we ask the Creator for something. When I ask the creator for something, I'll take the tobacco and I'll say, "Creator, I need help. I really need help. I don't want to struggle anymore, financially. Could you please help me?" And I'll take that tobacco and I'll gently put it down by the tree or on the ground and let it, let it be and stuff happens.

When I left my husband, I was working part-time and I was struggling financially. I was like, in that wheel, just going round and round, right? And that's what I did. One night, full moon, I went up to my balcony and I said, "Creator, I don’t want to struggle anymore. I really need your help. This is just causing me so much stress. Please help me. I need your help." And I put my tobacco down and the next day it doesn't normally happen this fast. The next day, that's when Trudeau was running for Prime Minister. The next day. A friend of mine, she phoned me, and she said, "Hey Theresa! Would you like a little contract?" And I said, "Well, what would I do?"

She said, “You would go to the communities, and you would let them know how important it is to vote." I said, "Okay. Well, how much is the contract?" And the contract ended up being that I could pay for two months' rent. And I said, “Yes.” So that helped me come back to balance with my finances.

And when you do ask sometimes it's right away. Sometimes it's forever. Sometimes you forgot you had asked for it. And it'll come later when you need it, right? Because sometimes you're praying for something that we need way ahead of us that we don't even know that we need it, but we're asking for it. So sometimes it'll be fast, sometimes the middle and sometimes a long time.

So that's what we use tobacco for. And the Sage. Well, there are two types of sage, right? There's a female sage, and then there's the male sage. And the female sage is a woman's medicine. And they can smudge with it when they're on their time from my teachings when they need to smudge. And as long as there isn't any male energy in the room, women can smudge with the female sage.

And then we have the male sage. That's a sage we can use for everything. And then we have our sweetgrass and we consider that the hair of our Mother Earth. And it has a beautiful aroma. You can tell when it's sweetgrass when you wrote that because you could smell it, right?

And you pick it, and you braid it and that calms the spirit. It calms the spirit. And that's what we use sweetgrass for. And then we have cedar. We use cedar. So, when we smudge and we take all the energy when we go smudge a house and we want to go take all the negative energy out, we'll use the sage, and we'll take out the energy. But when you take something out, you have to put something back. So, we'll then use the cedar to bring back positive energy. So that's what we use the cedar for. But cedar is also healing. You can have cedar tea and have a cedar bath because it is really healing. It has a lot of healing properties.

That's just some of the stuff that we use cedar for. And I need to remind you, not all nations use it for what we use it for. Different nations may use these medicines for different things.


How could myself, and other students, and anyone really, could learn more about this?


You could ask to be the Elder's helper when they go to ceremony.

You can ask, "Can I be a helper?" And the Elder if they want you as their helper, if they need a helper, they'll say yes, and that elder will walk you through the process of what needs to be done. They'll say, “Sammy, this is what you do first. Second, I'll give you a roadmap as to how you're to help me." Because I don't expect you to help me if you don't know what you're doing. Right? So, we will sit down and they will say, "Sammy, you need to come and pick me up. We are going to a sweat and this is what I need you to do."

And I will tell you what I need you to do. And then you'll know what steps you need to take as you go. And when we get there. And if there's another helper there, I will say, ask that helper. Please help Sammy. He's new at this. Help him through the process. And that's how it happens.

You bring your tobacco, or you can go and ask them if you can be the helper. So that's how you can learn. And that's the best way. Because you can read all the books that you want. And who wrote the book, right? Who wrote it? Was it somebody from Lakota? Was it somebody from the Sioux? Was it somebody whose Cree or Blackfoot? Who wrote that book?

So, there are different ways to do things in different Nations. So, if you needed to go and ask somebody that's from a different Nation, always be respectful. Elders will always cherish that you were kind enough to come and ask and that they will help you in any way they can because that's our role as Elders to help you guys, to teach you guys, to mentor you guys.

That's why we're Elders because we need to help you so you can become an Elder and you can teach someone else. That's how it has been since time immemorial.


So, for students first going to post-secondary, it can be very nerve-wracking. It can make them very nervous. It can make butterflies in their stomach and everything.

It's all very new to them. What advice would you give to them?


I went back to school when I was 40 and I was very scared. I was very nervous. I walked into this college, and I looked all around and all I saw was white people and I was like, “Oh my God, why do I want to go in there?"

I wanted to run away because I was feeling really scared, right? I went to the student services and lo and behold, they were kind and I got into my courses. And going to class, and when you walk into class, it looks like everybody's just staring at you, right? And I was standing there. It seemed like everyone was staring at me and I was so scared. I wanted to pee my pants. I wanted to run away. I didn't know what to do, but I was shaking, and I went to my desk. I had to fight through that. I had to fight through that fear. And I see our students when they come in that they are scared, that they are nervous, that they are lost.

And I think that's why I went into post-secondary because I became the Aboriginal Coordinator at the college for just about 14 years. And I asked the student services when at the time we were called Aboriginal people, “When an Aboriginal student comes in, please bring them to me or let them know where I am.” And they did.

And they would take that student and I introduced them to everybody, the librarian, everybody that they had dealings with. And we had a gathering space. We had activities and stuff to do for them after school because all day you're in school, you're with people. But if you're alone and don't know anybody, you're going to end up sitting in your room all by yourself.

And then you could get in your head, and you get lonesome. So, I had a lot of evening stuff for them to do. We would karaoke, we would play bingo. We would just get together and eat or bead. We did all sorts of things in the evening so that they felt like they were part of the community and so they didn't feel lost.

But for that initial feeling, we need to fight through it. I imagine you understand what that's like walking in somewhere, wanting to run away. We fight through it, and we keep going and we tell ourselves it'll get easier and for us to remember what the goal is.

We had a hard time because of Residential Schools. School is a big, scary word within our Nation and with our people. Because my mom went to Residential School, and I went to day school. But growing up in that environment and hearing about how the school was terrible. I remember I had this one student and he said to me, I hate school. I said, “Why do you hate school?” He said, “Because my mum hated school.”And I said, “Well, why did your mom hate school?”And he said, “Because my grandma hated school.” And I said, “Well, why did your grandma hate school?” And he said, “Because she went to Residential School." And I said, "But it's not the same now. Now we need to come here, and we need to learn to better ourselves, right?"And they stayed with that student for a long, long time because she really needed that support. But school is hard for us because of our history, and there are still residual effects on our generation.

So, we really need to make sure that they have support. But for them, they really need to understand why they're going there to try and get through that fear of going there.

Just walking through those doors. It's a huge step, right? It is. And once you've made that step, it'll get easier. So, for everybody that's considering going to school, no matter how old you are, it does get easier. Find your support and find somebody that'll hold your hand for a while. And if you can, well, hold your own hand.

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