On all three campuses of the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), Elders and Elder’s helpers are on site to assist and support students, staff, and faculty. They provide guidance with protocol for cultural ceremonies and traditional activities that take place in the university.
These positions are unique to FNUniv and are an essential part of culture of the university.
Roland Kaye is Salteaux from the Sakimay First Nation. He is the Oskapewis, the traditional term for Elder’s helper in cultural activities and ceremonies on the Regina campus.
He was chosen to be an Elder’s helper at FNUniv through a Circle Helpers project in 1999, and has been with the university since 2003.
In his work at FNUniv, Roland coordinates events, prepares ceremonies and ceremonial sites, and raises tipis not only for the university, the city, and other organizations.
He works with FNuniv Elders Mary Lee, Gilbert Kawistep, Sylvia Obey, Audrey Cochrane, Florence Isaac, and Rose Bird. He fondly remembers the late Elders Velma Goodfeather, Beatrice LaVallee, Ken Goodwill, Mike Pinay, and Isadore Pelletier.
He tries to make himself available for everyone: the staff, students, and even non-Indigenous students. Being a helper is not nine to five kind of gig, because calls to help can come at all hours. The Elders also check in on those they worry about, even on weekends.
“The Elders (Kete-ayak) are here to guide us on our spiritual paths,” says Dr. Angelina Weenie, Associate Professor of Indigenous Education at FNUniv
The word “Kete-ayak” is the preferred word as the word, “Elder” is a western concept,” she adds.
“The Kete-ayak Council at FNUniv are central to our university as it was their vision which has brought us to where we are today,” she says.
In Indigenous Education, Kete-ayak are utilized in all classes.
“They are invited to share their knowledge about traditional education, values, language, traditional teachings, traditional knowledge, First Nations ways of knowing and being,” says Dr. Weenie.
“I have relied on Kete-ayak for their guidance throughout my time at FNUniv. I rely on them for personal and professional guidance. I always advise people to go to the Kete-ayak to learn about protocols. I have had the privilege and honour to work with our Kete-ayak in research and teaching practice,” she says.
They attend meetings, work, and continue to work on research.
“They are an integral part of the research that I do. Their compassion and kindness is what stands out for me. We all struggle and they help us to remember our spiritual journey,” says Dr Weenie.
“I value the work of the Kete-ayak. They have served to sustain me in my work. Their words have strengthened me and given me courage to keep doing what I am doing.” she says.
Gilbert Kewistep, an Oskapewes on the Saskatoon campus, is a Salteaux pipe carrier. In 2007, he graduated with a Bachelor in Social Work and began teaching for the department in 2009. As an Oskapewes, he plans ceremonies, pipe ceremonies, and meetings with the Elders.
He works with Mary Lee, an Elder who he says has been quite inspirational, knowledgeable, and works with the youth at the university. Their work together goes beyond the university.
They also share teachings and knowledge at Oskayak High school in Saskatoon, at cultural camps, and with the Saskatoon Health Region.
Gilbert noted that practicum students from FNUniv Social Work program are now coming through the health region and learning about the work being done.
Navigators from the health region teach FNUniv students about what they are doing within the hospitals in Saskatoon.
“The students get a good perspective on how our people are being treated,” says Gilbert. “They are using the elders, using the ceremonies to promote cultural competency, cultural safety for the people in the health region. “
He stresses it’s important to stop and ask the Elders for their input, include the importance of culture in the social work field, and continue working with other agencies within the city of Saskatoon.