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These Indigenous women are decolonizing parenting to help raise empowered children

Unreserved54:00Honouring our mothers and the generations of knowledge they carry

As Willow Allen celebrates her first Mother’s Day this year, she reflects on passing down the Inuit culture she grew up in with her son.

“One of the biggest things that I really think about a lot is having him really know his culture when he gets older and really knowing this is the lifestyle,” said Allen, whose son, August, is five months old.

“I just don’t want our culture to just die off at me or at him. I just want it to be passed down as much as I possibly can.”

Allen says her parents, who immersed her and her brother in the gentle parenting approach of her ancestors, didn’t yell at them and encouraged autonomy. 

A composite photo showing an adult woman on the left, and the same woman as a child with two adults on the right.
Willow Allen, raised in Inuvik, N.W.T., uses social media to share her culture. She’s shown on the right as a child with Sara Tingmiak and Ruth Alunik. (Submitted by Willow Allen)

“I just saw how much that strengthened us as a family and just really instilled a lot of respect and communication and love into all that,” said Allen, who splits her time between Edmonton and Inuvik. 

Allen has been sharing her journey through motherhood with her 800,000 TikTok followers because she wants to highlight her culture in a positive way. She’s one of many Indigenous women who are reviving traditions and sharing them with parents, young and old.

Métis author and educator Willie Poll notes that parenthood “was robbed of Indigenous people for generations.”

“They weren’t allowed to be parents and kids weren’t allowed to have parents. And so those things weren’t passed on. And so they’re being reclaimed,” she said.

She points to a poignant moment last year when a pregnant Raven Lacert, co-founder of the Moosehide Campaign, a non-profit organization that aims to end gender-based violence, took to the stage with her toddler in tow.

“I just remember watching her speak and feeling just so incredibly empowered that that is what a decolonized space looks like.”

“It looks like bringing your baby up on stage. It looks like that little girl looking up to her mom and seeing this badass matriarch up there, changing the world. And I think we need to see more of that,” said Poll, whose children’s book My Little Ogichidaa — which means My Little Warrior in Anishinaabe — is inspired by the encounter.

A composite graphic showing a colourful Indigenous children's book cover on the left, and a dark-haired woman on the right.
Willie Poll’s children’s book, My Little Ogichidaa, is inspired by Indigenous motherhood. (Medicine Wheel Publishing/Story Thorburn)

Decolonizing parenting 

Ivana Yellowback is taking tradition right into communities across Manitoba through Mikiwahp — which means tipi in Cree — a 15-week program that teaches Indigenous life skills and history.

Yellowback alongside her cousin and co-founder Raven Hart have been running it for over three years. More than 30 women have been through the program, which unpacks how colonization impacted parenting, and how to move forward. 

“The goal is for our ladies to learn what has happened to all of our peoples and our grandparents, great-grandparents,” Yellowback, who is from Manto Sipi Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild.

“That way, they’re like, ‘OK, I have a chance to do something about this, to break those cycles because I know it wasn’t my granny’s fault. I know it wasn’t my mom’s fault.'”

A dark-haired woman, wearing a headset, sits in front of a microphone with a banner that reads "Unreserved" behind her.
Ivana Yellowback is helping Indigenous people decolonize parenting through the program Mikiwahp. (CBC)

The first meeting is simple. Participants drink tea, eat snacks, and then have a sharing circle. 

Yellowback asks three questions: 

  • How was your week? 
  • What are three things you’re grateful for? 
  • What’s one thing you want to work on for yourself in the coming week?

She says the questions prompt participants to reflect on the past, root themselves in the present, and look to the future.

After that, they go into a round room and sing songs. Then they teach.

Yellowback says as they teach traditions and history, she can see participants connecting the dots with their own life stories. 

She says that realization can make a major difference. She’s seen moms who’ve struggled with their sobriety get sober, go back to school, or get custody of all their children. 

“It’s like light bulbs go off and they’re like, “Oh, OK. Now I can see why my family struggles the way that they do and why I’ve had struggles in that way.”

“It’s not something that is wrong with our people, it’s something that was set up to colonize and to assimilate our nations.”

WATCH | Separating children from parents: The Sixties Scoop in Canada 

Separating children from parents: The Sixties Scoop in Canada

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Duration 4:09

Canada took thousands of Indigenous children from their parents between the 1960s and the 1980s, and the effects are still being felt today.

Traditional teachings

Part of decolonizing parenting is “relearning those traditional teachings that our people have around our babies and parenting,” Yellowback said.

One of those traditions is the moss bag — a warm, snug wrap for mothers to put their babies in — that represents the womb, she says.

Traditionally, there would be moss in the bag, which would act as the baby’s first diaper.

“It helps them to develop security, safety attachment, but also to develop their motor skills and their development,” Yellowback said.

“The teachings that some aunties have shared [are] that when babies are growing up in a moss bag, they’re more prone to be more confident and to feel more secure and to not be as colicky.”

A young child in Indigenous winter clothing holds a large fish.
Raised in Inuvik, N.W.T., Willow Allen, shown here as a young child, uses social media to share her culture. (Submitted by Willow Allen)

For Allen, one of the important traditions she’s passing on to August is the Inuit baby swing. Allen’s parents put her in a similar swing when she was a baby, and she swears by it.

“He could be wide awake and it’s bedtime and you just put them in a swing and swing them for a little bit and he falls right asleep. He really loves it.”

Yellowback says she’s heard from many communities who are interested in the program, but with just her and her cousin running it, she’s working to train others who can lead. 

She doesn’t have kids now, but hopes to one day share this knowledge with her own children.

“I would like to see just healthy babies, you know, really confident, Indigenous children and youth and our babies knowing where they come from, who they are.”

“Having fun, creating art, dancing, singing, sharing their goals, rather than surviving every day.”

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