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Third-annual Indigenous Celebration Week honours Indigenous people on campus

“It allows us to have a week of celebration and ceremony that we don't really get to have a dedicated space and time for,” ISU president Sophie Martel says.

From January 30 to February 2, the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU) hosted the third-annual Indigenous Celebration Week (ICW).

Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization, First Peoples’ House, Indigenous Students’ Union (ISU), and the Faculty of Native Studies all had representatives on the Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee decided on the event’s programming. 

In an interview with The Gateway, Sophie Martel, president of the ISU, spoke on the importance of having ICW at the U of A.

“It allows us to have a week of celebration and ceremony that we don’t really get to have a dedicated space and time for,” Martel said.

Martel said attending the celebrations has made her feel very positive and “extremely light.”

“I feel like going to these celebrations and listening to these people speak has just made me feel so positively about everything that we’re doing,” Martel said. “Especially as someone who’s trying to reconnect as well. Getting the opportunity to do these things has really made me feel connected and proud to be Indigenous.”

Paulina Alexis speaks about her time acting in Reservation Dogs

Lily Polenchuk Paulina Alexis speaking in Dinwoodie Lounge.

On February 1, the Honouring Our Youth Night took place in Dinwoodie Lounge. The emcees for the event were students Chantel Akinneah and Marc Doire. Martel said the intention of this event was to celebrate Indigenous youth who are working to revitalize their language and culture. 

The event’s keynote speaker was Paulina Alexis, who, amongst other projects, is well-known for her portrayal of Willie Jack on the show Reservation Dogs. Reservation Dogs centers on a group of Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who are coping with their friend’s death while trying to get to California. The show’s third and final season finished in September 2023.

Alexis said she had an amazing time playing Willie Jack and felt she could relate to her character in many ways.

“Even though she had a tough and feisty personality, she was kind, she had a big heart. [She was] very caring towards her family and her friends. I really love that about her.”

As a child, she was a movie lover, but Alexis said she rarely saw Indigenous people or their stories in the movies she watched. She said she dreamed of becoming an actress and changing this. 

“I was so happy to be casted in shows written by Indigenous creators. I’m grateful for Tracey Deer, Sterlin Harjo, [and] Taika Waititi, for giving me the opportunity to help challenge the norm and show the world our stories through our eyes.”

Finishing up her speech, Alexis gave a few words of advice.

“We all possess the ability to shape the course of our history as Indigenous people, whether your passion lies in arts, sciences, social justice, or beyond. Know that your voice matters, your actions have an impact, and your dreams are worthy.”

“To be Indigenous and to have pride in being Indigenous can mean so many different things to somebody,” speaker Jana Angulalik says

Elder Myna Manniapik gave the opening prayer. Before she retired, Elder Manniapik worked as an interpreter and translator. Currently, she is involved in multiple committees around the city.

Jana Angulalik is a traditional hand-poke tattoo practitioner, aesthetician, writer, and throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Also joining her on stage was her daughter, who is four-and-a-half months old.

Angulalik spoke about the importance of showing pride in one’s Indigenous identity, whether that is through traditional dress, markings, or language. This is especially important since young Indigenous people are watching, she said.

“To be Indigenous and to have pride in being Indigenous can mean so many different things to somebody. We have our own ways of showing it, expressing it, feeling it, and expanding it.”

Martel says joining the ISU was “probably the best thing I’ve ever done” 

Next, Martel spoke about why it is important to have culturally centered events on campus. Martel said when she was growing-up she didn’t feel like having pride was important for her, but she felt something was missing. 

“Being here today, I know that that thing was pride. I think it was pride in myself and pride in knowing where I was and who I am,” Martel said. 

When Martel learned about the ISU, she was at first nervous and waited a month before going in. When she did, she said she “was welcomed with open arms [and] open hearts. To this day it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.” 

As president of the ISU, she wants to  “keep that connection for those that already have it, or for those that really need it back.”

“For anybody that might be here that is currently connecting or reconnecting and that has been in my position, I want you to know not to be afraid to come and do that. I want you to know that there’s spaces here for you to do that — to participate in events, to take up space.”

Following Martel’s speech, the Bearhead Sisters gave a musical performance. The Bearhead Sisters, consisting of sisters Allie, Trina, and Carly Bearhead, won traditional Indigenous artist or group of the year for their album Unbreakable, at the 2023 JUNO Awards. They also competed in the third season of Canada’s Got Talent

Danni Okemaw says she planned the events with her parents in mind

Finishing up the event, Danni Okemaw, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) Initiatives Specialist at the UASU, spoke. Okemaw was one of the many people involved in planning ICW. She spoke about her parents’ journeys to receive their degrees at a time when they were two of four Indigenous students at the University of Manitoba. 

“I planned these events with these beautiful people because I wish my mom and my dad had these opportunities to see our ribbon skirts, to hear our beautiful songs, and beautiful prayers.”

Dylana Twittey

Dylana Twittey is the 2023-24 News Editor. She is a second-year student studying history. In her free time, she enjoys watching 90s Law and Order, cooking, and rereading her favourite books for the fifth time.

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