Healing through the land: Jolene Banning finds inspiration in her Indigenous traditions

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Jolene Banning wearing the Ojibway jingle dress she made.

Jolene Banning grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario. But she lived for the summers, spent with her grandparents and uncle in the small town of Allanwater Bridge, surrounded by her Ojibway family and community.

“My mom was forced to move off her land to get an education in Thunder Bay. But she did bring us home every summer, and it was such a relief,” recalls Jolene, now 43. “All throughout the school year, I’d hear the slurs, ‘Lazy Indian, drunk Indian, no-good Indian.’ I’d play at my best friend’s house, and her dad would say those things in front of me. As a teen, my friend’s mom would give us rides home from work, and I’d hear those kinds of things in the vehicle.”

At Allanwater, though, says Jolene, now 43, “I could see that everything I was told in Thunder Bay was a lie.”

She watched her grandfather and uncle hard at work trapping and hunting. She saw how they built their houses by hand, from logs they harvested. Her family caught the fish on the dinner table, picked the blueberries to go with breakfast pancakes, hunted the moose and gathered the vegetables and wild rice that fed the family through the winter. Her grandmother cleaned the furs — beaver and marten — her grandfather trapped.

“I made minnow traps,” says Jolene, “and had a little business selling minnows to the American tourists who came through on their fly-in fishing trips. Life at Allanwater was nothing but work and connection to the land.”

Today, Jolene is reestablishing that connection. It’s part of a healing journey she began a little over a year ago when she took sick leave from her job. After two decades’ of work in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous settings, the overt and institutional racism she experienced had taken its toll. The trauma she suffered intensified when she testified at the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women about the deaths of her aunt and another female relative.

Part of Jolene’s healing journey is recognizing and honouring the Indigenous relationship to the land. “One of our traditional teachings is that everything is right here for us, and there’s never more or less food or water or opportunities for economic development than what we need right now. So when there’s food to be picked, I’m on the land every day picking it. I’m participating in my economic development through storytelling, or making birchbark baskets. I’m starting to trade for services because that’s more in line with my traditions.”

Some of Jolene’s birchbark baskets.

When Jolene formally left her job — and its steady salary — to freelance as a writer (she writes regularly for Anishnabek News and has a column at the CBC in Thunder Bay), she says, “I knew I was going to need to make some big changes. I needed to recognize the difference between my wants and my needs. And I realized the majority of what I had been buying was stuff I didn’t want or need: it was just an addiction to capitalism.”

As a “mountain keeper” for the Anemki Wajiw (or Thunder Mountain) on Fort William First Nation, Jolene was taught by an Elder to be out on the mountain regularly to take care of it. “And that means picking up litter. So when I go for a walk, on my own or with my husband, I always bring a little bucket. And I realized that the majority of what I pick up is plastic. Our reliance on plastic is part of that same addiction — and it’s one of the most hurtful things I see happening to the land.”

These days, you can find Jolene fishing, picking fiddleheads or blueberries, gathering plants and herbs for medicine and teas, and making beeswax wraps for food. She’s learning how to make birchbark baskets. She’s part of a maple-syrup collective. Her vegetable garden expands every year. “Every opportunity I have to connect, share, or learn, I take,” she says. “And while I’m learning these things, I’m always teaching my daughter and my [baby] granddaughter how to do them as well. I’m always saying to my daughter [Amber, 22], ‘Whenever you’re ready, I’m here to show you.’”

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Gathering the maple sap.

Jolene just made her first jingle dress, the traditional Ojibway garment worn for celebrations and powwows. “And when my granddaughter begins to walk,” she says, “I’m going to make her a jingle dress as well.”

That granddaughter — Cassius Rose, 7½ months — is Jolene’s biggest inspiration.

“She’s a huge factor in why I’m doing this. When I think about how I grew up, seeing and feeling and experiencing racism, I don’t ever want Cassius to feel that way. I want her to know from day one that she is royalty on this land, that she is connected to this land and belongs here. That way, she can be empowered and able to speak out against injustices against Indigenous people.”

In these ways, Jolene is carrying on her family’s traditions. “When I was with my grandparents, I remember that, after a successful hunt, my grandparents would take what they thought was available for sharing, and we’d go for a ride. We stop at a neighbour’s house and share some meat, and have a visit, and then move on to the next house. I could hear my grandmother talking in her language. People would ask my grandpa about how to roast wild rice, or how to set a certain trap. And I always felt really good being with my grandparents and sharing food and knowledge. It instilled a lot of pride in me — hearing my language, seeing how much my grandparents knew and shared. It made me feel safe.”

She pauses. “And now, I’m making sure that my little granddaughter feels the same around me as I used to around my grandmother.”

Jolene and her granddaughter, Cassius Rose.

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

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