“Learning to trust myself”: Leanna Marshall finds ceremony in everyday life

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Leanna Marshall with one of her daughters.

In 2017, Leanna Marshall felt a powerful call.

She’d known for a while about Water Walks, a series of spiritual journeys that highlight the importance of protecting our waterways. The movement is the brainchild of Indigenous grandmother, Elder, and water activist Josephine Mandamin who since 2003 has tallied more than 25,000 kilometres on foot around the Great Lakes and other bodies of water in Canada, the United States, and internationally. On each walk, she carries a staff and a bucket of freshwater and puts down neither until the end of the day.

“I was called to go on the ceremony, and I decided to trust that feeling,” says Leanna, the mother of two young daughters, ages five and seven. Last summer, she joined Mandamin — now in her 70s — for part of a walk originating in Duluth, Minnesota, and then met her again outside Montreal to walk with her toward the walk’s final destination on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

“It was transformative,” says Leanna, 42, who has lived her entire life on the shores of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and is part of the Big Trout Lake, or Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, First Nation. In 2018, she helped to organize a Water Walk in Thunder Bay.

“The beautiful ceremony of carrying the water — it really gave me a different relationship to it, to understand it as life, to see that there are several spirits within it and that it’s my responsibility to protect them. You see water as part of your family: how would I treat my sister? How would I treat my mother? Would you let her die? No: you’d fight for her, the way you’d fight for your children.”

That protective instinct, the call to heal and to love, is a strong through-line through all of Leanna’s work. “The common thread is creating a community that reflects my love for my people, for my family, for this land — the earth, the water, the sky, all forms of life. That’s the driving force of all the work I create or contribute to.”

Leanna has a Master’s degree in social work and is one of two Indigenous counsellors at Thunder Bay’s Confederation College.

With her twin sister, Jean Marshall, and brother-in-law Christian Chapman, Leanna is part of the Anemki Art Collective. She recently exhibited Zaagi’idwin: Silent, Unquestionable Act of Love, a mixed-media installation at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Robert Langen Art Gallery. The installation featured traditional Indigenous jingle dresses, which she created to explore the stories that have shaped her family and community — the sadness and inequities, and also the healing, compassion, and forgiveness. A 2015 exhibit called The Teaching Is in the Making at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery explored Anishinabe art, culture and knowledge through family memories.

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Leanna also sits on the national collective of Walking with Our Sisters, a commemorative installation that honours the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and supports their grieving families. Now in its seventh and final year, the exhibit has travelled throughout Canada; it’s her job to help communities prepare for and install the work.

“In my community, every family, every single person, has been affected by violence, whether that’s through residential schools, domestic violence, sexual violence,” says Leanna. “And Walking with Our Sisters is a different way of understanding, of dealing with that pain and violence.” The collective, she explains, is guided by the principles of humility — there is no hierarchy to the group — love, and kindness: at any installation, she points out, you never know who might be a family member of a missing or murdered woman, and so it’s important to treat everyone with love.

“Everything [the collective does], is based entirely in Anishinabe ceremony, and that holds so much power, so much healing, for our families and communities.”

That sense of ceremony, says Leanna, is key to her role as a mother. “It’s so complex, being a working mom,” she sighs. “And I’m still extremely hard on myself as I try to navigate parenting. I get that feeling that I’m not good enough as a mother. I lose my temper, or I’m reactive with my daughters and then as a consequence, I feel guilty.”

It can be easy, she says, to think of ceremonies as special occasions, to be pulled out on water walks or at commemorative art installations. “But for me, ceremony is in every single day, every single moment. Ceremony is what pulls me back to a place of reason and compassion when I might feel triggered by my children. I’m learning how to trust myself, how to value my instincts” — like those powerful calls to carry the water, to be a steward for the memories of the missing and murdered women in her community, to create. “When I have the trust to follow through with my instincts, the guilt and the judgment, the exhaustion, and the isolation — they disappear.”

Her daughters sometimes join Leanna during her daily ritual of offering tobacco, food, and water. “And sometimes they choose not to. But they’re always watching. The other night, we went canoeing and my six-year-old said, ‘Mom, where’s your tobacco? We need to acknowledge the water spirits.’”

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Her daughters are the ones reminding their mom to bring her reusable cup to the local Tim Horton’s, who will suggest taking the bus instead of driving, who would never think of leaving the tap running while brushing their teeth. “They hold me accountable,” she says. “They’re so aware of who they are. I’m so excited for this generation. It’s going to be different with them at the helm.”

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“My opportunity to be a part of these movements is based out of love because love is the only way that I can see to create effective change on this planet.”

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 coeditor 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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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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