Forces That Drive
By Bernelda Wheeler
with permission from
She was born in the late 50's. Flower people were on the horizon. There was concern about strontium 90 in milk that children drank. Aboriginal people were migrating to urban areas across the country and changes to the Indian Act meant that Indian people would be recognized as 'persons'. Winona Wheeler was born to a Cree mother and a British\Irish father.
The child had strong characteristics of curiosity, determination and stubbornness. She was also deliberate, and a generous giving little soul. By the time she was seven, Winona had known eight different homes; change was life but it contributed to feelings of being peripheral - an outsider who was not Indian enough to be acceptable by them but enough to attract the contempt and rejection of the majority who were mostly Caucasian. Her stubborn nature refused to allow racism and prejudice to get in her way so she became a fighter for survival. She'd throw her head up and stomp away but the stomping gave way to hate and anger and this propelled her to the need for success, to excel; to prove that Indians were as capable as anyone.
The family broke up when Winona was in her teens. Another new beginning: A new place to live. Winona, her little brother Jordan and her mom moved to Winnipeg - the prairies where she had come to visit often; where her ancestors lived and loved. Her grandparents went to Industrial School here. There was a sense of knowing that this was where she belonged - she could feel it, she could see it. This was the place of the stories and histories she had heard in her growing up years, her connections to place and time.
At school in Winnipeg she was an outsider and encountered violence. At St. Mary's Academy, her new school, a nun told her she would be a good hairdresser. Winona became a dropout at the age of fifteen.
The American Indian Movement was active, there was Pan Indianism, marches, sit-ins, cavalcades, demonstrations and occupations. The feeling of being peripheral and outside emerged again but this time there was anger and hate at the injustices she saw. The feeling of "us" and "they" became stronger and "they" became enemy. At Anicinabe Park, Indians were shot at. At Wounded Knee riot police were brought in. Indian identity gained strength. As an education counsellor she heard a comment that she could be a good secretary - more anger and determination. A pigeonhole created by someone else? No!
Winona, now Stevenson, became a mother, and back in B.C. her work as a runner for a law firm showed her that mainstream was working to take Indian land legally through the courts. Because she was Indian, a partner said, she could access Indian Affairs documents. She refused to be apart of any process that could deprive Indians of their land. She was fired. At the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs she worked as a land claims researcher. Find out where the claim was then hit the archives with a vengeance; travel to reserves for relevant information in the minds and memories of the elders, the story keepers, the historians of the land and it's people. Here it was made stronger for Winona Stevenson, but anger at injustices grew, and hate of these injustices and their perpetrators was a driving force. This was how Winona learned to do history. These were the stories and experiences that nourished the decision that this was the type of work she wanted to do for the rest of her life but she had to have more skills and knowledge, because, My god - what if she missed something? For the rest of time, the final decision would affect the lives of the people of the land.
And so the road to a Ph.D. began. The first mile of the road was the first year at the University of Manitoba, one she describes as being in the bowels of hell and there was more to come. Stan Cuthand was there, he was one of her major supporters. At the end of the year, she said, "you kept me here - how come"? "Well," Stan said, "Because, one day you're going to carry on". The statement was prophetic but there were a good many more years of study for Winona Stevenson and with her all the way were her old pals - her nemesis: hate and anger, determination and a fierce commitment to independence. As her dear friend Janice Guilbault describes her, "She's strong and stubborn, and too damn pig-headed to give in but she's also the most giving and gentle person I know".