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Like Eagles

Doreen Lerat-Baptiste

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1994      v23 n07 p15  
This is the Third in An Ongoing Series Of
Stories On Successful First Nations Women

Dr. Lenore Stiffarm Dr. Lenore Stiffarm joined the Indian and Northern Education Program (I.N.E.P.), Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan in time to begin the 1994-95 academic year. She had recently' completed a five year term with the University of Lethbridge where she was the only Aboriginal female faculty member in the entire university. She now becomes the third Aboriginal female member of the I.N.E.P. unit.

Lenore's cultural background includes being a member of the Atsina (Gros Ventre) Tribe with Kainai and Assiniboine heritage. She grew up in a family of eleven children, and now has "three beautiful children that the creator has blessed me with caring for", two grandchildren, three dogs and two lovebirds.

Lenore attended public elementary school on her reserve. Her family lived over a mile from the route the school bus travelled. When the weather was nice, the children would walk to the road to meet the bus, but in the winter, her father would drive them in a sled team. She decided not to attend the nearest high school because she would have had to "move into town and board with a non-native family". She was also aware that "every Native woman who went to the high school never finished. They were usually pregnant and gone before the end of their freshman year". Lenore decided that she "really didn't want that kind of life and chose to attend a boarding school 1000 miles away from her home".

Just as her parents had warned, she was extremely lonesome. She also experienced culture shock " in so many ways - I did not know how to maneuver in an Urban Environment". There was a lot of abuse at this school. But, "when you don't have something to compare it with, you don't know what the norm is... we had students who died at our schools - we didn't know that was abnormal". Women became pregnant and/or were raped. There was abuse between staff and students, "but of course there was no policy [in place to deal with these issues] ". There were also abandonment issues.

Child labor and exploitation was also occurring at the residential school. "You had to getup at 4:30 in the morning to peel potatoes," Lenore states. She learned that the way to get out of that was to become involved with the student council. So, "I very quickly went into student politics and got on the student council". This experience "really helped me in policy development", in later years, she stated. She also learned "early on "that there was direct correlation between high grades and over-achieving, so she threw herself into her studies.

For Lenore, the positive side of attending residential school was that she had the opportunity to meet people from all over the U.S. and "every place I go, I have friends. It's really wonderful to have a sense of congeniality". The residential school she attended is now the Haskell Indian Nations University, which offers a four-year teacher education program. Lenore is presently a member of their governing board.

Lenore states that she "always had the desire to go on with my education". She pursued her undergraduate studies at the University of Montana. She then received her Master of Education, Certificate of Advanced Study (in social policy analysis), and her Doctor of Education from Harvard University. The topic of her Doctoral research was 'Managing Change in the Boston School System: An Examination of Criteria for School Closing in Boston'.

This was not her original choice for a topic of study. Initially, she wanted to examine why Native people who receive Doctorate degrees do not return to their reserve to work. In her words, there is a "brain drain" --in-Native communities. She had done a lot of preparation for this research; however, her committee would not approve this topic. Lenore states "that was a very humbling experience". She was at a cross-road in her academic career, but she had a "very beautiful advisor who helped me through this process".

Upon completion of her academic studies, Lenore states that "my schooling was finished and then my education began". By this statement she means that "people fulfill the requirements to get degrees. Many times what we have learned does not fit with our world view of who we are as First Nations people... we begin to explore what are the truths of history... and to see the real world for what it is... sometimes the real world has its limitations and does not fit with all the models and theories we learned in school... that is the beginning of education".

Lenore speaks with passion and conviction about her views on spiritual healing. She states that as educators (teachers, parents, grandparents or university faculty) " we can only take someone as far as we have come. If we have not dealt with our own hurt and our own pain, how can we ever hope to go out and give young people (who are looking to us for guidance) any kind of support or affirmation? Spiritual healing is the foundation in terms of how I heal". Lenore stated that writing stories and poetry also plays a major role in her healing process.

She states that her participation in fasting and Sundance ceremonies has  "filled a hole or emptiness in my spirit," which makes her feel "very rich, grounded and full". She now feels she can offer " guidance, direction, and point out options to those that have been entrusted in my care". She indicates that she has received a lot of spiritual healing from an elder who lives on the Mosquito Reserve in Saskatchewan.

Regarding the University of Saskatchewan, Lenore states that it "has a lot of resources to support research. First Nation's people need to produce our own research. If you look around we are probably the most researched group of people in the world. We need to begin to tell our own story because our story has not been told from our point of view. We need to challenge the institutional philosophies and methodological frameworks of how research is done".

Lenore feels that she "has a lot of gifts to share in the areas of research". She also presents workshops in the following areas: cross-cultural awareness, multi-cultural education, wellness, grieving, reclaiming the inner child, anger and rage, relationships, youth and parenting. She is scheduled to speak at the Women and Wellness conference later this month in Saskatoon.

Regarding parenting from a First Nation's perspective, Lenore feels that " many people that have gone through the residential schools have never really had any training on what it means to be a parent. A lot of times before we can be fully present for our children when they creed us, we need to grieve our own abandonment, let go of it, and make peace with it". Lenore brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the University of Saskatchewan. The skills and qualities, along with her strong belief in traditional Indian values are definite assets to the university and the Saskatchewan Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. She will also be a positive role model for Aboriginal people because of her accomplishments. Lenore states, "It's nice to be here and I am looking forward to my work".