As executive director of Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, Cheryl Whiskeyjack’s job is to help urban aboriginal peoples live in two worlds at once: the City of Edmonton, with its particular laws and norms, and the aboriginal world of ceremonies and beliefs that has existed on this land for millennia. Those two worlds can live in harmony, but it isn’t always easy. “We have a community of people who are thousands of years from this land that we’re on right now,” Cheryl says. “And they don’t feel connected to it. They feel displaced, even though they live here. So public engagement is a way to re-engage the folks that we serve.”
Cheryl has been with Bent Arrow just about since its inception a quarter-century ago. Now she oversees a suite of 18 different programs and services. The organization’s programming connects indigenous clients to the city around them, and helps them build skills and resilience that they can use in other parts of their lives. “People are sitting straighter in their chairs by the time they’re done their program,” she says.
Engagement is important to Cheryl’s work — even if it doesn’t mean she always gets her way. When the provincial government made a policy against parents co-sleeping with their newborns, for instance, Bent Arrow pushed back, arguing that co-sleeping is commonplace in many indigenous communities. After consulting with government staff, Cheryl’s argument was ultimately rejected. “But you know what?” she says. “I could live with it. Because there was a process. They still said co-sleeping isn’t allowed in programs that they fund. We didn’t change their minds, but I still felt like we had a really good dialogue and exchange.”
Being heard, and considered, can go a long way.