Portrait: Terri Suntjens

June 21, 2017

I remember going to pick sweetgrass with my dad as a young girl. I remember the sweat lodge behind our house. I remember all of us kids playing as my mom and aunties prepared the feast on Sundays when our family would come to sweat. I grew up around ceremony. It was just part of our family life.

But when I was 18, I moved away from home—the Saddle Lake Cree First Nation—to come to MacEwan. It was the first time I left my community and it was such a huge transition for me. Like many other students, just getting by often felt like a struggle—but as a young person in the city, I also felt the stereotypes and discrimination against Indigenous people. I was the only Indigenous person in my class and I kept to myself—I didn’t discuss my background or culture. I think, in a sense, I retreated from who I was because I wanted to blend in and fit in.

When I look back at that now, I realize part of that struggle was being on my own and feeling disconnected from my community. I felt like I had to leave behind who I was back at home and fit in. I had to be like everyone else. There was no connection to ceremony, no connection to who I was as an Indigenous person, no sense of peace.
Years later I started working and studying at an Indigenous-owned and -run university, and that had a huge impact on me. I rediscovered the importance of ceremony, of how learning is connected not just with our mind, but also with our heart.

When my husband and I decided to move back to Edmonton with our family earlier this year, I was very fearful of leaving a job that I loved, so I went into ceremony to reflect on what the next steps were for me. I was hopeful that I would find something that would be as meaningful, and I have. I know this is where I’m supposed to be.

We are planning many exciting things in kihêw waciston this year, but one of the most important to me is bringing a stronger sense of ceremony to the centre—to create a place for students to come, to feel at home, and to see themselves and their culture.

I think that would have made a difference for me. To feel like an important part of me was welcomed here. To feel comfortable. To feel safe. That’s the piece I want to fill.

—Terri Suntjens, Manager, MacEwan University kihêw waciston

Read more about what indigenizing education means for MacEwan.

This story is part of our Portraits of MacEwan series where students, faculty and staff share snapshots of their lives with the university community. Read more portraits at MacEwan.ca/Facebook.

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