Where the Thunderbirds Live

Last week I was fortunate to spend time with northern Anishinaabeg in Thunder Bay. I am no stranger to this city and lived in the East End while I attended high school, working at Victoriaville Mall in a small educational toy store. I would return to live in Thunder Bay several more times, eventually for a final time with my toddler son in tow.

What can I say about this place to someone who has never been to where the Thunderbirds live? Thunder Bay is known as the violent crime capital of Canada. The reasons for this violence are many like criminal exploitation of geography, but especially for the racism and danger to many First Nations residents who are forced to live there for one federal reason or another, like emergency evacuations and medical care. The first time I learned about human trafficking, it was about the women who went missing on the boats that came and left on Lake Superior.

My connections to this place have always come from my family. My grandparents and uncle lived outside of the city throughout my youth, their home a small oasis from the big city and a far enough drive that a teenager like me couldn’t get into much trouble. 

Once I moved into town with my younger siblings and mother, I began going to school and working. Making friends has never come easy for me and I approached this new location as an opportunity to ditch the shyness I often struggled with. 

On my first day, I made fast friends with another new student named Darci who had relocated from Lac Seul First Nation and together we began grade eleven. Without shared classes, Darci and I stuck together outside of school as we explored the city and met with other youth she knew from back home. This was the first time that I learned how the strongest students were selected to finish high school in the city for a chance at better opportunities. 

While I can’t share all the stories from those days, in respect of confidentiality and more, I can tell you that living in Thunder Bay was not easy. Before the end of that first semester of grade 11, at age 17 I found myself homeless.

I will never forget the kindness of my English/home room teacher who gifted me her winter coat and the other teachers who granted me permission to write my exams, despite missing over six weeks of class. These caring educators advocated for me in many ways and the potential they found in my abilities helped me to complete grade eleven in due time. It would take me another four years to find my way to graduate fully from high school, by then a mom of one.  

Being in Thunder Bay always brings up some of these hard memories, particularly when I was sent there years later for a work assignment. A paperwork failure left me with no way to feed myself or check in to my hotel room. I was lucky to have my uncle close by and ready to collect me. Offering his wisdom and counsel spared me the anguish of internalizing the shame of being in a bad situation, stuck without options like I had been all those years ago.

This time in Thunder Bay was very different. Not because I was without crisis, but because my grandparents no longer live there. In fact, they no longer live.

For this trip, I was hired to teach crisis workers about death, grief and harm reduction for a Death & Sorrow Conference and brought my daughter along for her first stint as a co-facilitator. It was powerful showing my girl all the places I had lived, explaining what Simpson Street was like and seeing the tent city that protected the city’s homeless.

On our second roadside emergency (shoutout to Thunder Bay potholes!), in a shuttle van with a friendly driver and life-long Thunder Bay resident, she began to truly appreciate the danger I had managed to navigate and survive. Later we discussed my youthful naivete and the advantages my white skin provided me. We had previously watched Thunder Bay on Crave at home, and I had cried remembering the stories of the youth I knew back in the 90s. We were just kids from small communities, trying to get by. This time, for the first time, we journeyed onto the waters of Lake Superior. I am eternally grateful to the event coordinators at Nishinaabe-Aski Nation who organized thoughtful aftercare activities. I did not realize the grief I was carrying for my grandfather until I got to those shores and offered my tobacco in prayer.

It is a strange thing to find oneself detached from grief, only to be confronted with waves of loss when you least expect it. These past few years I have lost not only my grandfather, but a pregnancy and connections with loved ones. Visiting Lake Superior and not my grandfather was a wave of pain I was not braced for and as our day of facilitation began, this weighed heavily on my heart.

There is beauty and spirituality to belonging and working with community. There is a care and unconditional love one can tap into and this day was no exception to the renowned strengths of the Anishinaabeg people. 

Throughout the day I shared many personal stories and stories of loved ones who have granted permission to share their stories. Storytelling has long felt like my superpower and my best tool to help others awaken their own gifts as helpers. As the day went on, both my daughter and I were praised and honoured for the teachings we offered to the group, and I was on cloud nine at the success of our day. I had no clue what was to unfold.

The Elder who attended the event and opened each day for us approached me. After learning I had never received a spirit name, he returned with a piece of hotel note paper that left me speechless and in tears. Written down in Anishinaabemowin was my spirit’s true name.

To say I was not prepared for such a gift seems like a grand understatement. What I can share is that receiving my spirit’s name was powerful. Immediately I felt grounded by this gift and felt my spirit weep to be called by its true name. I am de baagiimou binesii or Story Healing Thunderbird.

To be gifted such a name in the home of the Thunderbirds is something I am still digesting. I am reminded of the scene from Reservation Dogs with the young protagonist visiting her Auntie in jail. She asks her Auntie for help, and she grants her niece this request, asking her to close her eyes and focus her energy and mind. The viewer can see what the Auntie sees- the many ancestors appearing behind the niece, holding her in their gaze, supportive hands on her shoulders.

Yes, Thunder Bay is a special place to me and I hope to always feel the strength of my grandparents, and their ancestors, standing behind me.

By Chrystal Toop, Story Healing Thunderbird and member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, Speaker and Educator. Chrystal is a former Indigenous Rights Coordinator for KAIROS Canada.

Please visit www.blackbirdmedicines.ca to learn more about Chrystal and her work with the Indigenous Death Doula Collective, community healing justice and more.

Filed in: Spirited Reflections

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