Joseph Naytowhow is the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union's Indigenous knowledge keeper. Matt Smith / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Bridges Cover: Joseph Naytowhow is finding his voice, and helping others find theirs

Joseph Naytowhow (BEd'95) is the University of Saskatchewan Students' Union's new Indigenous knowledge keeper, a role aimed at making the U of S more welcoming for Indigenous students.

Joseph Naytowhow (BEd'95) has spent most of his life trying to find his voice, and himself, as reported by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

It was never going to be easy. Church- and government-run residential schools made sure of that. Even today, half a century later, Naytowhow considers it lost time, a blank space in his life that changed everything.

“It knocked your own culture deep down somewhere, in some crevice of your body. You just never really recovered,” says Naytowhow, who left Sturgeon Lake First Nation for Prince Albert Indian Residential School at age six.

“Some people call it culture shock. Some people call it genocide. Some people call it life. I don’t know what to call it. I’m much older now and have much more of an understanding of what happens with one’s life.”

The experience was so alienating, Naytowhow says, he didn’t know he was Cree until he was 20 years old. He was luckier than many in that the experience drove him to reconnect with his culture, to search for his voice through ceremony, music and storytelling.

Today, the soft-spoken 67-year-old is recognized as one of Saskatchewan’s most prominent Indigenous artists, a gifted performer whose long career in the arts has helped introduce countless thousands to First Nations culture.

He has a long list of acting credits, both on film and on the stage, is recognized as a songwriter, musician and dancer, and has a deep knowledge of both traditional and contemporary First Nations stories, which he uses to bridge different worlds.

Naytowhow’s accumulated knowledge and obvious talent for connecting with people — during a short walk across campus recently, he said hello to everyone who passed, and stopped to chat with a few — make him a natural fit for his latest role.

“He’s a very approachable kind of person,” says Regan Ratt-Misponas, who as president of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union works closely with Naytowhow in his position as the student union’s new Indigenous knowledge keeper.

“He’s someone people can easily have a conversation with, and he’s open to having a dialogue with people.”

USSU general manager Caroline Cottrell could not agree more. She has known Naytowhow since 1989, when he was a student at the university’s Indigenous Teacher Education Program, and believes he’s an ideal fit for the position.

“He exudes gentleness. He exudes kindness. He just becomes a person that you just trust,” Cottrell says.

“Joseph (and Marjorie Beucage, who held the role previously) have been really instrumental … in providing safe places and spaces and knowledge to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.”

Former USSU president Rollin Baldhead spearheaded the effort to create the position last year. At the time, it was known as the elder in residence, because he saw the need for more Indigenous knowledge on campus and felt the students’ union could take the initiative.

“Being a student group, I thought that we should be the ones to … really take the first steps to these words that the university is using, which is ‘reconciliation’ and ‘Indigenization,’ ” Baldhead told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix last year.

While Naytowhow is modest about his own accomplishments, emphasizing that he is a conduit for knowledge shared by elders — “master teachers” whose lived experience he studies — he is similarly enthusiastic about the university’s Indigenization project.

Read more at https://thestarphoenix.com/news/.

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