Stella Blackbird is not only a visionary; she also has the rare ability to make her visions a reality. From her work with her home community of Keeseekoowenin First Nation, to her role as elder with Urban Circle Training Centre and her vision for Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre, Blackbird has devoted her life to the service of others.
“Stella Blackbird is a community visionary who shares positive dreams for change… wherever she is invited to share life,” says Reverend Stanley McKay. “Stella has a passion for community transformation and she has a capacity to involve the community in building on a dream so that it becomes a reality.”
Involving the community is exactly what Blackbird, 75, attributes to her success.
“You never sit back and wait for [your vision] to happen,” Blackbird says. “You need to keep bringing that vision alive, you need to keep talking about it, you need to have other people listen.”
Of course it also takes perseverance. “You must continue even if you have to sacrifice a few things like leaving home and being away from family,” she adds. “I always follow nature; nature keeps doing the same thing, it keeps on its path.”
Rev. McKay, along with Eleanor Thompson, Rick Frost and Debbie O’Donnell, recently nominated Blackbird for a Caring Canadian Award. Created by the Governor General in 1995, the awards recognize individuals who volunteer their time to help others, building a smarter and more caring nation. Blackbird was given the award by the Gov. Gen. David Johnston at a ceremony in Winnipeg in June.
“I can’t describe it,” Blackbird says of winning the award. “I was in a world of my own reflecting back on all the things that I did and that somebody did notice. And most of all I wanted to inspire my people. I was very grateful and in shock.”
A survivor of the residential school system, Blackbird is a loving wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She has an extensive knowledge of traditional medicines which she freely shares.
“Stella’s work with natural medicines and healing ceremonies puts her in contact with a vast community. Her ceremonial work has helped many people in our community reclaim a positive identity based on self-worth,” McKay says.
Red River College is currently documenting Blackbird’s traditional knowledge and stories to make them available for the entire community, McKay adds.
Since 1995 Blackbird has served as elder at Urban Circle Training Centre, one of the most successful Aboriginal training centres in Canada. Through a partnership with Red River College, Urban Circle delivers training in health care, education, family support work and early childhood education.
“Stella has provided traditional teachings that are at the heart of all programming,” says Eleanor Thompson, Urban Circle’s co-founder and director of development. Blackbird provides counseling for students and leads sharing circles, healing circles, pipe ceremonies, naming ceremonies and sweat ceremonies.
Blackbird was also instrumental in designing Urban Circle’s Selkirk Avenue facility, which is in the form of the sacred turtle. Construction was completed in 2003.
“Everyone who walks into the Centre remarks on the feeling of safety, wholeness and beauty they experience,” Thompson says.
In 2005, Blackbird envisioned an inter-generational children’s centre where the children and families of Aboriginal students studying in the Selkirk Avenue community could follow the traditional teachings and way of life on a daily basis.
“Stella’s dream was that never again would children have to feel the shame that she and thousands of others experienced in the residential school system, but rather would reclaim and embrace their identity freely with pride from the very earliest stage of life,” Thompson says. Makoonsag Intergenerational Children’s Centre officially opened in 2012.
Along with Tracy Bone, Blackbird established the Medicine Eagle Healing and Retreat Place for youth, adults and families. Located on the sacred ceremonial grounds of the ancestors near Riding Mountain National Park, Medicine Eagle is a healing camp where traditional ceremonies are held and medicines are harvested. Blackbird recently hosted a group from Costa Rica at Medicine Eagle, and is preparing for an upcoming four-day retreat with more than 40 participants.
Blackbird served as resident elder for the Ontario Native Education Counselor Association in Sudbury, Ont. and provided mental health services utilizing traditional methods for Ojibway Tribal Family Services Sacred Circle in Kenora, Ont. In addition, she served for many years in the Third Canadian Rangers of the Canadian Armed Forces, providing traditional teachings, survival skills and cross-cultural understanding to hundreds of youth and adults at Camp Borden, Ont.
She also recently returned from a two-week stint at the Healing Lodge on Beardy’s First Nation in Saskatchewan where she worked with Corrections Canada to help offenders re-integrate in to society following release.
“It’s quite interesting because it kind of changes their lifestyle from worry to peacefulness,” Blackbird says of her work with inmates.
Although it’s a slow process, Blackbird believes it’s important to teach people the importance of traditional medicines.
“We were scared because we were told through Christian teachings [traditional medicines were] the devil’s work,” she says. “That’s starting to change now as more people are coming forward and overcoming that fear.”
“I want to inspire people to learn about their culture,” Blackbird says.
Click here for more information about the Caring Canadian Awards.
This is part of a series on the recent Caring Canadian Award winners from Winnipeg. Click here to read about other recipients.