If you’ve been on the annual UTM experiential journey to the First Nations community on Curve Lake, where students get the opportunity to engage directly with First Nations people and learn their teachings while on their land, you’ve probably already met Cat Criger.
Cat sits across from me in his Davis Building office across from Spigel Hall in a jovial mood. He’s just arrived at UTM from visiting an elementary school in Toronto to teach young children about Aboriginal history, culture, and tradition.
“They were so prepared,” says Cat, beaming. “They had so many questions.”
I first met Cat at the Office of Student Life’s multi-faith steering committee meeting last month, and was immediately intrigued by his presence and what he had to say about multi-faith space on the UTM campus and the need for space in which to “pray the way you were taught to pray”. Later, I learned that Cat’s placement at UTM is that of “traditional Aboriginal elder”.
“For our culture, that’s one that carries knowledge about all of our—or some of our—cultural ways of doing things, and our cultural philosophy and our traditional ceremony,” explains Cat.
The name he goes by, most of the time, is Cat. It doesn’t really refer to a housecat. It means a sharp-clawed one, like pumas and mountains lions, that is “very gentle and walks quietly”, he says. It also refers to a mythological lynx in his culture.
Cat is Cayuga (Guyohkohnyoh), Turtle Clan from the Six Nations Haudenosaunee (or People of the Longhouse), on his father’s side. He has been working as a traditional teacher and elder for about 20 years. Under the mentorship of other First Nations elders, Cat learned to perform traditional ceremonies and teachings. Now he is being asked to visit schools in the surrounding areas, including in the Peel District School Board and Toronto District School Board, to talk to children—because “that’s where our future students are coming from”.
I must be one of many on campus who are not culturally aware of the Aboriginal way of life, and besides briefly learning about Aboriginals in a social science unit in grade six, I know next to nothing about Aboriginal culture. His role at UTM, namely to make UTM students more aware of the culture and more accessible to Aboriginal students, is fascinating. He makes himself available to meet with students one-on-one throughout the year, to advise them and offer guidance.
“We want to make UTM students more aware of who we are and attract more students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and hopefully make it a very comfortable place where we can work together,” says Cat. “A lot of people do not know about our culture, do not understand how our people do things. We do things differently. How we interact is different. How we learn is different. As a traditional teacher, I am obliged to teach the culture. I offer that to students, to faculty—offer that to anyone who is interested.”
People weren’t always interested. But that’s rapidly changing.
“Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, being native wasn’t very cool,” says Cat. “We were a group of people that there was a lot of prejudice against; there w[ere] a lot of unkind feelings towards us. And as time passed, people started to understand we have a very deep philosophy of life.”
This idea wasn’t really listened to before, Cat says.
“We were put on reserves, and there was the assimilation process, there were the residential schools, there was a well-defined government policy, to assimilate us,” he explains. “The government and the police force came to the reserve, took the children, and forced them to go to residential schools. A lot of people don’t realize that. There were very few countries on this planet that carried on a form of genocide that encourages the abduction of children from their parents and incarceration in residential schools. Over a century that happened.”
It started in the early 1800s and did not end until 1996, when they closed the last residential school.
“It’s hard to apologize to someone for taking their children,” he says. “I’ve yet to meet a mother that would accept if you took her children away. Sometimes I’ll ask in my teaching circles, ‘If I came and took your children and you never got them back, or they came back abused or hurt or dead, would “I’m sorry” be okay?’ I’ve yet to have a mother say yes.”
Criger has been lecturing since 2006 at many different faculties, including those of pharmacy, aboriginal studies, theology, and biomedical sciences. In particular, he teaches about purely traditional medicinal knowledge in biomedical science—that is, well-being, psychology, and psychiatry, as Aboriginals view them.
How did it happen that an Aborginal elder came to teach at these lectures? Cat attributes it to a recent movement in which Aboriginal people are moving into mainstream and public sector jobs, which leads to a more Aboriginal-friendly atmosphere. People are becoming more culturally aware of Aboriginal teachings and philosophies in a way that they haven’t been before.
“Nowadays people are interested in how we live in balance with nature. We have 12,000 years of living in balance with nature. Zero pollution. Zero clear-cutting. Zero dams—except ones made by the beavers,” jokes Cat. “We weren’t responsible for demolishing entire species. People want to know why and how we did that. We have philosophies and teachings that talk about respecting everything and everyone. Of course, part of respecting animals is you don’t wipe out entire species. Codfish is an amazing example. How can you empty half an ocean of cod? That takes a lot of effort. At some point you’d expect someone to say, ‘This is wrong’.”
What caused this shift in the popular attitude towards Aboriginals?
“People are interested in getting through life and being happy,” Cat says. “When they see a way of going through life and a foundation of teachings that make that possible, they have to share it.”
The third annual experiential journey, “Waawaahte Northern Lights Initiative”, will take place this year from April 1 to 4 and is open to both U of T and non-U of T students. Students will get the chance to engage directly with Cat and other First Nations people at the First Nations community at Curve Lake, about two hours north of UTM.
Cat shows me pictures from last year’s experiential journey.
“This is one of the students. She decided that playing on the sand pile near the tepee was a lot of fun…You can see she’s having a really good time. This was a stressed-out student; this is no longer a stressed-out student.”
It seems that following Aboriginal teachings can calm you down, relax you. I leave his office feeling more aware, more enlightened, less ignorant. I feel I have barely scratched the surface of understanding what it means to be Aboriginal, what it means to live in balance with all creation and respect all living things.
Their philosophies and spiritualities are obviously worth taking note of. I decide I’m going to spread the word by writing this article, and come back to learn more.