Indigenous man leads youth with research and Indigenous values

Kelley Bird-Naytowhow is the leader of a group of youth research assistants who go by the name Story Catchers or Many Thunderbirds Feasting. Although these youth are technically research assistants, Bird-Naytowhow and the youth prefer to call themselves Story Catchers as they look at their research project(s) from an Indigenous perspective. 

Bird-Naytowhow’s story and how he came to be the leader of Story Catchers begins at the sixties scoop. He was adopted by a white family in Ontario and grew up without his culture or any knowledge of who he was. As he grew older he began to ask more and more questions about where he came from and although his parents bought him and his younger brother Indigenous inspired toys, such as tomahawks, they weren’t able to educate him about his people’s history and so he began to search for his identity on his own, which began by moving back to Saskatchewan.

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“I ended up applying to First Nations University here in Saskatoon,” said Bird-Naytowhow. “I applied for a Indigenous social work degree. I figured that would become a win-win, not only would I get my education, but also get in touch with my culture and what this term ‘culture’ implies.”

Bird-Naytowhow did one term at Usask before applying to First Nations University where he had taken a Psychology 101 class and although he was taking a 101 class, he wasn’t afraid to question his professor and offer insight from an Indigenous perspective. This led him to a great opportunity.

“He (psychology professor) was always asking us questions about psychology and walking us through the terms and giving examples and I was constantly putting my hand my hand up,” said Bird-Nayhowtow. “At this point I have no problem giving the wrong answer or willing to put myself out there because if I don’t I’m not getting any closer to any responses, so I put my hand up a lot of times and my fellow students would stay quiet. And I was always sharing, “well, the Indigenous perspective we would see it this way or that way. We would approach it this way or that way.” And he was always kindly reminding me “This is psychology 101, it’s just basic. What you’re speaking of is down the road in terms of how psychology views things.” So, at the end of the semester, he ended up asking me, he offered me a job to be a research assistant.”

 Bird-Naytowhow’s professor was doing his post doctorate where he was creating a project called the Four Seasons of Resiliency.

 Although Bird-Naytowhow was honoured, he couldn’t help but wonder how he could be an asset to the project.

“So, I started working with him, I helped him create the framework of the Four Seasons of Resiliency, working with youth,” said Bird-Naytowhow. “It was a year-long project, it was a photo-voice project. So, his initial plan was to get the cameras, give it to the youth and send them out to take pictures of what they deem as resiliency, what helped them become resilient in their lives. And I shared with him, “Y’know, I love that, awesome. However, from an Indigenous perspective, are we able to capture all four seasons?” And why I share all four seasons is because if I were to give you a camera in the springtime and then give you a camera in the fall and then going in to winter and back into summer, you’re perspective of what’s resiliency will change. Because of the fact that the seasons themselves have the ability to teach you if you’re paying attention. And if we’re able to give them cameras all four seasons we’ll be able to gather ore thought, gather more insight from the youth. And so, I was helping him formulate the project and it was a beautiful project. We ended up going camping a couple times, we ended up going to ancient spirals for a weekend when we brought them together to ask them, we had all their photos up, and we were just asking them, “What do you see? What can you teach us about the photos?” We did one-on-one interviews and I was there to help instill those Indigenous methodologies.”

Bird-Naytowhow told his professor that they needed tobacco because his biological dad had told him that nothing happens without tobacco. And so, they brought tobacco into the project and told the youth that if they’re going to interview someone, they should offer tobacco to the interviewee, because when someone is sharing their story it’s a sacred expression. 

“That was an aspect of the research that I was able to put in and to walk with and share.” Said Bird-Naytowhow. “Just share what little I’ve come to learn about what it means to be Indigenous, with all those conflicts that society does throw at us.”

That project was about five years ago. Bird-Naytowhow and his professor worked together again and wrote a grant for a five-year research project working with youth with the idea to find out about leadership and mentorship and resiliency with youth. Bird-Naytowhow helped again to create a framework for that project. 

“The overall framework derived from a dreamcatcher,” said Bird-Naytowhow. “And I was sharing with Andrew (the professor) in terms of what the dreamcatcher can teach us. What those teachings are out there about the dreamcatcher, it’s about that spider catching its food within the web just to help sustain itself. And this is what grandmother spider can teach us, it’s how to sustain itself. Another aspect of it is, we would put these dreamcatchers in infants beds to capture those negative dreams and it would be in place in a windowsill, so when the morning comes and Grandfather Sun rises up in the east, they would dissolve or move or take care of that negative energy that’s been caught in that dreamcatcher. And so, I share with Andrew if we’re going to be asking the youths mentorship, leadership, and resiliency, well we have the ability to catch those stories. But then again, do we carry the right to catch someone’s story? And we have to ask those questions. What we’ve gone to learn as the rights of passages, have we gone through the rights of passages to catch someone’s story? And so, the answer is no. We have the ability to walk with the youth’s story and learn from them and allow them to teach us and teaching us is the food in the spider’s web.”

After that discussion they had approached youth they had worked with over the years. They shared with these youth their vision and asked the youth if they could see themselves working on this project.

The Story Catchers then went to Sandy Bay, where Bird-Naytowhow’s biological parents are from, as they decided they wanted to take a spiritual approach to their project. While there they all went to a sweat lodge to discover their group’s spirit name; Many Thunderbirds Feasting.

Bird-Naytowhow is not only leading a group of young research assistants and possibly getting them interested in research as a career, but he’s teaching them about life, about culture, who they are to their core with life lessons that they’ll carry with them throughout their journey from little elders (as Bird-Nayhowtow likes to call them) to elders.

“I could have picked some youth and brought them together, done this research project, created this positive environment, collected the interviews, collected the data, and then wipe my hands or wipe my shoulder off and say, ‘Yeah, I did my work and I did good work,’” Said Bird-Naytowhow. 

“But I’ve come to learn, whoa, slow down, what have I been taught in terms of my identity and now so my own story will come into the story of the Story Catchers. And as a site coordinator I’m not objectively in the site, but subjectively, my stories are coming into the team. My feelings, my thoughts are coming into the team. Not in terms of being that leader, but rather in terms of a collaboration, a synergetic energy, I’m working with it. If I’m asking them to tell their story, well I’m going to have to come to terms of, “What’s my own story? What were the hard times in my life? What were the negative times in my life? What did I learn about that?” One of your greatest teachings are your greatest defaults will become your greatest strengths, so your greatest mistakes will become your greatest strengths, IF you take the time to understand what did you trip over?”

Bird-Naytowhow encourages the youth to question him if they feel like he may be wrong or if they just question what he’s sharing. 

“I even share with the youth as part of those team dynamics, ‘If you can’t question what I’m sharing with you, then what are we doing in terms of learning? I want to learn from you guys, too. And I don’t want to share all the information just from me, I want to learn from you guys, but you’re going to have to ask questions. I’m only as good as you guys let me be. So, if you’re not talking, how do I know where the team needs to go?’” 


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