Now & Then: Dorothy Kennedy Wassegijig

Dorothy and her family.

Dorothy Kennedy Wassegijig

By her gentle demeanour and her clear concern for others, it is clear that Dorothy Kennedy Wassegijig is a ‘people person’ who gets a lot of strength from her faith. She has worked at several helping professions over the years. She enjoys the satisfaction her clients achieve when they regain their balance of life’s forces and move back into their chosen path. She has achieved a keen understanding of her Anishinaabe clients of all ages, through education and a lot of research. A physical equilibrium achieved with a combination of traditional and mainstream approaches further enhances this understanding. “I thank the Creator, ‘Miigwetch for this day’ and I smudge on a regular basis. As a child I spent many hours in the woods, often falling asleep under cedar trees and I still feel a strong connection with cedar medicine in particular.” 

“My maternal grandparents are Josephine (Osawabine) and John Fox Jr. Josephine was a homemaker and farmer with her husband, John. Grandfather was on council and he was one of the few owners of a vehicle. They had eight children, and Georgina Marguerite (Margaret), my mother, was the oldest. The others are Paul, Thomas, Dominic, Mary, Ida, Lloyd and Edward. I saw mum’s side of the family quite often.” 

“Paternal grandparents are Ralph and Catherine (Mandamin) Wassegijig. Catherine died when my dad was just a boy, so I never knew her. Dad’s siblings were good, contributing, community members. Their children were Lawrence (my dad), David, Victoria, Peggy, Valentine and Allen, known as ‘Echo’. Grandfather Ralph lived in the States for quite a while. He was older when he came back to the reserve and he moved into the nursing home. My Dad died at 58. To my young eyes, he seemed quite old, but now, I see that he wasn’t old when he died.”

“Aunt Victoria was a well-known elder. She was resourceful, a talented craft-maker who fashioned beautiful quill baskets. She died in her 80s. Uncle Valentine worked hard in construction, building many houses in Wiky. Uncle Echo worked for Andy’s driving the backhoe. He was one of the first to operate this big machine, so people called him as ‘Backhoe.’ He would dig foundations for houses, trenches for pipes, and graves when needed. He was known for his cheerful personality and good humour.”

A young Dorothy.

“When my parents got married, dad purchased a log house and moved it to the outskirts of town. Now it’s right in town. I was born on December 28, 1956. My dad had to shovel the snow from his long driveway so mother could get to the hospital in Manitowaning. Mother was a strong stabilizing force in our family, and I had a good childhood.”

My siblings are Harvey, Frank, Helen and Colleen. Before Harvey died, he worked for a transportation company called Steamship, near the Toronto docks. Frank is retired. He was a residential counsellor for ‘Nameres,’ a Native men’s residence. Helen teaches language and fine arts in Middle School in Minnesota. Colleen lives in Wiky and runs the LDM, Local Development Mechanism, partnering with the Wiky Development Commission. She oversees the training of community workers, acquiring skills for their jobs, on and off the reserve.” 

“Mother was an excellent cook, making nutritious, tasty meals on a wood stove from just a few items available to her. In the summer, we had a big vegetable garden which father reigned over. He grew potatoes, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and more. During the cold season, these would be kept in a storage area dug into the side of a hill. We didn’t have a fridge. Items were also kept cool in a well, supplied by a stream running through the property. You could keep butter cool at the very bottom of the well. In winter, we were warmed by a wood stove.”

“Dad always kept a colourful flower garden in front of our log home on Willow Street. Mother made crafts, mostly with birch bark and sweet grass, teaching us as she worked. Finished items were sold and the money went to buy items from the catalogue, like coats and boots for us. The family allowance was the only other cash mother got each month.” 

“Early memories are mostly centered around being alone outside. Occasionally a neighbour girl would come over. Darkness was our only curfew. In winter, I walked to school on huge snow drifts that came close to touching the hydro lines and I skated on the back pond. There was no plow, only a grader. I was never afraid of being lost or being alone outside, often under the cedar trees in summer. My strong relationship with cedar was begun and strengthened at this time.” 

“‘Baby class’, or Kindergarten is a vivid memory because I spent only one day there with Mrs. Erickson, the teacher from Cape Croker. I was transferred to Grade 1 a day later. From that time on, we were encouraged to speak English, and we were punished for using our language. We had to sit in the corner for hours and the black strap was a daily occurrence. Grades 1 and 2 were held at several places, the Youth Centre, Murray Hill and Kaboni. Grade 3 was in the church at Buzwah. For Grade 4, I attended the new school which became known as ‘Kateri Tekakwitha.’

“Being bullied by other kids in the early grades was not unusual. There were always some kids in the community expressing this form of violence to other kids, especially on the school bus. Sometimes a boy would threaten me, but I could bribe him with a bit of food like a fruit that I would say I would bring tomorrow. By then he had usually forgotten all about it. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until Grade 4, when we started at the new school, that I felt discrimination for the first time. There was a lot of power and control expressed by the teachers. Seeing all this bullying is where I learned my street smarts.”

“At high school in West Bay (M’Chigeeng), I remember two hours on the bus for four years, coming to and from the reserve each day. I enjoyed learning and did not experience any discrimination there, but I did see our Wiky kids centered out. My daughter shared with me that she also experienced some of this prejudice at the high school.” 

“Generally, school was a good place to be, but history lessons were restricted to European History. I was always inquisitive and thus would find Native leaders as a focus for school projects. After an introduction to Anishinaabe history, I was compelled to learn more about my own people.”

Wedding Day

Dorothy left the reserve in 1975, at age 18 and attended Mohawk College in Hamilton. “I took communication arts, with the goal of being a writer. Creative writing would allow me to paint a picture with words. It was a three-year course, but I had to leave after a year because our father was sick. I would be spending more time helping at home and so transferred to a shorter program at Sheridan College in Oakville enrolling in photography, a two-year course.” 

Dad died in 1976. I tried to return to Sheridan College, but I was too far behind. I decided to apply for a full-time job as a field worker for a children’s program, Ahbenoojeyug, in Toronto. I was 19 and for two years I was happily matching children with Anishinaabe ‘big brothers and sisters’ in the city. It was very satisfying work, and I am proud to share that some of these partnerships are still active today.”

“In 1978, mother had a house built in town. She now owned a fridge and stove but her health was beginning to fail. I came home to be a companion for her. My sister Colleen had been fulfilling this role and it was my turn. I was able to enroll in the local Wasse Abin program held in the building presently occupied by Day Star. It was a transition program for college or university and had a good success rate.” 

Two years later, Dorothy applied to London’s Western University for the sociology program with the goal of being a social worker. “The first year, I just worked hard and kept to myself. Year two was different. I joined the Native Students Association and met some new people. I discovered that being fluent in our Anishinaabe language was a rarity here. I was still in my second year when I was asked to teach Anishinaabe language.”

Dorothy met David Kennedy of the Oneida Settlement that same year and in time they were wed. Dorothy continued with her studies and in due course, she found out she was expecting. When Dorothy graduated in 1983, little Sarah was six months old. “I was sent to Thunder Bay by the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation in London. In time I eventually achieved my Ministry of Education credentials to teach at any school level.”

When Dorothy and her family returned to London, she found work at two high schools, Beal Secondary and Saunders Secondary Schools. “In 1982, there were no resources for teaching the language. We had to develop our own props and materials, but we did have a tape recorder and a ghetto blaster. We made our own tapes and played them on the blaster.” Kara and later David were added to the family.

“Finding creative ways to teach the language was important if we wanted a high level of success. We made up dancing tapes in our language and found the students really liked learning the dance motions with the Anishinaabe language which was also very visual.” Dorothy designed both a bingo game and a food game, ‘miijim’ which taught participants the names of various fruits and vegetables. The food items became prizes afterwards. The kids liked this approach very much.”

Dorothy also taught some elementary classes at the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation. “This was a bit more challenging as I found little visitors coming to me and sharing their experiences at home. Instability in the home from substance abuse impacted on these little people and began to discourage and traumatize me.” 

Dorothy started to look for training to understand family violence and abuse better. She found a program that would help her learn from her students. ‘Nokiikwe’ (working woman) was a program that helped women recover from abuse and family violence. Dorothy began to understand how she could deal with traumatic issues at this level. These community-based programs were just beginning to appear, and people were starting to talk about violence and abuse which had previously not seen the light of day. “It took me a while to fully understand all the implications and the ways of helping and healing.” 

Western graduate

In 1990, a career change had Dorothy working as a residential counsellor at a new Native Women’s shelter in London. She chose the name for the centre, Zhaawanong (a place of nurturing). It faced south which was the appropriate choice for healing and It would be part of a bigger organization, Atenlos (family violence). People were taught that they could start from a bad place, be hurting, come here and then begin to heal and feel better.

“I always felt that I was ‘fresh from the bush’ coming to an urban area, studying, having a family, and persistently learning to do my job more efficiently and effectively. However, positions were opening up for me. I was a residential counsellor with a degree in sociology from Western. I was part of an awakening program for family violence, and I was helping people to get better. It was very rewarding, and I never stopped learning from research and from the people I worked with or helped to get better.” 

“I was in my 30s when I found out what my clan was. When I asked my uncles, they laughed but did not say. I went to my aunt Victoria and her daughter Lina was home. She asked, ‘What animal were you afraid of when you were a little girl?’ The bear, I answered. ‘Then Makwa is your clan,’ she responded. After that, I adopted the bear as my clan. I also got it confirmed by Jim Windigo, a medicine man from another community, when he came to our health centre. Makwa was my clan.”

“I found that incorporating cultural teachings, like clan and medicine wheel teachings, was beneficial for the young children. It was a knowledge they were hungering for. This alone seemed to be beneficial for the healing journal, but the personalized counselling made a difference too. I was working with children from day care to Grade 6 and they were eager to learn. There were also lots of opportunities for me to share experiences at conferences and learn from workshops being offered. I spent over 15 years studying psychodrama where a ‘tackle dummy,’ like punching bag, is part of the therapy. This practice also offers a unique perspective.”

In 1994, Dorothy’s mum became ill with cancer and Parkinsons. Wikwemikong had also experienced a series of suicides. Dorothy wanted to come home and help. In 1995 a unique new program funded by the provincial Aboriginal Healing and Wellness Strategy was offering a community-based program for persons who had experienced violence and sexual abuse. Dorothy saw the position being posted in the health centre. She applied for and accepted the position to run the new mental health program, Naandwedidaa (Let’s help heal one another). She ran this program for many years and helped a lot of participants move into a healthier space.

The Tony Martens survey completed that same year was geared at assessing health status of families on the reserve. The recent suicides and the results from this study offered a strong compulsion for Dorothy to help community members with their healing journey. By 2014, funding for this new program had stabilized with the Ministry of Social Services. Nookomisnaang (women’s shelter) was set up in the community. Dorothy worked there for her last year prior to retiring. In 2014, Dorothy was awarded a distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Union of Ontario Indians for contributing to the wellness and healing programs over the years.

“My children are doing well. Sarah has three children herself, Deeshawna, Kitana and Royce. Sarah attends school at Cambrian College. Kara graduated from the University of Ottawa Law School and is en route to her bar exam. David lives here in Wiky and attends the program at Community Living. My ex-husband David lives at the Oneida of the Thames settlement.”

“Favourite pets? We always had a dog and cat growing up. I have two cats now. Their names are Gaazhag (cat), and Gaazhgenhs (little cat). Favourite season? I like them all. Winter is for hibernation, thinking of the bear. Long nights. I think of my own healing with different medicine in the winter, including a cedar sponge bath and an infusion of Labrador tea from time to time. Water on the windowsill during a full moon is healing. Spring is for planting and for dancing at powwows with all the regalia and beadwork displayed. Summer is for harvesting, vegetables and sweetgrass. Fall is also for harvesting and preparing for winter.”

What do you enjoy doing now? “Presently I am studying an expressive arts therapy training program through Zoom. I am discovering my artistic abilities that had been dormant for many years. I am writing poetry, stories, drawing and painting to name a few. Upon graduation in July, I hope to be able to offer arts therapy in my work in healing or language learning. We have so many natural resources to utilize in our healing and recovery.” 

“What are my strengths? Creativity, counselling and being a good grandmother. I am my grandchildren’s Niima and I want to be here for them. Something I would still like to do? I would like to refine the craft work I have done over the years such as sweetgrass turtles, birch bark crafts, black ash basket making, sewing and making Anishinaabe dress regalia for our upcoming powwows. I love the cultural gatherings and powwows. It’s in my blood.”

“We have had three suicides since January the first this year. I am hoping to utilize my arts therapy once I am done my program. I can practice both traditional and mainstream therapies. I am open to facilitating healing programs such as the grief and loss, forgiveness journey and programs for multi-generational issues such as residential school trauma. My bond with the cedar trees continues to give me the strength and protection. I feel I have always fit in as an Indigenous woman in a way that allowed me to help others.”

“We are still processing the effects of colonization such as racism, depression, anxiety and other disorders. It’s essential to continue to lift each other up each day. There is so much do. Our language programs, ceremonies and healing lodges are needed more than ever. It is a time of great awakening. Major shifts are occurring during this time of a global pandemic.” 

Regrets? “I regret that I did not collect as many crafts over the years. Sometimes I wish I could assist in a development of a centre of excellence which would house our arts and crafts while we still have our craft makers, and we could use this centre for teaching, learning and continuance to benefit the next seven generations.”

Dorothy poses with her lifetime achievement award.

“I am truly appreciating this opportunity to enrich my knowledge of medicines, stories, and ways of self care with everything we have here. Manitoulin is that transcendent, mystical place for me. We are lucky to have fresh water all around us. I have participated in many water walks that provide a healing energy. This island is a safe place to be, a haven. Here we are safeguarded, spared the brutality seen in other parts of the world. Lastly, this place is simply my home and I am very happiest here.”