January 17th International Mentor Day
January is Mentoring Month and today is International Mentor Day. I asked guest writer, Helen Knott, to share her experience with mentorship. Her piece below highlights the importance of mentorship, within our Indigenous communities, and how mentors can come in the form of our family members, traditional healers, and Elders, a person that we admire in our community, or a public figure that we’ve never met.
During my interview process with 20 Indigenous women from across Canada on the Women Warriors podcast I learned that each of these women rose to success with help. Most guests credit the strong female role models in their lives, like their Mothers, Aunties or Kohkoms for teaching them to rise above the circumstances in their lives and persevere. These interviews reminded me that mentors are important to help us become the best versions of ourselves and that we all need someone to believe in us.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s novel, Braiding Sweetgrass (which I highly recommend you read) she shares the stories of reciprocity between nature and people, and how we can translate these teaching into relationships; reciprocal relationships are the foundation of Indigenous communities. The Chapter titled, Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teaching of Grass, she states, “With their tobacco and their thanks, our people say to the Sweetgrass, “I need you.” By its renewal after picking, the grass says to the people, “I need you, too.” Mishkos kenomagwen. Isn’t this the lesson of grass? Through reciprocity, the gift is replenished. All of our flourishing is mutual.”
There is mutual benefit in the mentor-mentee relationship and it brings the gift of positive impact to the entire community. If you have someone in mind that would be a great mentor for you, ask them. You are not putting them out, or being a burden. I must advise if this person has a demanding job or valuable skills, be mindful of the time you ask for and be respectful of every minute they give you. Some mentors have more time than others to teach, and some mentees don’t need much time. Decide together what this relationship looks like and set boundaries/expectations.
I’ve had many mentors in my life and I’d like to share three different relationships:
1) Family. I am blessed to be guided by my dad, a Metis politician in Yellowknife. His form of mentorship is through storytelling. He has a mind like a steel-trap – he recalls in great details the stories about his and he’s an excellent storyteller. Last time I visited Yellowknife we sat at the Gold Range Bistro for three hours while he shared stories of the North. There’s always lots of laughter and some interesting insights on human behavior. We talk about a wide range of topics from the characters of Yellowknife like Margaret Thrasher almost-mayor story (listen here), or his early school years in Inuvik. It is with certainty that we talk Metis politics and strategies of resistance via lawsuits.
2) Public Figure. I personally admire Pam Palmater and I subscribe to her Youtube channel, “State of the Nations.” She shares her opinion on all things Indigenous. I like her no-bullshit delivery and the hard truth and facts she states that expose the Canadian’s government oppression of Indigenous peoples through policy and systemic racism. She challenges my beliefs and makes me question the intent of systems and people – a great mentor will never give you the answer, but ask you to look deeper into the problem. Moreover, it took her many years of academic learning and life experience to be able to develop these insights, and she’s gifting them to me for free!
3) Elder. Using proper protocol I asked an Elder to guide my questions for guests on the second season of the Women Warriors podcast. I felt it was appropriate to ask for help from an Elder since the theme of healing was a sensitive topic and I did not want to overstep my boundaries on traditional teachings.
The commonality between all these mentors is they have my best interest at heart. They will tell me the truth, regardless if it hurts my feelings or I disagree with them because they want me to succeed. They are also there for the dark nights of the soul when you feel done with life, to tell you that bad times pass, and they help you believe there’s a greater force at work. They keep faith when you have none. Finally, nothing is sweeter than sharing success with someone that has helped you grow into that success. They remind you that success is a group effort and that humility and giving back are at the foundation of it.
Having had the benefit of many mentors, and knowing their valuable contributions to my life, I’ve decided to focus on cultivating a network of Indigenous mentors that can provide my audience with insights on mentorship. I have asked Indigenous leader and professionals from a variety of backgrounds, from non-profit, the arts, academia, and politics, to answer the same seven questions regarding their own experience with mentorship. I’ll be featuring these profiles in the upcoming newsletters. If you would like to contribute a profile please contact me via email and I will send you the questions. Shelley@womenwarriors.club
Please use these twitter hashtags if you are quoting this newsletter or want to contribute thoughts on mentorship.
#MentoringIRL (In Real LIfe)
by Helen Knott
I was twenty-two when I first started to contemplate finding a formal mentorship. The concept was a little foreign to me, which is funny because the concept of mentorship exists within Indigenous communities but in an informal unnamed capacity. Mentors take the form of our mothers, fathers, aunties, our adopted aunties, our sisters, our spiritual teachers, our grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, and even our best friend’s aunties or our sister’s second cousin’s girlfriend who lives in town. Cha, just kidding on that last one… but you never know.
Some of these “mentorships” may be in a more formal capacity where tobacco or gifts are given, advice is sought, and/or a more formal cultural knowledge transference takes place over time. The point is that we had societies and roles that were based in active mentorship.
I didn’t know how to go about getting a “mentor” but I had read a self-improvement book at that time that highly suggested one. “Okay, Helen. Mentorship is needed, this book says successful people have them. I don’t know how these people in this book went about getting them but just bite the bullet and get it done,” I told myself as I tried to get over the awkwardness of stepping out of my comfort zone as a young Indigenous woman fumbling over Western steps towards the obtainment of “success”. I mustered up the courage to approach a Nehiyaw woman named Connie Greyeyes that I admired. At a community event I stood beside her and I just asked her point blank, “Hey uh, so, I umm…was wonder if you would be like… a mentor to me?”
The worse she could say was no right?
“Yes, I would love to be your mentor!” she exclaimed.
I smiled. She smiled. We hugged.
It was never made formal with routine or structure but it helped knowing I had her in my corner. Whenever I needed advice I could, and still can to this day, seek her out for a conversation or a quick coffee. If ever I am feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or need the help to say “no” to something she is always there to give me a pep talk and speak from her own experience. As I have grown in a professional and leadership capacity over the years, I have been able to be that place for her as well. A space has opened up in my life to give back from, and this space was not made possible without her and countless other informal mentors that I have had in my life.
I believe we should all seek out a variety of mentors because we are not one-dimensional people. We have to be able to feed and balance all aspects of ourselves. The mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Thus, we need teachers for all of these aspects so that we are reminded to grow holistically as a complete being.
I am thirty years old now and still have the need for informal and formal mentors in my life. I have grown in so many ways but the key to continual growth is humility and understanding that other people ALWAYS have something to offer. At this stage, I have personally have been wanting to give my knowledge and insights to young women, much like my mentors have done for me. I understand now why she was so eager to say yes to me so many years ago, it is because there is still a lot of work to be done and we are stronger as a people if we choose to lift others up. Our younger generations are our future.
If you’re looking for a mentor or have been wanting one don’t be afraid to ask and definitely don’t be afraid of not knowing how to approach it. You can always follow my “point blank, sink-or-swim” model, complete with awkward stammers if need be. If you can’t think of anyone you want to ask, then pray on it and ask for those teachers to come into your life and trust that they will in due time.
You can listen to the Women Warriors podcast interview with Helen on the website.
EP07 Helen Knott on Accidental Activism, Politics & Healing Addiction
Helen’s first book will be published 2019 by the University of Regina Press. I’ll keep you updated on where to purchase a copy.