Hanwakan Blaikie Whitecloud

Hanwakan Blaikie Whitecloud is a filmmaker (and passionate skateboarder) from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. His latest documentary, Star People, examines Indigenous views on the stellar origins of human beings. Whitecloud explains: “a lot of the makeup of stars, like iron or carbon and different atoms and molecules that are in the stars, are in us. So in that sense we are stars, right? And we come from a mother star, which is the Earth.”

Such beautiful and dynamic imagery speaks to Whitecloud’s seemingly limitless energy and creativity. But it wasn’t always easy for him to explore that side of himself. Whitecloud’s early years were burdened by expectations of conformity to a system that “looked down upon Indigenous people.”

“We’re finally getting to a place where we’re staring to not be like that, but” he recalls, “when I was growing up it was not a good thing to be Indigenous.”

Despite his parents being fiercely proud Indigenous people and trying to instill that pride in him, Whitecloud felt that actually worked against him at his mostly-non-Indigenous school. “I always had super Native t-shirts on and that probably wasn’t a good idea at the time. My dad was always like, ‘Just be proud.’ But it really put a target on my back, and I got bullied quite a bit.”

Feeling he didn’t belong or fit in made for lonely school years for Whitecloud, who also struggled with the formal, academic side of school all through elementary and high school. Despite poor grades and active discouragement from teachers, guidance councillors, even the employer at his part-time job, Whitecloud was determined to go to university.

“The people who hired me kept putting me on full-time shifts. And I was like, ‘I need to go part-time because I’ve got to graduate high school.’ and they were like ‘No, you should work full time,’ and they just kept scheduling me. I was like, ‘No, no, I got to graduate,’ and they were like, ‘Nah, don’t worry about that.’ And I was like, ‘That’s it, I quit!’ Because I’m going to graduate high school and I’m going to go to University. And it just felt like they didn’t believe in me.”

Whitecloud explains that what he was experiencing was systemic racism: “They looked at me like I was an ‘other’, like I didn’t belong and so they didn’t believe I could fully integrate with the system, that I could be successful.”

This attitude, which Whitecloud faced throughout his young life, informed his poor self-esteem. “If people don’t think that you’re ever going to be successful, you in turn start believing that you’re never going to be successful, and so then you have to battle that. And battling that is a really tough one because sometimes you believe you’re not worthy of things like scholarships or opportunities.”

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Illustration by Shaikara David

Without many role models, Whitecloud tirelessly pushed to fit in to the system that surrounded him. He persevered through school, working part-time jobs until midnight each night before a short sleep and returning to classes in the mornings. He worked in call centres (where he learned valuable interviewing skills), he delivered mail for Canada Post (where he learned that keeping moving and interacting with people were how he thrived), and he worked his way through the Winnipeg Public Library system. It was there that he was convinced that sticking with “the system” and following the rules would guarantee his employment and success.

However, “when I graduated University, I applied for over a hundred jobs and I only got called back for two, one for a sewer maintenance worker and something else like a clerk. And I was totally destroyed initially because I was like, ‘Whoa, I did everything right.’ I went to school, I went to University, and I haven’t got in trouble with the law. I’ve been a good person, but I was never rewarded properly. Or at least I felt like I wasn’t.”

Whitecloud was shocked to discover that his attempts to fit in had failed him. But as an adult, he recognizes some key realities: “In this current moment when I look back on my life, I’m like, oh, that totally makes sense, because we still have a lot of systemic racism.” Also, it wasn’t until he was an adult that Whitecloud was finally diagnosed as having ADHD (a diagnosis which, if it had come earlier, would have likely improved his academic experience exponentially). And, he received counseling to address his feelings of low self-esteem.

“I started going to counseling right around the time I was diagnosed with ADHD, and talking out self-doubt questions in my head with somebody who I felt safe to do so with really helped.

“[My councellor] has been able to frame my life and how I’ve been behaving in certain situations that’s normal. It’s totally normal and it’s like those situations were not right, and people weren’t treating me right. It wasn’t about me being bad….I actually was a positive person. I just wasn’t perceived well in certain situations.”

With the insights afforded by both his counseling and his diagnosis, Whitecloud is able to forge his own path, instead of trying to accommodate the status quo. As an example, he now recognizes “the education system doesn’t really support youth in the way it should. We shouldn’t be sitting at desks all day.”

Once he was released from his mental shackles, Whitecloud found his path. “Being physically active is huge. That’s why skateboarding is so huge to me, because it was always being outside, and always meeting different people, and also having fun!

“I had a boss [who told me], ‘If you’re having fun, I don’t think you are doing your job.’ And I started to think about that. I was like, ‘Is that true?’ But the more you talk to other people, the more it’s like, no, no, no, that’s wrong. That’s not right, that’s unhealthy. That is a really unhealthy way to look at life.”

Finding the “fun” in life and in work was actually what motivated Whitecloud to enter filmmaking. “Every project is fun. Because travelling with people is fun, meeting new people is fun, and just trying to get different angles and create a story, all that I found very fun.”

Skateboarding was Whitecloud’s original “focus for fun” where he discovered filming while skating to find those perfect shots. “We started using video cameras and photos, and from there I just kept doing that and eventually it was ‘Oh, I want to make professional stuff.’”

Since making these discoveries, Hanwakan Blaikie Whitecloud has travelled from New York to Nunavut to Newfoundland filming his documentaries, skateboarding as he goes. His overcoming obstacles to discover his true worth and view the world through his own unique lens (both figurative and literal) is an inspiration to us all.

Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.

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