Tiger Lily, Tales and Triumphs: Writing a Story of Hope for Indigenous Youth
“I've always wanted to write. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to write stories. I've always had, this imagination,” Jill Featherstone remarks. Featherstone is from Misipawistik Cree Nation, a small reserve in the centre of Manitoba. She’s the author of a book called The Tale of Tiger Lily, a university professor and business owner of Featherstone Support Services. She offers motivational workshops to help young people get motivated to go back to school, chase their dreams, and believe in themselves. It’s a lesson she had to learn for herself, after her gift for writing started to get her in trouble at school.
“The teachers would accuse me of plagiarism all the time. I got almost got kicked out of university four times,” she continues, remembering how people pre-judged her as a “little brown girl from the North”, thinking she didn’t have it in her to write. She came up with the idea for her book in her twenties, started writing it in her thirties and finished her book at 40. She struggled to see herself as a writer, but she also never imagined she would become a teacher.
“I really hung on to that dream I had when I was a little girl. I had this story growing inside me and it was getting louder and louder and louder.”
A troubled kid, Featherstone was kicked out of high school. She wanted to become a social worker or a child psychologist so she could help young people. A year later, she didn't want to go back so she worked as an educational assistant in her home community, then took a teaching program at a smaller university. She pursued a master's degree in guidance and counseling, then applied to be a professor. While she was proud of that achievement, she still felt the calling to help youth, and she started her business.
“When you're in the north, they tell you when you graduate, you’ve got to go move to the city to go get educated”
As a teenager, she suffered from depression but was supported by psychologists and counsellors. She wanted to help young people like they do, but knew that meant moving to the city where she would struggle with culture shock, finding housing, childcare, and navigating the transit system.
Her advice for youth thinking of leaving their community to pursue opportunities is not to procrastinate and just take that leap.
She stayed on a friend’s couch as a student until she got into housing, calling daily until she got a place, something she suggests youth do to get bumped up on the list. and to not have shame in asking for what they need. She also suggests connecting with services for Indigenous people, taking advantage of the resources they have and connecting with people with a common background. The group of girls she connected with as a small town girl who was feeling lost are still her friends.
“I thought, what the heck? People are always afraid to apply for these big jobs. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, might as well just throw my name in the hat.”
Featherstone created a program called Awaken the Spirit and took it into reserves all over the prairies. She saw how youth would lose motivation after completing programs and wanted to help them build the skills they need to stay motivated and be brave enough to have big dreams and chase them. In her own life, she didn’t always feel she had permission to have big dreams and felt discouraged and even mocked by people in her life.
“People would tell me laugh at me and tell me to get my head out of the clouds, basically. Why don't you just focus on your job? Why can't you just be happy with what you have?”
That’s why she didn’t tell anyone but her daughter she was writing her book. She wrote it for her teenage self and she had to connect with that person she once was to write it. Featherstone would drive out to the lake, park in her truck and write for hours, uninterrupted and out of cell service. “I needed to be disconnected from the world, to sit with the story and nothing else and not worry about other people, just me and the characters,” she explains.
“That's what kept me going, connecting with that youthful spirit that thinks anything is possible, and still has those really big dreams.”
Over the pandemic, she finished the book, while her husband cared for the kids. The result was a story that touched the hearts of people of all ages. It is a coming of age novel was based on Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, following her journey of love, loss and leadership as well as the devastation of colonization.
“Even when I was writing my book, sometimes I would think, ‘Who the heck do I think I am, that I could write this?’ “
Beyond the bureaucracy and logistics of making her dreams come true, she also had to overcome her own limiting beliefs and lateral violence in her community. Therapy and the strategies she developed to believe in herself and reject criticism helped her do that. Putting a book into the world overwhelmed her with self-doubt and fear of offending people. She focused on the people she thought she could help with her words. Publishing her story was life-changing.
“That was a really defining moment, because when I found that courage, and I let it out into the world, the love that I got back, I never, ever expected in a million years.”
These days she struggles not to take on too much, given she has kids and grandkids, a full time job, a business and her writing paractice. She’s trying to stay healthy and hydrated after neglecting her wellness and morning walks spent listening to a book or podcast keep her motivated. Featherstone knows caring for her physical health supports her mental health. She builds herself up with affirmations and looks to find balance so she can show up the way she wants to in the world. While she struggles with meditating, she asks the Creator for inspiration and motivation.
The question in the back of her mind has always been, “how can I help?” and in asking that question, she’s been pushed onto a path of finding answers so she can do just that: help people. Jill Featherstone is putting the imagination that makes her a brilliant writer to work and helping youth write their next chapter. Professors might have once seen her as “a little brown girl from the north”, but she’s showing everyone just what she can do as an author, professor, entrepreneur, and turning the page on preconceptions.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.