Kristen Tootoosis

Supporting and Teaching Young Minds: Educator and Clinician Kristen Tootoosis on Learning and Healing

“I love connecting with people, connecting with students, seeing them grow, seeing them achieve goals,” beams Kristen Tootoosis who is from Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation. A mother of three, she started her career as an educator. Now, she teaches teachers as the Director of Mental Health Services with the Treaty Education Alliance, supporting them and students with their mental wellness. Outside of the classroom, Tootoosis dances powwow as a jingle dress dancer. She creates beadwork, outfits, jingle dresses and she’s a seamstress.  

Raised by her grandmother since she was an infant, Tootoosis grew up around poverty, addiction and trauma around her. School wasn’t a priority given the challenges she faced. A couple good teachers inspired her career path. “They saw me as an amazing child. That's what I felt like. That really boosted my self esteem, my self confidence. They gave compliments. They told me I was smart. I just had a connection with them…I felt the impact that it made on me… I had those good connections, I had a good role model. I must have been about 15 years old when I decided ‘okay, I want to be a teacher. I want to be able to support students and be that person for them, that person that's happy to see them when they walk in the door to the classroom. I want to be that that support person because I know what it's like to go through a lot of hardships in childhood and teenage years.’" she recalls. 

She continued on to university and pursued a degree in education, though she didn’t feel like she belonged there. “I realized that these education systems, they really do teach education in a way that's not, it's not a really good fit for us as Indigenous people. At that time, I just kind of went with it and did my best,” she remembers. 

Tootoosis had financial worries and a baby she would bring to class, but she also had the encouragement of her grandmothers and their wisdom telling her things would be okay, though they would be hard. They encouraged her to plan, to push through and stay focused. Listening to her struggles, they supported her.

She loved teaching but wanted more mental health training recognizing the challenges students face. Her Bachelor of Education degree had just one course and she wanted more. She took the Master’s of Educational Psychology program at the University of Regina and learned to do counseling and therapy support and that into lesson plans. 

She thought she would apply these skills to the classroom but life took a different turn. She ended up on a different but still rewarding career path. “I get to see people make better choices, one step at a time. I see the transformation in a person who can go from being in a really dark place where it almost feels sad and hopeless, and like there's nothing there right to almost flourishing and blooming… It's a beautiful transformation to see,” she explains.  

Illustration by Shaikara David

Just like in her undergraduate program, Tootoosis didn’t feel like she fit in, something she chalked up to university systems not built for Indigenous learners. What she’s seen since, though, is that’s changing. “There's a shift that's happening... Universities are becoming more inclusive with our culture... It's getting better,” she muses. 

Her advice for Indigenous students wanting to leave their home community to pursue education is to see what supports are available at the school, especially counselling supports. “I think everybody should at least check out a therapy or counseling session at least once in their life. Because I think it's so supportive, so helpful,” she urges, noting she’s in therapy herself, even as a therapist. Having private, confidential support is something she sees as helpful for people moving away from familiar settings and entering a time of transition. 

"I think everybody should at least check out a therapy or counseling session at least once in their life."

As a student, Tootoosis struggled with a lack of self awareness around her own triggers. Digging deeper, she was able to understand herself better. She also struggled financially, but selling beadwork, ribbon dresses, she found extra money for books and bills. “One thing my grandma passed on to me was the skills of beading, Indigenous womanhood, working hard, doing your best. These skills really helped me overcome those financial obstacles. She always used to say, ‘once you learn how to bead you'll never be without money, you'll always be able to provide for your family, you'll always be able to provide for yourself.’” That’s why she’s taught her own children those skills.  

Another obstacle Tootoosis faced was depression, which has come and gone throughout her life. She’s learned not to wait too long to get help because it doesn’t go away on its own and to turn to healthy coping mechanisms instead of unhealthy ones. Speaking to a therapist and doing beadwork are helpful as well as dancing powwow, working up a sweat until she is comfortable, happy, tired and sweaty. 

As a young person, she often wondered if she would ever feel comfortable and safe. If she could give her younger self advice it would be, “Reach out for a healthy connection.” A healthy connection she has now that she wishes she had earlier was with the land. That relationship became more established in her late twenties and now she connects with intention when she’s feeling down or needs to let go of something heavy.  

What she would like to say to Indigenous youth is, “You are phenomenal. You have strengths. Everybody has strengths. Think about what your strengths are. Focus on your strengths.” The strengths she points to aren’t technical skills but rather interpersonal skills like listening, making people comfortable, or feeling what other people feel. “Figure out what your gifts are, and really hone in on those, strengthen those and use those to the best of your ability. And stay with education. Sometimes we take breaks from our education, that's fine, always go back. Just go back when you feel better,” she continues. 

As a teen, Tootoosis thought she was alone in her struggles and that others weren’t experiencing what she was going through. Now as an adult, she knows that’s not the case and she shares her experiences so others feel less alone. Connecting with people, connecting with students, seeing them grow, seeing them achieve goals, Kristen Tootoosis is making a difference. Teaching what she has learned because teachers inspired her, life has come full circle and she’s inviting more people in.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Saskatchewan
  • Date
    May 27, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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