Inspiration in Indigenous Education: Marika Schalla's Lesson in Resilience
“Who knew nine years later, I'd be sitting here, a teacher, helper, a leader in Indigenous education in my community?” Marika Schalla reflects on her journey from student, to teacher and student again, marveling at how far she’s come. An Anishnaabe and Red River Metis woman, her spirit name is White Cloud Woman. She’s a member of the Deer clan, and was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End. She is mother to two sons and is a teacher and a curriculum developer provincially and nationally.
Schalla’s grade one and two classroom at an Indigenous cultural school focuses on cultural teachings and language revitalization. She was also the co author for the first Fireside Chat Teacher's Guide, connecting culture and language with the lives of the participants. She went beyond what was shared in the interviews to help students watching find their passions, like she does for her own students every day.
“I wish I had the chance to share more about my culture with my class. I did not speak my truth and I do not want other Indigenous children to go through the same.
Growing up, she knew of her Metis heritage but only learned of her Anishnaabe lineage later in life. Stigma kept her family from talking about it. Many of her teachers did not know much about Indigenous people and she regrets not sharing more with her classmates. She missed a lot of school in grade ten due to mental health challenges and had her first son before she ultimately graduated with honours. Her son’s father, now her husband, graduated with her at 16. She went back to upgrade and continue her education to provide a better future for her son.
“I did not want him to grow up like I did. Even though I grew up with lots of love. The intergenerational trauma was very strong when I was growing up and I knew I needed to work to give my son the best chance.”
A special teacher helped her find her career path when she said, “Marika, I think you're meant to be a teacher as well.” She applied to the University of Winnipeg, receiving a scholarship and acceptance into the integrated Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Education program. Her advice for aspiring Indigenous teachers is, “Please do it. We need representation in our education systems. I need some people to help work with me in Indigenous education.”
Schalla worked hard to get where she is now and overcame many trials. She is pursuing graduate studies on Indigenous knowledge and Truth and Reconciliation while learning her languages she missed out on as a child. When she was growing up, Schalla’s father had a stroke and she had to grow up quickly. Becoming a parent of her own son young, she and her husband worked odd jobs to juggle school, child care costs and household budget. Endometriosis resulted in three pregnancy losses before she had her second son.
All of that trauma resulted in PTSD. Still, Schalla presses on. She copes through smudging and ceremony, connecting to community and with medicine wheel teachings and knowing when to ask for help from family and friends. “It's been super hard working on myself while also trying to be this force in Indigenous education, and for my children and try to be the strong, resilient Indigenous woman that I portray myself to be when I'm also trying to fight my own mental health issues, trying to be better and trying to feel good about my body,” she reflects.
“One big thing trying to balance my mental health and my wellbeing was knowing that I can't do it all.”
If she could give advice to her younger self she says, “I would tell my younger self that you are important. I would tell myself that all the trauma, the hardships, the barriers, your face will be worth it through the work that you do and through your beautiful children, that you will get to meet so many young Indigenous children just like you in the future, who will flourish and find love safety, belonging and identity with you as their teacher. You will be that teacher you needed when you were younger.”
Schalla is inspired by her kids, explaining, “My children helped me to hold myself accountable for my actions, strive for the greatness that I deserve and to work hard because I'm responsible for their foundation.” She’s also inspired by her students, musing about how great it is, “To have all those beautiful Indigenous children that I'm teaching, and seeing the love, and the growth that they have this year, and it's astronomical, their smiling faces, their daily ‘I love you’s.”
She takes that inspiration and does the work that she hopes will inspire others. “I'm so grateful to be able to share my story, and hopefully inspire other Indigenous children to achieve greatness one day, and to know they can do it. You can do it no matter the obstacles you face. I know the setbacks. I know the hardships, the financial struggles. I've been there. I've been hustling since I was 16 years old to try to get where I am today. But you are so important, and you can do it,” she encourages.
Now a teacher, helper, a leader in Indigenous education in her community, Marika Schalla has risen above life’s challenges to find her place: at the front her classroom teaching, in her graduate studies cohort learning, and in the arms of her children, loving. In nine years, everything has changed for the better and the work she does every day helps the rest of the world change for the better too.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for writing 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.