Spirit Lavallee is a teacher, youth mentor, and mother of six living in the unceded Coast Salish territory of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. She is Cree and Metis on her mother’s side and Wet’suwet’en on her father’s side.
Spirit’s passion for education began at 18, when she was faced with the realization that her public school had failed to teach her essential content, and in some cases had even given her misinformation pertaining to First Nations. After being introduced to the Native Youth Movement, she began to re-educate herself through a new lens. “I never had the articulation to know that what I learned in school was wrong. There was no First Nations or Indigenous content in Social Studies or English back then. I knew what I was learning was wrong, but I didn’t have the words or the vocabulary or the philosophies to understand why or how it was wrong. That really opened my eyes….I needed to relearn everything.”
She went on to College and then University, where she hoped to learn how to affect policy and “change the system from within.” She developed a concept she named “Necessary Resistance” and hoped to eventually start her own school.
While she struggled with some aspects of her studies (“Math was really difficult for me”), through her programme Spirit became involved with an Indigenous alternative school. She continues to work there today, pursuing her dream to educate primarily Indigenous youth on issues and history that is often neglected in mainstream public schools.
When reflecting on the challenges she has faced along the way to her goal, Spirit is matter-of-fact, even when revealing the obstacles she overcame (any one of which might have blocked other from persevering):
“My last semester [of college] I was pregnant, so I had my son just prior to my big community education project.” Did that stop Spirit? Hardly! “So, he came with me to classes.”
Spirit also battled cancer during those years. “I had made the choice to not stop school while I was doing cancer treatments…. I was exhausted and its was hard, but I had a really good support system with my family.”
And like many, Spirit battled mental health challenges, including depression. But in her uniquely “spirited” way, she never let it stand in her way: “I went against all the advice of my doctors to step back from education. I knew that if I didn’t have something to distract me and to give me hope at the end of it, I might not have finished.”
Not all of the obstacles Spirit faced were internal, either. Even from her most compassionate or empathetic professors, Spirit faced “systemic racism.” She explains, “I would always get tokenized. So, even though it wasn’t outright blatant racism in all of the classes, I kept getting, ‘So Spirit, you’re Indigenous, what do they think about this?’ First, I am there to learn, too. And second, I’m an urban Indigenous person whose family has been displaced and disconnected from our home territories, out language, and our culture, so not only can I not speak for all Indigenous people, I can barely speak for myself.”
Spirit occasionally experiences this tokenism in her work, too. “I get toted around, ‘Here’s our Indigenous teacher and this is her Indigenous programme,’ [even] when I work in a team of very experienced people that are much more involved in the community than I have been.”
When sharing some of the wisdom she has gained from her vast experience, Spirit advises all young people to remember: “Things don’t necessarily get easier or go away, but you learn how to cope with them and you get stronger from those things that were challenging.”
Spirit also had wise words specifically for Indigenous youth seeking to spread their wings beyond their reserve community, “I would encourage you not to leave that behind. That’s your strength and that’s what has made you into the person you are today. So if you venture outside your community, stay connected.”
Special thanks to Jessica Dee Humphreys for authoring this blog post.
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