It was a lesson in Indigenous spirituality, healing plants and self-care tools to navigate the pandemic, as Ojibwe Anishinaabe Elder Shelley Charles joined Grade 12 students in their Theory of Knowledge class on January 13.
“Your teachers are all trying to learn and engage with you, and help you get what you need at this time,” said Charles, who has visited Branksome for three consecutive years. “We all have restrictions and are experiencing different elements of isolation—and we can do small things to help ourselves.”
She spoke of the Four Sacred Medicines of Canada’s Indigenous peoples—sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco. At a time the ceremonial practice of burning white sage to purify the air and energies has entered the mainstream, the result has been a shortage of this sacred herb, says Charles.
Also timely, she shared the lesser-known fact that plant proteins in tobacco, called asema
in Ojibwe, have been used with success in COVID-19 vaccines.
Originating from Georgina Island First Nation on Lake Simcoe, Charles is a member of the fish clan, Muskinozhe Giigohn
, and earned a Master’s of Indigenous Philosophy from Seven Generations Education Institute in Fort Frances, Ontario. Her first teacher was Charles’ grandmother, who taught her how to harvest food and plants as medicine and has used this knowledge in the restoration of Indigenous plants. Charles has served as the Indigenous Advisor and Dean of Indigenous Education and Engagement at Humber College.
It’s fascinating to learn that native plants, long since paved over or extinguished by man-made dams in our cities, can literally be brought back to life. Charles is currently consulting on a plant restoration project with Toronto’s Port Lands
. The plan is to open up the mouth of the Don River that originally flowed there, once forming the largest natural wetland in Lake Ontario. It hasn’t been open since 1918.
“It’s about developing new relationships with old plants,” she says. “They are latent in soil, waiting to come up for air to germinate, to have a relationship with the earth.”
In a time of forced disconnection due to the pandemic, Charles also reminded students about the importance of extended ties. Specifically, she spoke of the clan system along Toronto’s waterways, including the Humber, Don and Credit Rivers.
“Before settlers, we had vast relationships with communities along the rivers; it was not called the GTA then. It was a way to always feel at home, looking for clan relatives and asking,” as Charles says she still does, “are any fish clan around?”
Charles reminded students of the reverence Indigenous people have for the spirit they believe exists in nature and the elements, including water. There are more than 500 words to describe its permutations.
“Ms. Charles has left an indelible mark on our school community and the lives of our Graduating Year students as they prepare to move beyond the confines of Branksome Hall,” says Jordan Small, Diploma Programme Core Coordinator. “We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to listen and learn from an Anishinaabe Elder. I consider her visit one of the most important events in the school year.”