Indigenous Elder provides traditional knowledge, counselling and healing in Wilmot

Haudenosaunee Nina De Shane has a full schedule with Wilmot Family Resource Centre as she keeps Indigenous traditions alive

Indigenous Elder Nina de Shane. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)

Nina De Shane is an Indigenous Elder who has been serving the local community through Wilmot Family Resource Centre (WFRC) since December 2020. She is Haudenosaunee, which translates to “People of the Longhouse” and refers to accommodation that housed a number of families – or clan – that were related through the women’s lineage.

She spoke with The Wilmot-Tavistock Gazette about her work and Haudenosaunee culture.


Can you explain what an Indigenous Elder does?

They are considered to be knowledge keepers and custodians of oral tradition. In Haudenosaunee tradition, there was the wampum, which was a record of history, and Haudenosaunee also had long, epic history recitations that went for several days at a time. We think about the Iliad as being great, but we had those, too.

The Thanksgiving ceremony in different languages takes four days to say in a longhouse, because it’s every single thing that you could possibly have, what it does, and why it’s important. When I came back to Canada as a young woman (after spending time in Trinidad) and became more and more involved in my culture, there was a joke among Indigenous people: “Don’t ask the Mohawks to say thank you – it takes too long!”

What services are you providing at WRFC?

There’s counselling, working with survivors of Residential Schools and individuals who are experiencing issues in their lives for different reasons, from children through to senior citizens.

I think the most important thing we do is provide a women’s Healing Circle. Right now, we’re online, but we’re hoping that very soon, we’ll be able to go back to meeting in person first, and then around a fire.

Mannheim Mennonite Church is so kind to us. They’ve given us the space behind the church, and we’re allowed to meet there once a week. We’ve done women’s drum-making workshops, and then we birth the drums afterwards.

We had a naming ceremony that was very, very special, for a young child who was extremely ill. The child received his name, and it was a very special evening for all of us, to be allowed to walk with him on his journey. We continue to hold him in our prayers.

Which traditional medicines are important to you?

All the medicines are, but especially cedar, which is made into tea and used for healing purposes.

We have sage, which we burn for smudging and cleansing the mind, bringing us all together, in spirit and mentally. Semma tobacco is the Creator’s goodness that we share, and that’s also part of smudging. It’s also on the (ceremonial) blanket, and it’s not used except for ceremonial purposes. People never sell that; it’s only ever traded.

Indigenous people also use white pine in Haudenosaunee tradition, because it is considered the Tree of Peace.

What kind of things are traded?

I usually make shawls or blankets to trade, and those are taken in exchange for tobacco.

In Haudenosaunee culture, are men and women seen as equal leaders and holders of political power?

It’s an equitable distribution of power traditionally, although the power structure changed a lot when the Europeans arrived, because they were from a patriarchal society. They were trying to introduce patriarchal religion, so there was really very little place for women’s voices.

In Haudenosaunee societies, the women were the farmers. They were responsible for the sacred nature of the Three Sisters, which is corn, beans, and squash. Those are planted traditionally, with corn in the centre, and then beans, using the stalk of corn for the beans to climb up, and squash around the base, which irrigates the soil.

The women controlled the food stuffs and were responsible for the distribution, to make sure that everybody ate. Men were responsible for hunting and fishing.

Women were the ones responsible for the selection of the Sachem or Chief in the longhouse, but they could also take them out if they weren’t satisfied. Clan Mothers were very important. There are 13 Clan Mothers, because there are 13 moons in the year.

What’s the significance of the moon?

The moon is considered to be female, because we call her our grandmother. She controls the tides, and she controls women’s cycles. She’s responsible for bringing forth crops, and nature, and human life. When you’re in Circle, you’re always asked if you’re on moon, because women are considered at their most powerful during that time.

Who are the living or historical women leaders that you admire?

Roberta Jamieson from Six Nations. She was the first woman Ombudsman in Ontario, and she was the first Indigenous woman with a law degree. Truly brilliant and eloquent.

There’s Lee Maracle, who just died (in November 2021). She was wonderful, funny, loving, outgoing, laughing, really strict, and powerful. She was responsible for helping people get Friendship Centres in urban centres across the country.

Indigenous women had great political power, and during the time of the Indian Wars, they went to address George Washington. They demanded that they have their own right to speak, because they owned the land, they controlled it, and they didn’t want men speaking on their behalf.

They eventually appointed (Seneca Chief) Red Jacket to be their advocate. During major treaty organizations, the men were at the table, but the women were the main communicators that ran between the men and the community. That was very frustrating for governmental associations to realize that there’s another power that’s not necessarily represented only by the men at the table.

Indigenous Elder Nina de Shane. (Photo credit: Nigel Gordijk)