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A divine Indigenous heritage: How one Latter-day Saint family combines Cree and gospel teachings

by | Nov. 12, 2020

Editor’s note: This story contains details about experiences from the Indian residential school system and may not be appropriate for all readers. 

Jalynne Geddes sits at her beading nook in the guest room, which is currently decorated with red, orange, yellow, blue, and black beads.

Growing up on the Beardy's & Okemasis' Cree Nation reservation in Canada, Jalynne knows a teaching echoed by several Indigenous tribes: “Beading is medicine.”

As Jalynne places each bead on the thread slowly and thoughtfully, she feels that medicine. She feels healing as she prays and mediates over each piece, hoping the piece conveys not only her Indigenous heritage but also her divine heritage. And she feels healing as she carries on something her ancestors were forbidden to do.

“It’s medicine to bring these traditions back into our lives,” Jalynne says. “It creates a more whole picture of our lives and it brings us back to a wholeness. Wearing beadwork is medicine, too, because our ancestors weren’t allowed to wear it. The fact that we can, and with our agency choose to, is really healing.”

That healing is something many First Nations people long for after decades of racism and assimilation. For Jalynne, healing begins with looking back on her parents’ experiences growing up—and it continues by looking forward and creating a better future.

Looking Back

Beading is a luxury Jalynne’s own mother, Yvonne Michael, wasn’t afforded as a child. Yvonne is one of around 150,000 youth who were forced into the Indian residential school system. The government-sponsored schools attempted to assimilate Indigenous youth to European life, but the methods employed in the schools to assimilate them stripped them of their culture, and sometimes the techniques were brutal. Many students suffered abuse, including sexual abuse by the staff and excessive physical punishment. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, approximately 6,000 youth died in the schools.

Yvonne’s parents—Jalynne’s grandparents—had tried to stop the government officials from taking Yvonne and her siblings away to the residential school. They had been through the schools themselves and knew the horrors that awaited their children there, but her parents were told if they didn’t allow their children to go, they would never return home. Yvonne clearly remembers seeing her father’s pain one year as they returned to the schools after being home for a break.

“My dad didn’t want us to go, so I remember us being in the back of this camper, looking out the back, and my dad was hanging on to the door handle—just hanging on as we were speeding away—and then we just saw him drop to the ground,” Yvonne recalls. “He just sat there and was looking out crying. That image always stays with me.”

Since former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal public apology in 2008 for the residential schools, Yvonne has experienced more flashbacks of her time there. For instance, the other day she used hand sanitizer, and the smell transported her to a memory.

“Another little girl and I were taken away from the school, and we were excited because we were going for a ride. We didn’t know that we were going to the hospital,” Yvonne explains. She remembers being wheeled away into another room and having a mask put over her face that smelled of ether. The next thing she knew, she was waking up with severe pain from having her tonsils removed, even though she had never really had any throat infections. All she wanted in that moment was her mom, but her mom didn’t even know she was in the hospital until the next time she was able to return home.

Waiting in the West

Dealing with the flashbacks has taught Yvonne how to rely on the gospel, especially on the principle of forgiveness. And while most memories and flashbacks have caused Yvonne pain, one memory does make her smile when she recalls it. One night, after a particularly difficult day in the residential schools, Yvonne remembers looking out the window to the west and feeling some sense of hope for a world bigger than just being in the school.

“I knew that I wouldn’t always be where I am, and I didn’t realize when I was looking out [to] the west that my future husband lived out there,” Yvonne says.

To the west was Harry Michael’s reservation. Years after Yvonne had that thought, when Harry was 18 and Yvonne was 17, their paths did cross at the annual Batoche CelebrationThe ceremony includes a powwow as well as modern dancing. Though Harry didn’t normally participate in the dances, Yvonne did, and the sight of her dancing powwow caught Harry’s eye.

“What really impressed me was she had this long black hair—it went all the way down her back—and she was dressed in all white. . . I was struck by her,” Harry says. “I was smitten. It was the first time I saw her, and I guess you could say I’ve been in love with her from that moment.”

The two started writing letters to each other since they lived on different reservations, and though the distance separated them physically, they started to build a relationship and a friendship.

Not long after that, another scene of dear ones being dressed in white changed the course of Harry’s future.

Dressed in White

At age 19, Harry got a call from his parents inviting him to a baptism. His parents had been devout Catholics throughout his youth, so he assumed it was a baptism of a relative or friend in his community and agreed to go without even asking whose baptism it was. He went, and to his surprise, it wasn’t an infant baptism. Nor was it a Catholic baptism. Instead, he entered the room and found his parents and younger siblings all dressed in white as they became members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Intrigued, Harry started to meet with the missionaries and take the discussions. One day, the Elders asked him about what he had been reading in the Book of Mormon.

“I got very emotional and I couldn’t talk even, and for the first time, I was crying in front of someone without feeling ashamed, because that’s something that as a boy growing up—boys don’t cry in front of people—but I didn’t feel like that,” Harry says. “What I didn’t understand was the Holy Ghost was confirming to me what they were teaching me was true. The Book of Mormon was the word of God. Joseph Smith was a prophet. And so I think that’s the beginning of my testimony of the Church.”

Harry was baptized on Yvonne’s high school graduation day. Soon after, he introduced her to the Church and she began reading the Book of Mormon as well. When she felt the warmth that the book brought to her soul, she also joined the Church.

The next time Harry saw Yvonne dressed in all white was on their wedding day in 1973, and the time after that was when they were sealed in the Cardston Alberta Temple after the birth of their first son. They now have four sons, two daughters, and ten grandchildren.

A Promise for Generations

A teaching of the Cree Nation as well as other Indigenous tribes is the idea of seven generations.

“We look seven generations behind to learn about what past generations have done, and everything we do now, we look seven generations into the future, because every action we do has a ripple effect seven generations into the future,” Jalynne explains.

One of the ways Harry sees his ripple effect on the future is with his decision to join the Church. When Harry was an infant, he was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. At the time, the mortality rate for infants diagnosed with the disease was high. His parents, devout Catholics at the time, promised God that if Harry would live, he would become a priest.

After Harry survived, around the age of 12 he started to fulfill his parents’ promise by serving as an altar boy and helping the priest prepare the sacrament in the Catholic church. However, a part of him knew it wasn’t for him.

“I remember looking out at the audience that had come to church and out the back where the door was. I wanted to get out of there really bad . . . I gradually withdrew from helping the priest, so for most of my teenage years I didn’t have a religion, basically,” Harry says.

Although he didn’t become a Catholic priest, the promise his parents made has taken on new meaning for Harry.

“When I joined the Church, I realized that Heavenly Father has helped us and helped my parents so that promise would be fulfilled,” Harry said. “Not only did I hold the priesthood, I held the true priesthood. . . . Not only was that fulfilled in my life but also in succeeding generations, because my children—all my sons have the priesthood, and all my sons-in-law have the priesthood, and my grandsons have the priesthood, so that’s continuing. So, for me, it’s marvelous how the Lord answers prayers.”

The Indigenous Gospel Culture

One thing Harry, Yvonne, and Jalynne are all quick to say is how the gospel adds to their Indigenous heritage rather than taking away from it.

“When I joined the Church, it did not take away from the way my parents raised us or what they taught us or what we learned,” Yvonne says. “It just added on to what I already learned. . . . Since joining the Church, the things my parents have taught me have become clearer.”

“Culture is a way of life,” Harry says. “That’s really what culture is. And for us, our way of life has been both our native upbringing but also because we became members of the Church . . .  I don’t distinguish. They’ve become one. It’s like the air we breathe.”

One situation the family has had to learn to rely on the gospel in is when they encounter racism. Jalynne remembers becoming acutely aware of racism as a child, when her friends in the city school instructed her not to play with a boy because he was a Native, not realizing that Jalynne, too, was a Native. Sometimes the racist comments even came from people within the Church. Jalynne recalled one Sunday School lesson as a youth when the teacher started to talk about the Lamanites and said that native people were savages.

“As a preservation mechanism, a lot of the time when you're confronted with something that's uncomfortable and you don't know how to respond, you laugh,” Jalynne said on a recent episode of This Is the Gospel. “And my brothers—we kind of looked at each other and we laughed, kind of out of disbelief—we couldn't believe what we were hearing.”

After class, Jalynne recalls her brother saying, “Nowhere in the Book of Mormon does it say the word ‘savage.’”

“I don't think that this person who said that was bad,” Jalynne said on This Is the Gospel. “People aren’t bad, people are just misinformed. Maybe he was comfortable saying that, or maybe he hadn't been corrected before.”

Harry remembers a teaching about how to handle racism from his father, who was a Cree chief—the challenge is to try to change the way that individual thinks and feels about you by the way you treat them.

Harry with his parents and some of his siblings.

This is a lesson Jalynne has tried to emulate herself. Now, even though she resides in Portland, Oregon, over 1,000 miles away from her family's reservation, she still is the recipient of racist comments.

“A lot of us are born into a community where we are made to feel worthless,” Jalynne says. “When you are born into that community, they don’t understand how much self-talk we have to do to realize that we do have worth. A lot of people think that we’re uncivilized, so it’s constantly fighting against that.”

Harry makes sure to teach his family a Cree Nation teaching that echoes the gospel: we are all related. His daughter follows this teaching as she strives to support members of other marginalized communities. Recently, Jalynne has advocated for her Black brothers and sisters and tried to lock arms with them. In addition to sharing her beautiful beaded creations on her business Instagram account, she will share messages to support, stand up for, and uplift others who may feel marginalized. She notes a common feeling among members of marginalized communities is that people want to help, but instead of locking arms and carrying the burden with those who are marginalized, they turn instead to offering advice or attempting to correct and justify the pain.

“They might say, ‘People just need to utilize the Atonement or the Savior more’ . . . but I also don’t think that they realize that, for many members of the Church, we are 100 percent utilizing the Atonement,” Jalynne says. “We are crawling to the Savior every night and saying, ‘This is so hard.’”

Dustin Geddes, Jalynne’s husband, has learned about empathy as he’s sought to support his wife in their biracial marriage.

“It takes a conscious effort to put yourself in those shoes and just listen and try to be a support rather than, ‘Well that was in the past, let it go,’ or try to correct the pain,” Dustin says. “I’m grateful that I’ve been able to expand my understanding and things that I don’t think about or I wouldn’t have thought about without having Jalynne in my life—ways I can be more sensitive or supportive, and things that I think, ‘Oh that’s not a big deal,’ why that is a bigger deal for someone who is feeling pain.”

Dustin has attended Indigenous events like powwows and traditional funerals, and as he has attended, he’s learned a new appreciation for his wife's heritage.

“Every time I go . . . it’s such a beautiful thing,” Dustin says. “I wish more people knew about it. I wish more people had an appreciation for it and a recognition for the harm that’s been done. It’s not just something that goes away overnight when generations have been traumatized. It’s not just a matter of, ‘Well you need to move on, it’s in the past.’ There’s so much extra work and extra care and extra love that needs to be shown rather than just trying to diminish what happened in the past.”

The Next Generation

One of Jalynne’s recent beadwork pieces is designed into the shape of a flower with four petals—three of which are uniform colors while the fourth is an assortment of colors. To some, it may look like the one petal doesn’t fit. But Jalynne has called the piece “Nahipayew,” meaning “It fits together well.”

 

“We all want to feel like we belong or are welcome. And it can be really painful sometimes if we feel like we don’t. Like one flower petal out of place,” Jalynne writes on her Instagram account. “But maybe you were meant to stand out. And if you let yourself be who the Creator made you to be, you will find that your unique voice and perspective actually fit together so, so well.”

When Jalynne married Dustin, the two began blending together their two cultures. The couple was married in the Mount Timpanogas Utah Temple, but also did a traditional Cree blanket ceremony in Canada, where the couple was wrapped together in a blanket and given blessings by two Cree Elders, community members recognized for having a knowledge and understanding of traditions and customs. As Dustin started attending more Cree events, he loved the traditions and wanted to be a part of them. More importantly, he didn’t want Jalynne to feel like their children had to navigate their cultural identity, so shortly after their marriage, he encouraged Jalynne by saying, “Our children will be Indigenous.”

“We wanted our kids to see themselves as Indigenous,” Dustin says. “And not to say that they don’t see themselves as part of my family—they do completely. But I think that having the opportunity to be a member of the Church and be a part of Indigenous culture—I just think that’s such a special opportunity for them”

Jalynne and Dustin now have two children: Desmond Nikamowin Geddes and Winifred Mahikanis Kari Geddes, who goes by “Freddie.” Both children have Cree middle names given to them by Harry. Their son’s middle name, Nikamowin, means “heart song” or “song in his heart,” and their daughter’s middle name, Mahikanis, means “little wolf.” In Cree culture, a wolf is a symbol of family loyalty, and as a female, the leader of the pack.

Jalynne also allows her son’s hair to grow out and reads books in Cree with him, and though Jalynne doesn’t speak the language fluently, they’ll call Môshum (Grandpa) Harry to help with the pronunciation.

When Jalynne became a mother, she realized the importance of her heritage that her parents had instilled in her and wanted to do the same for her kids.

“I didn't want my son to learn how to mask himself the way I had,” Jalynne said on This Is the Gospel. “I wanted him to walk into a room Indigenous foot first like my dad does.”

Some of Dustin’s favorite family memories stem from the moments his family has embraced their Indigenous heritage.

“The most joy I’ve felt as a husband and a father is when my little son was 3 years old and he had all of his regalia—all of the traditional clothing—that he had inherited from his cousins, and he had all of that on at the powwow, and he got to do the dance with the other little kids. . . . It just filled me with so much love,” Dustin says. “Then going out and dancing around the powwow circle as a family—[those are] some of the sweetest moments I’ve had as a father.”

And that joy is likely echoed in the heavens as their ancestors look down and see the next generation embracing traditions they never could.

Jalynne recently purchased a beading kit for Desmond and plans on involving Freddie in beading too when she’s old enough.

“The gospel is alive in our home and our heritage is alive in our home,” Jalynne says. “They’re both just integral parts of our everyday life.”

Images: Courtesy of Jalynne Geddes
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Lindsey Williams

Lindsey Williams joined the LDS Living team with a passion to find the stories that matter most. Previous stops in her career include BYU-Pathway Worldwide, the Special Projects Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Utah Valley Magazine. When she's not searching for stories to write, the Colorado Springs native is most likely on a hiking trail. Follow her on Twitter with the handle @lindsey5brooke.

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