‘I got brave enough’: How a Sask. Indigenous woman has a new spin on a traditional tool

In honour of Mother’s Day, two Indigenous women, who are powwow dancers, reflect on their roles as mothers and how they are reclaiming their Indigeneity by bringing back a traditional tool that symbolizes motherhood.

Marrisa Moccasin-Mitsuing from the Saulteaux First Nation is embracing her role as a mother by adopting the use of a cradleboard, which is a traditional baby carrier used by many Indigenous tribes historically and still to this day.

Photo provided / Marrisa Moccasin-Mitsuing

“A cradleboard is like a backpack with a baby,” said Moccasin-Mitsuing, who is a proud mother of five. “A cradleboard is something that women and communities had so that the baby remains close to them. Indigenous women always work so hard … the (cradleboard) allowed them to have their baby with them at all times.”

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During the pandemic, as Moccasin-Mitsuing was adjusting to living in temporary isolation, she wanted to learn more about her upbringing, along with her parents who are both residential school survivors. It was also a time when Kamloops and Cowessess First Nation announced the discoveries of unmarked graves of children who were students at Indian residential schools.

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She says she became more curious about the past as she came to understand her parents’ stories better and how residential schools had an impact on their upbringing. She started looking at old photos of Indigenous women prior to residential schools and their roles as mothers. Moccasin-Mitsuing noticed how so many women used cradleboards in the photos and an idea sparked in her head.

“I took a lot of inspiration from that,” she said. “I also wanted to be like an image for my parents who didn’t get to grow up with their parents who were ripped away from their homes … it was more like something for them.”

After consulting with a few women from her community, Moccasin-Mitsuing conducted her first powwow dance at Sweetgrass First Nation last year where she was seen carrying her son in a cradleboard.

“I got brave enough one day and it just turned into something so much more beautiful than I ever could have imagined,” she said.

Despite the steps she took to consult, many people did not appreciate the new dance style.

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“I don’t really play into a lot of the social media things … but one day I read some comments (on a social media post) and I saw things that didn’t make me feel the best,” said Moccasin-Mitsuing. “I absolutely never intended it to be something disrespectful or to hurt people’s feelings.”

Powwow dancer Gina Daniels from Cowessess First Nation said she could understand why people would not agree with Moccasin-Mitsuing’s dance style.

“I understand about the mixed feelings about carrying your child during celebrations (such as) powwows,” said Daniels, who is proud mother of three and a grandmother of four. “I am aware of some territories where they don’t allow us to carry our children at any time during a powwow.”

Photo provided / Gina Daniels

Although Daniels was aware of the stance that various communities have on the protocol, she still admires the courage of Moccasin-Mitsuing. Last October, there was a ‘Cradleboard Special’ at Red Deer powwow in honour of Moccasin-Mitsuing, Daniels danced in the special carrying her cradleboard along with many other Indigenous mothers to show their support.

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“(It was) to honour and to encourage (Marrisa) to carry on that way,” said Daniels. “I respect her and her family for doing that.”

Moccasin-Mitsuing said she plans to continue dancing with her cradleboard to signify her role as a mother and also to bring back a piece from the past.

“All these things like the cradleboard are just like tools that we have that we’re bringing back,” she said. “My journey in the last little bit, especially, in the realm of motherhood, is really just trying to be the best relative that I can be. I really want to be the essence of what powerful nêhiyaw (Cree person).”

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