Kendra Jessie’s Respect has Healed the Attempts of Colonial Stereotypes Against Indigenous People
“Ceremony has helped me heal on my wellness journey and showed me how important it is for my spiritual health. I learned more and became so proud—I can't believe I was ever ashamed to be Indigenous.”
Respect is not just an adjective for Kendra Jessie, but an intrinsic moral she has learned from the buffalo that she now applies to all aspects of her life: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The buffalo teaches us that when we respect ourselves, that respect is given back.
Even though that sacred level of respect radiates from Jessie when you speak with her, it was not something that came to her easily, but something she had to find after deconstructing colonial stereotypes against Indigenous people.
When she told her story of finding that respect, I was in awe at how parallel our experiences seemed—both of us Cree, Métis women from Alberta. But it went beyond that similarity. I asked her what year she was born and learned that we were born in the same year, in the same area of the world, growing up with the same racist perspectives against Indigenous people dominating our society, and both of us internalized that for a long time. It impacted the both of us for a long time, until the day that it didn't—hearing her journey of embracing fully her identity is medicine in and of itself.
Please tell us your introduction, the nation you’re from, and the work that you do?
Hello, my name is Kendra Jessie, pronouns she/her, and I am a Cree and Ukrainian woman with status from Sucker Creek First Nation. Through my dad, I also have connections to Gift Lake Métis Settlement. I always have a hard time describing the work that I do because it's so varied, and influencer is not a term that resonated with me. I guess I would prefer the term social media content creator. I feel like I'm still figuring out what I want to do but I would describe myself as a powwow dancer, a wellness advocate, and a fitness instructor.
Tell me a bit about your story and how you got to where you are today with the work that you’re doing?
I’ve always been an athlete my entire life. I was the first-born in my family, and I think my dad really wanted a boy, so he pushed me toward sports, especially hockey. He had big aspirations and dreams for me to pursue hockey. My dad is also very athletic and he grew up playing sports. I remember traveling to different sports tournaments with him, my mom, and our family. A lot of my Auntie's are also very active—they were runners. One of them also Powwow dances and that inspired me to start dancing. She was a jingle dancer.
From a young age, I saw movement all around me with my family and their lifestyles. It naturally became something I was very passionate about. As I got older and played hockey competitively at the top levels for female players, there was a lot of intense training that went into it. So, I had the opportunity and privilege to work out and train with some top level trainers in the industry. All throughout high school, hockey was just my life. It was what I did and was very, very committed to it—I even went to a hockey Academy for school.
I played college hockey for a couple of years at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, but school was never my thing when I was younger. When I was young, I didn't enjoy school. Hockey was what kept me going and having passable grades. I just wasn't passionate about the things we were learning in school. At university, I started getting really lost and felt confused. I didn't know what my purpose was and I was getting pushed away from hockey from a lot of the politics and racism.
Racism was very prominent in hockey—it's a very white dominated sport. I had a lot of negative experiences with some of my teams, was treated differently by coaches or didn’t make teams that I was qualified for. Then my non-Native teammates made those teams when I knew I was good enough to be on them. It's a lot of not having the family history or money to be able to make some of those higher level teams, and that's where the politics come in. It got really frustrating and I was drawn away from hockey for a bit.
That’s around the time when I started connecting more with my identity and culture—being Indigenous, going to ceremony more and being in community. Learning how to powwow dance helped me come more into my identity, as well as working with Indigenous communities. I didn't grow up in my community and then I got a job where I was a youth sports mentor in Gift Lake, all-Indigenous community, for two summers while I was going to school. It helped me realize the privileges I had growing up, playing high level sports and having a family who supported and encouraged that. It was a family effort to pay for my hockey fees, hockey schools, equipment and everything else. It wasn't just my parents, but a whole family effort—my grandparents, great grandparents, aunties and uncles. They were really encouraging and supportive with me playing high level sports. So I started to realize the privileges I had with those opportunities, because a lot of Indigenous youth don't have that support.
After that, I went back to school for sport management, took some time off after I went to MacEwen, and went back to school in Ontario. While I was studying sport management, it elevated my drive, passion, and motivation for promoting health and wellness within the Indigenous community—my desire to inspire youth to live a healthy lifestyle and to take better care of themselves.
I was also unlearning a lot of those unhealthy patterns and ways of being that colonialism and Residential Schools have taught our people. I always felt like growing up, being mixed, being Indigenous, people would always make me feel like I was less than. I wasn't good enough because I was Indigenous and I didnt know how to embrace what it meant to be Indigenous when I was young. All I knew was what society told me, which was a lot of negative stereotypes: addictions, alcoholism, living off the government. A lot of stuff like that existed and then not being connected to my culture, community, not knowing otherwise, I struggled embracing my Indigeneity. I didnt know why those stereotypes existed until I started learning more about colonization and Residential Schools and learned that these illnesses, like diabetes, alcoholism, addiction, suicide and mental health problems—those exist because of the Residential Schools. It was a result of those experiences and not because our people are less than or don't know how to take care of themselves—because our culture is very much rooted in health, wellness, and movement. That's something I've learned reconnecting with my identity and communities—ceremony has helped me heal on my wellness journey and showed me how important it is for my spiritual health. I learned more and became so proud—I can't believe I was ever ashamed to be Indigenous.
I wish I would have known, practiced, and had access to this stuff as a kid, because there's so much health, wellness, and important teachings within our cultures that changed my world—and that needs to be shared. Indigenous knowledge is so important within the health and wellness industry, our ancestors were living a healthy lifestyle and have been working in wellness since time immemorial. That's within our bloodline, too. We have that inner knowledge, that inner wisdom and guidance from them on how to take care of ourselves and be healthy. It's been a journey of reconnecting and returning to it and I just want to share what I've learned. I always just think about my younger self. I want to teach and share the things that my younger self wanted to know—the things I wished I had learned.
Tell me a little bit about your wellness session within the Seventh Generation Indigenous wellness series?
So my wellness session focused on the teaching of the buffalo, which is respect. The buffalo teaches us respect because a lot of our people would rely on the buffalo and we would use every part of the animal. That teaches us to respect all life and respect every part of life. We give a prayer, and it's sacred, none of it goes to waste and that teaches us to have respect for life.
Having respect for life is something I learned along my wellness journey—respecting my mind, body, and my spirit. The Medicine Wheel helped me understand all aspects, because I took care of myself physically but I was missing those mental, emotional, and spiritual sides. Especially the spiritual, which is now the most important aspect of my health. Going back to wellness though, respecting life and respecting your body has come down to wanting to respect the gift of life and this body that I've been given by Creator. I want to take care of it and myself holistically, mind, body, spirit, not just taking care of one aspect and neglecting the others.
The other thing is sobriety. I quit drinking alcohol—celebrating four years next month. That was a choice for my wellness and healing journey that’s rooted in respect. I want to respect my mind, body, and spirit, because the way I was using alcohol was not in a respectful way. I was using it to cope with negative emotions and feelings and a lot of negative experiences in life, instead of having healthier ways to self regulate and cope with what I was going through. I was choosing to misuse those substances to try and make myself feel better. The teachings that I've learned around substances within our culture was another reason I chose to get sober. A teaching that resonated with me was that when you consume drugs or alcohol, your spirit leaves your body for four days and takes four days for it to return. That made me think about how many days I wasn't living as my true self.
Even my food choices, trying to nourish my mind and spirit, remembering that food is medicine. I need to eat and I can't restrict myself or starve myself. My relationship that I've developed with food, having more respect for food, and how important it is for us. It's essential for our survival. We can't live without it and so I learned a more respectful and healthy relationship with food. I don't have to go work out and be active in order to earn a meal. I just need to eat to survive.
My movement session was focused on movement and I did this short circuit that was focused on movement that was with your body—accessible by utilizing your body weight and enjoying that movement. Things where you don't need a gym, and reiterating that all we need is our own body to move and feel good.
I love that. So why is it important that we have Indigenous representation and inclusion within the health and wellness industry?
Our people need to see themselves represented within all industries, all spaces. If they don't see themselves represented, they don't think it's possible for them to exist in that space or share their teachings and knowledge. For myself, the lack of representation of good, positive, healthy Indigenous people made me feel incapable of taking up space. How are people going to believe they're capable of taking a place and making changes within the world, with their perspectives, knowledge, and teachings if there is no space for them? Indigenous people have such important knowledge that can help within those spaces. We have a lot of teachings that aren't just beneficial for our own people, but for everyone to benefit from. It’s important for people to share their teachings within the health and wellness industry because it's only going to help improve the wellness of the whole world. It's so important for our youth especially to see themselves being representative—to know that they're capable of accomplishing.
I have a younger sister who’s 11. I noticed how much she looked up to me. Last year she was telling me when she grows up, she wants to be just like me, but better. I want them to have higher dreams and goals than I did. I wasn't thinking I was gonna do big things, work with big brands, be a speaker—and now I'm speaking in front of large groups of people. I never really thought about that, or envisioned that for myself, and it's probably because of that lack of representation.We need that so the younger generation has great role models to look up to and help them to dream big.
Written by Chyana Marie Sage