#wearingmyculture takes off in southern high schools
- Chelsea Laskowski | November 01, 2017
When Kisis Cappo thinks about her Ojibway, Saulteaux, Blackfoot, and Dene culture, she doesn’t see any trace of the “savage” or “dirty Indian” insults that her fellow schoolmates at Balgonie’s Greenall High School have been hurling lately, both in person and online.
Instead, the 16-year-old from Muscowpetung sees resilience, safety, and, most of all, her own identity, saying her culture “makes me feel proud and it makes me feel like you can be as strong as all our ancestors."
She was raised on the powwow trail by a family that refused to let others make them feel lesser than. Her father, Kamao Cappo, recently made headlines, saying a Canadian Tire employee falsely accused him of stealing before forcing him from the store.
So when school started up this fall in Balgonie, a Regina bedroom community about a half hour from the Muscowpetung reserve where Kisis lives, she was quickly fed up with the racism she was encountering: from kids laughing and mocking Indigenous legends they were learning about in class; to people posting pictures of her and her brother on Snapchat with the label “savage” or “dirty Indian;” to her friend’s binder disappearing only to be recovered with slurs like “you’re gonna live on welfare” written on it. She was even more frustrated that teachers were ignoring racist comments being uttered in the halls and classrooms.
At a school where 33 of the 670 students self-identify as Metis or First Nations, Kisis said these experiences stand as a reminder that “this world isn’t made for them, that this society is particularly made for white people.”
By Oct. 2, she had come up with an idea to take a stand against racial injustices by wearing her traditional outfit to school. That day when she walked into Greenall High, Jason Weitzel, who is in his first month as principal, happened to be at the front entrance. He recalls that she was “glowing” and when he asked if Kisis’s outfit was meant to celebrate anything, she explained herself, that “she is proud of who she is” in spite of the racism.
Kisis later made a Facebook post sharing her story and pictures of her at school wearing the outfit, which resonated with over 4,700 people who liked, shared and commented. The response came as a surprise to Kisis, who had only expected 50 or so likes.
Greenall High was mentioned in the post, and when Eagle Feather asked if Weitzel had felt defensive when he saw it, he said “to be honest I’ll admit it hurts, but it’s some fuel for us to recognize, ‘here we go folks, let’s get to work….’ We can’t put our head in the sand and pretend that this isn’t real.”
Kisis, her brother, and her father met with Weitzel in the days following her viral post, and Weitzel said he’s committed to educating students on why racist behavior is wrong. The school is planning a KAIROS blanket exercise that explains how colonizers transformed life – often in devastating ways – for Indigenous people, is doing a treaty land acknowledgment at school this year, and Weitzel said he has requested the school division to add a new flagpole to fly the Treaty 4 flag.
To do her part, Kisis and a friend have started a Facebook page titled “#wearingmyculture” and are encouraging schoolkids to share pictures of themselves wearing ribbon skirts and other traditional items to school.
Looking back, Kisis isn’t sure what gave her the strength to wear her traditional outfit to school, especially after putdowns from a past teacher shook her confidence.
“I became scared and frightened to stand up for what I believe in,” she said.
But Kisis, who is already a trailblazer as the only female on her school’s baseball team, woke up that Oct. 2 morning determined to see her vision through.
“I don’t even know what the heck I did. It’s almost like running over a hill. It’s the best feeling ever to get over something you’re scared of, and I think everyone should do that,” she said.
Her mother Coralee Starlight remembers having her braids cut when she was attending Edmonton’s biggest high school growing up, and said she knows how difficult it can be.
“She’s got some guts. It’s a lot of strength that she has. As a parent, yeah, I’m proud of her,” Starlight said.
At the age of 16, Kisis is not only finding her voice as a young Indigenous woman but is using it.