James Smith woman finds her passion in Washington, D.C.
- Cindy Burns | May 01, 2016
As a woman from James Smith Cree Nation, I never dreamed I would find myself and my voice in Washington, DC. But every day for the past three months, I have taken the two-hour commute on the train and bus ride from Maryland to downtown Washington, DC. In April, I reached the end of a semester-long placement with the National Congress of American Indians.
The opportunities I’ve had, and the things I’ve learned about myself, my community, and the struggles of Indigenous people across North America have changed me. I’ve felt hope and pride as a special invitee to the welcoming of Prime Minister Trudeau to the White House last March. I’ve felt the freedom and fatigue of learning to move around a huge American city. I’ve felt inspired to change the lives of Indigenous women. This journey, however, started a long time ago.
Four years ago I was living a different life, a life where I struggled with alcohol, I was extremely unhappy. I wanted change but I thought I was stuck. At night I would cry and pray for a better healthier life. I was hopeful for change. One day, something within me changed. It flipped like a switch. Three years ago I left an unhealthy relationship, I took the time to work on myself and make better choices for my future.
During these changes, I embraced my education as an Indigenous Social Work student at First Nations University. My research on other Indigenous tribes around the world sparked my interest because many of the issues are the same issues that we face. I decided I wanted to pursue a practicum where I could embrace my interest for working with Indigenous people from outside Canada. I came across The National Congress of American Indians, located in Washington, D.C. You might know them from their Superbowl Commercial in 2014 called “Proud to Be.” I honestly felt pursuing this idea might be a far reach. Instead of passing on it, like the “old Cindy” might have done, just told myself, “one day I want to work there.”
In January, I joined the Policy and Research Center team with the National Congress of American Indians. It felt so unreal to know I was actually working in Washington, D.C. When my old self-doubts crept up, I allowed my family, friends and my significant other to encourage me to face the challenge. Now, I’ve learned so much more about the work the NCAI - their work on the United States’ Violence Against Women Act, their Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge with President Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama, and their important Tribal Gatherings.
In the past three months, I spent most of my time working on an issue that is very close to my heart. I researched and wrote a policy brief on violence against women and sex trafficking of American Indian/ Alaskan Native women and children. This policy brief will bring awareness and help policymakers and tribal leaders to create laws to protect their women. I was always an advocate for violence against Indigenous women and Indigenous issues, and now I can see how the struggles in the US mirror our struggles here at home.
One of the most memorable highlights of my time in the US Capitol: getting to see the excitement around Prime Minister Trudeau’s visit in March. Because the NCAI has such close ties to the White House and, I was personally invited to the Welcoming Ceremony. It never even crossed my mind that I would one day get to see President Obama, Michelle Obama, our Prime Minister and his wife! It felt surreal at times. At the moment the Obamas and the Trudeau took the stage, I didn’t expect to be thinking of home. I deeply wished my family, friends and people from back home got to experience this very special moment. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was also invited to tour the White House.
I feel like this opportunity was a sign to keep pushing on achieving my goals and to be a good example for the youth and young adults. Focusing on my health, my education, and having the courage to try something new feels spectacular and I want our youth and young adults to see anything is possible if you really want it. Learning and hearing from our Tribal family in the US makes me see we are not alone when it comes to battling issues in our communities and the historical trauma that comes along with those issues. There is so much resiliency and potential in Indigenous people and there is no reason we cannot succeed—if we’re willing to break down the barriers that keep us from our best self, and the borders that separate us from our Indigenous family around the world.