08 Oct 2021

Honoring Indigenous Peoples’ Day: A Q+A with Danielle Kost


by Shona Simkin

Danielle and her family honoring residential and boarding school survivors on September 30, Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

Danielle Kost, editor-in-chief of Working Knowledge, is a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation in Canada, an Algonquin community near Maniwaki, Quebec. We asked Danielle about her heritage and experience being part of an Indigenous community.

Many of us might have idealized or Hollywood-ized perceptions of Native people and communities—can you give us a sense of what your lived experience was and is?
My mother lives on our ancestral land with her brothers and sisters and our family—she’s one of 14 and I have more cousins than I can count. I was born in upstate New York and have lived in Boston for 16 years, but KZ, as we call it, will always be my second home. I spent a lot of time there growing up and I continue to go back.

Many people have a picture in their minds of how an Indigenous community looks, but mine is really just a rural town, with homes, schools, playgrounds, its own government, even its own radio station.

It has the most gorgeous, clear lakes and you can see pine and birch trees for miles and miles. It’s so beautiful. The air is so fresh. I always feel very calm when I’m there, being in nature.

Danielle’s aunt and uncle (furthest to the left), along with other Indigenous children wait to board a train to an Ontario residential school in the 1950s.

Your mother was a survivor of the residential schools, which have been in the news recently with the tragic discoveries of mass gravesites and the heartbreaking memories and stories of other survivors. What was your mother’s experience?
When my mom and several of my aunts and uncles were young children, the Canadian government took them from their parents and sent them 2,000 miles away to live at a school run by a church in Kenora, Ontario. My mom was only four when she boarded a train and she was gone for 10 years.

It was like a prison. My mom talks about how the intake guards at the school sprinkled powered pesticides on them and cut their hair when they arrived. She was forced to learn English—teachers beat her if she spoke Algonquin, her first language.

Girls were separated from boys, and she wasn’t allowed to interact with her brothers who were also there. Kids walked silently in line everywhere with their arms straight down, and if my mom saw her brothers in a passing line, they would subtly wiggle their fingers as they saw each other. They couldn’t do more than that—if guards saw them communicating, even just waving their pinkies, they would be punished.

Imagine treating kindergarteners that way? It goes against everything we know about child development. There was no affection. No warmth. Only extreme neglect and abuse. My mom says that every night kids would cry for their mothers in the dark, in the big dorm room where they all slept.

How has that history and experience reverberated for you?
My son just turned four and I can’t remotely fathom the idea of putting him on a train and never knowing if I would see him again. And when my mom finally saw her parents, they couldn’t speak to each other at first because they didn’t speak English and she struggled to speak Algonquin. Residential schools severed those community and familial bonds.

So many children never returned to their homes and we’ll never know what happened to them. As you mentioned, they’ve been discovering mass graves at residential school sites in Canada since last spring. I feel so deeply for these kids and their families. My mom or my aunts and uncles could have ended up like them.

And this happened not that long ago. My mom was taken in 1956, but the last residential school in Canada closed in the 1990s.

On September 30 every year, Canadians wear orange shirts to show solidarity with residential school survivors. And when I went back to KZ last month for the first time since the pandemic started, people were hanging orange shirts and onesies outside their homes in memory of these kids found in graves. It was a very heavy sight to see as I drove in.

Danielle’s children walk along one of the many lakes on Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation land.

How do you reflect on your Indigenous heritagehas it changed through the years and as you started your own family?
Perhaps like a lot of multiracial people (my dad is white), it has taken me a long time to piece together these aspects of my identity—my family’s story—and understand how they inform how I view myself and the world.

On some level, residential schools taught my mom at a young age that being Native is a liability. She’s a very strong, proud, and accomplished person, but when you learn these messages so young, it’s so damaging. It’s hard to unlearn. I’m sure that some of that was passed on to me as well—that’s the legacy of residential schools, the intergenerational trauma.

As a parent, I’m very honest about the bloody history of colonialism with my children. They know that their Kokom—the Algonquin word for grandmother—was taken from her parents and that she suffered, and that we all suffered as a community. I like to remind my kids that we carry our ancestors with us—their resilience is our strength.

How do you maintain a connection to your Indigenous heritage, and how do you think about the community with future generations?
My mom spends a lot of time with us. And I try to spend as much time as we can with my extended family at KZ to help me and my kids stay connected with our culture and values. Not being able to visit during much of the pandemic was extremely hard.

We were able to get up there for a week last month—it was very emotional. Guitar and fiddle music is big in my family, and I got to hear my uncles play in person for the first time in a couple of years. It was just a jam session on my mom’s deck, but hearing those songs I’ve heard a million times never felt more meaningful.

My mom attends language workshops to reinforce and share what she knows—elders who speak Algonquin as a first language, like my mom, are aging. As a teenager, it used to annoy me when my mom and my grandmother spoke Algonquin to each other because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And now I see how hard my mom was trying to hold on to her culture and her connection to her parents. As my kids get older, I want them to participate in these workshops—maybe they can teach me.

What do you want people to know about Indigenous peoples and communities?
There aren’t a lot of Indigenous people in this area and I find that people are generally less aware of Native current issues. In upstate New York, where I grew up, there are many Haudenosaunee nations and perhaps more understanding in some ways.

For example, when I was a teenager in the ‘90s, high schools in my area were starting to eliminate Native mascots—they acknowledged how damaging these images were. So it has been eye-opening to watch so many Massachusetts towns debate this issue 25 years later.

A surprising number of people think of Indigenous people as relics from the past, a conquered people from the history books. So every chance I get, I like to remind people, whether it’s my daughter’s first-grade class or members of my local town select board, that we’re still here.

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