‘Nothing about us without us’: Learning Indigenous truths from an Indigenous voice

Content creator Zhaawnong Webb creates social media videos that educate his followers about Indigenous culture. Dilshad Burman with why he feels it is work he must do and his thoughts on reconciliation.

By Dilshad Burman

With a combined following of more than 150,000 on Instagram and TikTok, Anishnaabe content creator Zhaawnong Webb uses his considerable reach to educate his audience about Indigenous history and culture.

Raised in a community heavily influenced by Anishnaabe teachings, culture, ceremony and language, 23-year-old Webb from Burleigh Falls, Ontario, says he has a strong connection to his Algonquin and Ojibwe ancestry and he continues to strengthen that link with his enrollment at Trent University’s Indigenous studies program.

Spreading good medicine with good humour

Webb says his mission with his social media platforms is to spread good medicine with good humour.

“To western cultures, oftentimes a sickness or an illness is something in our body that’s hurting us. But to Anishnaabe  people, a sickness can be many different things. It can be our mind, it can be our body, it can be our spirit, it can be our heart. And so to me, medicine is something that can heal all of those things,” he explains. “We always say laughter is medicine. There’s so many things that make up what good medicine is. Teachings can be medicine, what we’re doing here today can be medicine.”

He adds that creating videos for social media not only provides that good medicine to others, but serves as the same for him as well.

“Using my voice to educate people about Indigenous peoples is a part of my healing,” he says.

“We have a saying in Indigenous culture … there’s nothing about us without us.”

“Our histories and our stories have been shared typically by non-indigenous peoples … and the stories that were being shared were being twisted and warped strategically to meet a history that Canada wants to share that is exclusive of Indigenous peoples,” he says. “I utilized my skills as an educator, as a little bit of a comedian and as a truth teller, communicator, to be able to fill that gap and to ensure that our stories and our histories are being shared appropriately and accurately. It’s necessary for me to be able to exercise this gift that I have to ensure my healing down the road. And so, while I have a really strong connection in my community and ceremony outside of my work, this work is also part of that healing.”

The emotional labour of truth telling

While some of his videos are humorous and light hearted, many revolve around explaining heavy subjects like the Indian Act and the residential school system. Taking on the emotional and mental labour of explaining historical wrongs and oppression is taxing work, but Webb says it is extremely necessary.

“I am a believer that this work of truth telling and educating about our history has to be done by Indigenous peoples because we’ve seen what has happened when these stories have been in the hands of non-Indigenous peoples,” he says. “There’s lots of us out there who do this work — and what I’ve noticed is that many of us have a unique ability to be able to sometimes set our emotions and set our feelings aside for the cause. There is an ability that we have to be able to separate ourselves.”

At the same time, he says taking the time to ground himself and address his own traumas is an important part of being able to produce his content.

“If I just shared our stories every day and I didn’t take that necessary time to heal, then it can build up and it can become an issue. So to be able to separate ourselves from that trauma and learn when it’s time to address our own is super, super important.”

For those watching his content, he hopes they understand the significance of what he and other creators like him are doing and make room for them to be heard.

“Indigenous peoples are finally kicking down the doors of colonialism and are taking back their space in Canada.”

“And so it’s very important to make sure that those people are uplifted and honored and they’re given that necessary space so that they can rewrite the lies that have been shared and told about Indigenous peoples,” he says. “My message is just to listen and to open yourself up and unlearn everything you thought you knew about Indigenous peoples and start to listen to [us] today. Indigenous peoples are doing this work because they have to. Non-Indigenous peoples should be creating space and amplifying those people when they do.”

Haters also need healing

With the number of people he reaches on a daily basis, there are bound to be detractors, but Webb says he’s learned not to take “ignorance as an offense.”

“A lot of people are learning these things for the very first time … when I grew up in public schools, our histories, our stories weren’t being shared in our schools. And so that’s a big part of why we do the work that we do — because people were not given these stories. So I’ve had to learn how to give people the benefit of the doubt and to also cut people some slack when they don’t know these histories.”

When the “haters” show themselves in his comments section, Webb says they’re usually drowned out by a sea of kindness.

“Unfortunately there are people in the community who do want to see harm to Indigenous peoples, but to me, those are just people who have lived with a lot of hurt and a lot of pain in their heart,” he says. “What I’ve found is that our communities are so full of such kindhearted, open-minded people who want to hear these stories — there’s so much kindness and so many people who are listening that those other people, their voices aren’t being amplified.”

“I also remind myself that those people are also healing as well and that hate and that type of ignorance — it just comes from lack of education or trauma. And so I believe that our work is going to slowly, over time, reduce the amount of people who are like that.”

Truth before reconciliation

As Canada prepares to mark its second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, Webb reiterates what that work is about: speaking truths.

“People need to recognize that we’re not finished with truth yet and that there’s still so much work to be done with Indigenous peoples sharing our voices,” he says.

“I firmly believe that we cannot have reconciliation without first having truth.”

“I feel far too quickly is Canada and our Canadians wanting to get moving with reconciliation,” says Webb. “Everybody talks about reconciliation like it’s happening all the time, like it’s happening now —  and that’s true, there are things that are being done for reconciliation. You and I having this conversation right now is reconciliation. But we must uphold and honor that these truths need to be shared first before we can move on and keep going with reconciliation.”

Webb says it is only in the recent past that Indigenous people feel somewhat safe to share their truths. Hundreds of years of oppression is not something that can be overcome overnight and it will take time for Indigenous people to fully find their voices.

“What I ask for is open minds and I ask for patience. I ask that people listen to our stories and when it comes time for reconciliation, that people jump on it and they get hard at work at it.”

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