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Leona Makokis: From Residential School to 'Indspiring' Educator

Interview with Indspire Award winner Leona Makokis, from residential school survivor to inspiring educator

As the second of 13 children, Leona Makokis (Saddle Lake Cree Nation) is no stranger to hard work. Having served as the executive director of Blue Quills First Nations College from 1982 to 1988 and then as president from 1992 until retiring in 2010, Makokis not only earned an impressive list of academic credentials during her career but also helped her college make the transition from being a host campus for other institutions to becoming the first independently accredited indigenous institution to offer its own degrees.

Makokis, who has earned a bachelor of administration, bachelor of education, master of arts in education leadership and a doctorate in education, was honored as a 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement (Indspire) Award recipient for her work in education.

In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Makokis described her life of hard work and struggle, why she feels such passion to educate indigenous communities, and how it feels to be recognized for her achievements.

Congratulations on your award.

It is quite an honor, especially coming from my native community. I feel humbled.

As a child you were told you wouldn’t amount to anything?

I was five when I was removed from my home. In those days tuberculosis was rampant, and I was sent off to the Tribal Council Hospital in Edmonton. I came back and at age seven stayed with my grandma for a few weeks, and then I was bussed off to a residential school.

I remember it was a Catholic Indian residential school run by Catholic nuns and priests. We were told over and over again that those white kids in the next town were extremely bright, and [we] would never get to the point of achieving what they are achieving because they were so bright.

When I was 20 years old I took a secretarial course and then worked for Indian affairs. Of course, snoopy me, I was curious as to what was in my file. I looked it up and saw that the education counselor wrote in my files that Leona Makokis is a very lazy girl and will never amount to anything.

I was really offended by that, but I also thought it was really funny. I said, he doesn't know me.

I was the second eldest of 13 children. We didn't have power, we didn't have running water. Doing assignments during those years when I was home was not easy.

How did you overcome that type of negativity?

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My parents were very proud of being Native. We were poor, and my dad would take a bunch of us kids out on weekends in the summertime, and the whole family would fulfill a contract of root picking, or any farming thing. On the way back we would be dusty and dirty and tired in a little vehicle—my dad would say, ‘Remember, if you want to be like me, and if you want to work hard, just drop out of school and you can be just like me.’

There were a few weeks I did drop out of school, I took care of the kids, did diaper changes, carried water. And at the end of three weeks I told my mom—who had loaded me up with every responsibility—I said I am not staying home one more minute!

You seem very driven to seek so many degrees.

My mom saw a lot of dropouts in our communities—in 1969 she overheard Indian Affairs talk about selling the residential school in our area to the town for one dollar. My mom rounded up all of the school committees and informed them that this is what they were going to do. Everyone in the community said, No, this is our school. We are going to take responsibility and educate our own children.

They had a peaceful sit-in in the 1970s at that residential school. After the sit-in, they took over the school.

Here is a story I tell. My dad was a janitor before the takeover of the school. The priest called my father in and said to him, "Vernon, do you have an education?" He said he had one or two years of education because he had run away from school. The priest said, "And you think you're going to run the school?" My father said, ‘No, I won't. But maybe one of my children will in the future.’ “

You returned to the school you attended as a child and became president of Blue Quills, fulfilling the prophecy of your father.

He believed in us kids so much. Both of our parents believed that we could do anything we made up our minds to do—even when we were going through the course of all the racism we faced when we were assimilated into the town schools—my mom would just say, 'kiyam.’ They are just ignorant and they don't know any better.

Kiyam means let it be, because you can't do anything about it—but in the spirit world you will be taken care of. That is the spirit of the Cree philosophy and is how we managed to get through all the tough times.

What do you consider as your greatest success?

The greatest success has been learning. At the time I was removed from home—it was in those days when we heard that our ceremonies were paganistic and sinful. My success story is that I have gone back to ceremony.

My late mom and my late uncles used to dream and would say, ‘Someday we are going to have our own doctors, our own lawyers and educators or curriculum developers.’

My late uncle Mike saw that transition happening because he was the executive director in the 70s and an elder in the 90s, and he would say Yes, you are living out the dreams of your parents because initially when we took over there was only one native person with a degree.

There is so much work to do, and our elders are passing on so fast. I didn't do this by myself. this was a team and always a team. I just happened to be the president.