Traditional Indigenous storytelling

National Indigenous Peoples Day 2024

Honouring the Traditional Form of Oral Storytelling Through a Trauma-Informed Approach 

Storytelling has long been an important form of knowledge sharing. It has the power to inspire, teach, bridge divides, and galvanize us to act against injustices. Although Western societies have come to prioritize the written word for knowledge keeping, among First Nations and Indigenous communities, oral-based knowledge systems are predominant. Stories are verbally passed down to the next generation and are frequently told as evening family entertainment or told more formally, in ceremonies.  

By listening and learning from our Indigenous peers, we are recognizing the importance of a decolonial approach to sharing information. This means providing time and space for those with knowledge to share their learnings through human interaction, without imposing expectations or time limits. We are learning to be witnesses to others' lived experience and honouring them by being present and simply listening. 

However, storytelling can also involve processing and sharing trauma, which has the potential to cause harm. Through colonial practices, the Indigenous community has suffered injustices that must be understood but it can be triggering for those impacted to share their stories with others. To bring awareness and understanding around this and in recognition of National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day, our YWCA Truth and Reconciliation Committee planned an all-employee, hybrid event, Weaving Stories of Strength about trauma-informed storytelling. This is the process of building in safety, care, collaboration and empowerment for people telling their stories. The event consisted of a film screening of the documentary Kids are Only Kids Once and a follow-up discussion with a panel of guest speakers. The short film was created by West Coast LEAF, a not-for-profit in BC striving to end gender discrimination through equality rights litigation, law reform and public legal education, in collaboration with parents with firsthand knowledge of the family policing system, as well as other advocates.   

On the panel sat Patricia Dawn, a Metis Cree Sacred Life Giver and an advocate for the Red Willow Womyn’s Society, Heather Spence (Blue Thunderbird Woman), the founder of KANDU, Indigenous Lead for PACK, who proudly serves as a mother and grandmother and our moderator, Alana Prochuk, of mixed European ancestry and the Manager of Public Legal Education for West Coast LEAF. Alana was honoured to provide organizational support for the Kids Are Only Kids Once documentary film project. All three of our panelists are working towards positive change to the so-called “child welfare system,” which is causing devastating impacts of family separation on children, families, Nations, and communities. 

Speakers at film screening event for National Indigenous Peoples Day2
Left to right: Alana Prochuk, Patricia Dawn and Heather Spence (Blue Thunderbird Woman)

Strong sentiments from the video were that children are the ones who suffer from this system and there must be support for mothers in need rather than the current practice of child apprehension. Keeping families together should always be the priority. Once the film screening was over, the emotions in the room were heavy with sadness, but our guides encouraged us to sit with our emotions and people were supported where needed. Our panelists were asked a series of questions during the discussion, and you can read their answers below:  

How do you see telling true stories creating change? 

Patricia Dawn: “I advocate for the dignity of human beings. I am mindful of the story I hold, who is in it, and how it relates to their experience, and I lift up what I learned in that story. I listen from within, instead of trying to solve the problem right now. As long as I hold this individual with respect and dignity, the solution will rise.” 

Blue Thunderbird Women/Heather Spence: “True stories create change for our Indigenous people. When we walk our truth, our people are empowered.” 

What change did you hope to bring about through sharing your story in this film? 

Blue Thunderbird Women/Heather Spence: “To give Indigenous People the opportunity to understand who they are and where they come from and advocate for change for our families and communities. When we work together and with organizations that create positive change, it can happen.” 

What does it mean to do storytelling in an ethical way? 

Patricia Dawn: “It means letting people finish their stories. Just simply listening, without reactions and interruptions. I don’t hold an opinion and I’m not in my mind trying to find a solution or judge. You learn this way.” 

Alana Prochuk: “There was an appreciation that [the documentarians] took time before the shoot to get to know people and what their goals were within the process. People were able to review the footage or withdraw footage if they didn’t feel comfortable. We respected the self determination of the participants.” 

What advice would you give to organizations that want to work on storytelling with people with lived experience? 

Blue Thunderbird Women/Heather Spence: “Be mindful of making sure they have a lot of support. Patience. Some of our experiences are not easy and could be long or not easy to fix.” 

Patricia Dawn: “Being trauma informed. Take time and ask speakers to lead you and ask them what they need. They are the heroes of their own lives. Think “How do I create opportunities to help them?” Acknowledgment is powerful. We hold them as gently as we can. I create a space where they can begin to trust and I never say they are safe, but in a brave space.” 


42 YWCA Metro Vancouver employees joined the event in-person and 67 logged in to watch online. Here are some responses to the event:  


What emotions did the film "Kids are Only Kids Once" evoke for you? 

“Sadness, anger, hope.” 

“Reminded of the swayed and knee jerk system towards Indigenous children's removals. Also feeling overwhelmed about what can be done.... or if it's even my right to intervene and advocate. Of course it is! Feeling confused about it.” 

“Heartbreak, perseverance, rage, hope, trust.” 


What did you learn from this event? 

“That there is more work to be done to support Indigenous mothers and families to get the help they need to stay together and/or be reunited.” 

“I was encouraged to see organizations that are actually doing something about this and raising awareness as well as taking legal actions to address this from a policy and legal systems approach for change and justice.” 

“Methods for trauma-informed storytelling.” 

It is a gift to hear stories like this that were shared during this event and witnesses have a role to play in allyship and reconciliation. Let's honour and preserve storytelling traditions by amplifying Indigenous voices and ensure these vital narratives are heard, valued and passed on for generations to come.