Leaf Turrell is paving a new path in reconnecting to culture



June is National Indigenous History Month, and this year, over the next four weeks the communications team will be sharing a series of stories profiling five Indigenous youth from across British Columbia. Some are artists, dancers, youth workers and activists and despite coming from different communities and different backgrounds they all have one thing in common – each person is on their own reclamation journey and breathing new life into the “old" ways. 

Reclamation for Indigenous people will have a different definition depending on who you ask, but at its most basic level, reclamation is the process of claiming something back or reasserting a right.

​ ​​​​​​Leaf Turrell (he/they) proudly identifies as a 23 year old, two spirit individual of mixed Dene and Cree ancestry, living in Lhtako Dene Nation. As the first person in their family to not attend residential school, Leaf is paving a new path in reconnecting to culture.

“I'm going to be really honest…I've really struggled with my Indigenous identity," says Leaf. “For 23 years I've never really considered myself Indigenous enough to partake in culture, but the reality is, I am."

Reconnecting is easier when you're not alone

For Leaf, connecting with others has been a key part of navigating their journey to learn more about their culture and traditions. “One thing that's been really important is being able to have someone with me and be like, 'Hey, you deserve a spot at this table too.'"

In high school, this person was Leaf's Indigenous teacher Ms. Peters. She taught them about beadwork and traditional languages. “I remember being able to speak and feel proud of myself. I wrote an entire essay in southern Carrier."

Since then Leaf has been trying to learn as much about their history, culture and traditions as they can. Whether it's watching traditional beadwork on YouTube, reading about traditional medicines or self-teaching language, Leaf describes this process as “just stumbling through the china shop, hoping I don't break too much stuff".

Leaf explains that a lot of this journey has been learning from trial and error. “The first thing I tried to learn when I was younger was my traditional language of Cree. That in itself was very difficult because it turns out there are so many different dialects of Cree that I didn't know specifically back then, where I came from."

In 2021, Leaf began working with the First Nations Health Authority's (FNHA) Not Just Naloxone team as a facilitator. This is where they met another team member, Berkley, who quickly become a friend and mentor. Leaf shares that, “sometimes we'll sit on the phone and just bead together and it's been really encouraging to not feel so alone on this journey."

A few months ago, Berkley took Leaf to their first sweat. “Going to my first sweat was amazing, terrifying and awe-inspiring," says Leaf. “Without her I don't think I would be brave enough to go to a sweat or any sort of ceremony."

Healing through reconnection and community

As Leaf continues to learn more about their history and participates in different ceremonies and cultural traditions, they have started to share their experiences back with their family. “I've talked to my grandma and slowly as she's gotten older, she's gotten a lot more proud of me for reconnecting. Then it makes me proud to have her see that I'm safe and that it's okay. We can go to powwows. We can go forage for traditional medicines. We can do all the stuff that we used to be able to do as a people. We don't have to worry anymore. We still do-for somethings. But as a people we're slowly healing."

Looking ahead, Leaf is excited about attending ceremony and building their community. “I think my biggest goal is eventually to get so comfortable in the protocols and practices and in the culture- that I am the safe person. That I can be that person who brings a newly trying to reconnect person to the ceremonies, to the dances, to our stuff and I can be the person that says to them, 'Hey, you belong at this table even if you don't feel like you do.'

For anyone looking to reconnect to culture, Leaf has one message: “even if you don't feel Indigenous enough, it doesn't matter, as long as you try, you take that little step, and sometimes that little step might feel like a giant jump. But, it's the fact that you're trying and that makes me so proud of you. I'm going to be cheering for you every step of the way."​

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