A Letter to Indigenous Youth and All of Thunder Bay

I am an emerging Anishinaabe artist from Eabametoong First Nation, a beautiful community accessible by air or seasonal road. It is about 360 kilometers north of Thunder Bay. I was 20 years old when I officially moved to this wonderful city of opportunities. I have been in and out since I was 15 years old. I was 16 years old when I got funded for secondary education, and I came out here for a short period of time.

There are no high schools in remote communities in the far north. Youth must be sent out if they want to further their education. This is done by sponsorship from tribal councils or the community’s education authorities. Not all high school students get funded. There is not enough funding to send all of us.

I struggled throughout my adolescence. I was withdrawn from family and friends, and felt disconnected. Sometimes I still feel that way. I was a high school dropout. When I arrived in the city, I was excited because it was still new to me. I was excited for new things to do and see. That feeling went away. I encountered racism and discrimination. I became lonely and depressed. I turned to drinking and doing drugs. I did not have access to any resources or support.

Graffiti wall by Neechee Studio at Fort William First Nation, photo by Laura Paxton

I found art workshops but I had to pay for them and did not have money. I loved creating artwork. I was mostly creative during my hardships, and it was the only way I knew how to express what I was feeling. I do not know if people saw that I needed help and guidance. I did not know how to ask. I always went back to my community when things would not work out for me in the city.

I was introduced to the Die Active Art Collective. It is a diverse art program, but I felt like I did not fit in. I had a hard time connecting with the people, as my experiences were different from theirs. I did not know I was being ostracized. I liked that there was stuff to do during the summer (Die Active), but I needed something to do during the school year that would be free and focused on Indigenous arts and culture for youth.

So I co-founded Neechee Studio in 2013, led by and for youth like me. This same year I was able to get my shit together. Neechee Studio has encouraged and inspired me to go back to school, and go into the double degree program I am currently taking at Lakehead University. Keeping myself busy has kept me alive. I love what I do. It is important that we, Indigenous youth, have this safe space for us to tell our own stories.

-Lucille Atlookan, Neechee Studio co-founder

Right now, art is more important than ever. The Neechee art community is powerful. It is one that revolves around the unique abilities and needs of its participants. We do not judge; we do not criticize. We raise one another up with our combined strength and acceptance. We work together and we’ve created an essence that is powerful, by simply accepting one another’s differences.

This is something that we have done with Neechee Studio. A committee of various folks, all coming together to work with First Nations young people, to give them the ability to express themselves in any way they need and find to supports. Neechee understands the importance of making space for young Indigenous people to create art, have fun, and grow, without fear of prejudices. This is something Thunder Bay needs to learn. If a diverse group of young people can come together and form something so powerful like Neechee, why is it so hard for our city to do the same?

-Savanna Boucher, Neechee Studio committee member

Some days it’s hard to find words. Heavy loss and sorrow overcomes us as suicide ravages our communities. It can feel overwhelming. Our lives are so worth living; I know that now. We are so beautiful and strong and powerful, my friends. Our connection to land and ceremony and each other is so strong. Our connections to the ancients is so strong. They are there, you can reach out and they will hear you! They love you. I love you.

When our fire burns; it creates so much beautiful light. Please don’t let that fire go out. You are worth it. The hurting subsides. The darkness will lift. Miracles are still waiting to happen. And, even when you think you can’t feel it, love is there. I promise. Love awaits. Love surrounds. Love heals. Sending you my love today. Hang in there my friends; you are so very, very beautiful!

-Michelle Derosier, Indigenous filmmaker