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[UNIFIERS] Shayla Stonechild Empowers Indigenous Voices through the Matriarch Movement

Matriarch Movement isn’t just a space for Indigenous peoples to nurture their mental health, but to take back their stories and sovereignty.

By Jennifer Li, she/her

When you imagine the word colonization, you imagine something outdated. You imagine soldiers taking things that don’t not belong to them, slurs, and blatant cruelty. But as our modern conversations about the effects of colonization continue to develop greater nuance, it becomes apparent very quickly that other things that remain colonized are stories. Stories about erased cultures, appropriated traditions, and how these compound with an unacknowledged history to create new problems for minority groups. Well, Shayla Stonechild has had enough of how Indigenous peoples are disregarded and misrepresented as stereotypes, and she is intent on bringing Indigenous representation to the forefront through her non-profit organization and podcast, the Matriarch Movement. 

”Whenever you see us in Hollywood in a historical sense, you would see us on a horse, or at a powwow, with a flute, with long hair—just very pan-indigenized stereotypes,” Stonechild says. “But in Canada alone, there are over 600 nations and we each come from our own set of values, teachings, and worldviews.” So, the Matriarch Movement isn’t just about creating representation in wellness spaces, but also about giving back sovereignty back to Indigenous people after decades of colonization, erasure, and trauma.

Stonechild is no stranger to non-profit work or to advocating for Indigenous sovereignty; you could say that it runs in her blood. Her background is Plains Cree and Métis from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation, and Stonechild grew up watching both her parents advocate for Indigenous rights in different ways: her mother, with her non-profit organization and her father, while he was going through the penitentiary system. 

“Through the lens of my parents, they let me see what I could do with my own community,” Stonechild says. “And then when I moved to Vancouver, I went for acting, but I also got yoga teacher training, and I started to see the lack of representation and inclusion within wellness spaces. That was where the ideas for Matriarch Movement really started forming.”

And now, Matriarch Movement itself is an incredible resource for Indigenous people. Their digital platforms are constantly putting out mental health resources, shouting out creators to follow, and highlighting entrepreneurs and entertainers to support, as well as information for non-Indigenous folks to learn more about the experience of Indigenous people. It also hosts workshops in-person and online to let people learn more about Indigenous cultural practices and to offer a space for Indigenous people to speak about their mental health struggles. 

Stonechild is hoping for Matriarch Movement to eventually teach yoga classes, as well as have facilitators teach traditional dancing, hoop dancing, lacrosse, boxing, as well as classes about wellness practices rooted within Indigenous culture. But Stonechild has bigger ambitions than just talking about the Indigenous struggles—she wants to be branching out into the wellness industry.

Another class that Stonechild hopes for Matriarch Movement to have is a mental health workshop taught by a psychologist, using Western psychology through an Indigenous lens. It makes complete sense, given how people of color looking for therapists have started looking for therapists of the same background as themselves—sometimes, there’s an entire cultural context and background that can’t be ignored when having discussions of mental health. 

“Psychology is often taught with a Western eye,” Stonechild says. “And a lot of us have generational trauma. And in Canada, we still have the racist Indian Act, which impacts our daily lives! For Indigenous women, it made our places in the world not matter, which is probably also why we’re seeing so many missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women and people. A major problem we’re struggling with in our communities is suicide, it’s the leading cause of death amongst First Nations peoples. And this can all be traced back to what the government did to us, what legislation they passed, what the church did to us.”

And while working on a mental health program for her non-profit might be a longer running project, there are closer victories for Stonechild that are just as sweet just around the corner. Matriarch Movement has been working on a Indigenous peoples’ virtual wellness series for Lululemon, which will highlight seven Indigenous wellness advocates and facilitators, who will all be conducting their own wellness workshop sessions. Stonechild is excited for it, and points out how so many Indigenous practices and teachings have been stolen by the wellness industry. 

“Using plant medicine, sage, and smudging have all been taken and profited from by the wellness industry,” she says. “Plant medicine like peyote and ayahuasca to facilitate spiritual retreats, when really, it was medicine men and medicine women who would use these plants and that came with a right of passage. To see these rituals commodified and sold for $2,500 packages—you don’t even really know what you’re doing at that point.”

So, what are Stonechild’s future plans? She has an idea, but would rather just focus on the short term. 

“I tend to only think three to six months in the future,” she admits with a smile. “In the future, I would like for Matriarch Movement to become an online platform where we have not only myself teaching wellness classes, but also a ground of brand ambassadors that will also teach. My intention is to first help my own community,” and then hopefully, any non-Indigenous participants will be able to also learn about indigenous culture without potentially appropriating it in the future. 

Written by Jennifer Li for Youth To The People