It is the Lakota word meaning "holy dog." And is the word the Dakota First Nations people use to describe a horse.
On Monday, the Unity Riders from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and support riders from a few surrounding communities, gathered at Grand Valley Provincial Park with their horses and rode the close to nine kilometres in 28 C heat for the 104 Indigenous children whose unmarked graves sit at the site of the former Brandon Indian Residential School just off Grand Valley Road.
Tony Tacan is a councillor with the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. He teamed up with Travis Mazawasicuna, head of the Unity Riders from Sioux Valley. Together, they managed to organize riders and their horses to make the trek to the site.
"Right now, First Nations everywhere are making this awareness a goal. We need to keep that momentum going so this isn’t swept under the rug or hidden or (not get) talked about. Now, every First Nation community across this country should contribute something. And in small ways everything works."
There were more than 12 horses, riders and support teams preparing for the ride. An Elder wore a traditional headdress and clothing to ride his horse.
Another man wove his way around horses and riders while holding a smouldering traditional smudge to bless the area they stood in.
"See," Tacan points out. "Everybody’s coming together without being told, they want to contribute. That’s a welcome sight. We’re just bringing awareness to the issue. We don’t want nobody to forget."
When Tacan hears how some people want to leave the issue of buried Indigenous children in unmarked graves in the past, he bristles.
"Yes, it was in the past, but we cannot allow it to be forgotten. It’s a very bad moment in history, and (we need) to create awareness so it never happens again.
"We have to make sure that these children aren’t forgotten. The descendants of these children need to know where they are," he said.
In the Dakota culture, horses provide a sacred connection to healing.
"The horse really lifts people up," Tacan said." They see the horse come in. And that’s what our intentions are to make people feel good. That they’re not alone. We know there are survivors coming in, one at a time, to look at the grounds, and they’re having hard times. They’re remembering."
Tacan said we are all in this together and that the non-Indigenous community is feeling the effects of what happened and beginning to understand.
"I’ve asked our non-native friends and relatives to personalize it. What if that was your child? What would you do?" he asked.
"Look at your granddaughter. What if that was you? And you can’t find them? And then you find out they’re in a burial plot somewhere without any ceremony or (didn’t) even let the parents know their child passed away?"
"That’s not human. History will always show there’s a certain group that will say, Get over it. Or forget about it, that was in the past. But how are we going to learn for the future and learn from the past so that we can’t repeat these things?"
Tacan said while the ride is significant, Indigenous children’s unmarked graves need to be kept on the front burner during elections for chiefs and council members.
"I’m talking about every community. Every leadership that has an election needs to remember this issue and just keep it going."
Travis Mazawasicuna and his wife Helena own about 28 horses at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. Mazawasicuna knows how spiritual the horses can be for people and has stepped into the boots his uncle left behind for him to fill after he died, heading Unity Riders.
He encourages spiritual healing through the horses.
"Today, we ride for the survivors. There’s still a lot of living through the historical trauma, and now it’s been passed onto the children and grandchildren."
There’s a connection with the horse. You become one, he said. Mazawasicuna has travelled hundreds of kilometres on horseback, spreading awareness and healing of his people.
On the hill, just up the road, overlooking a large field, sit 104 orange hearts. It’s like a beacon as you drive by. One for every unmarked grave of an Indigenous child.
A herd of deer lope across the lower field. "Look, do you see the deer?" a survivor pointed out.
She stood, with other survivors, in the heat, waiting for the horses to come. The very old sat while the very young played under canopies of shade on the site that was once the Brandon residential school.
There were quiet conversations in their Indigenous language. Soft and melodic, it is difficult to reconcile how something so natural was such a negative experience for a young child in a residential school, so far from home.
The survivor recounted the stories others have told her. It is difficult to open up to a complete stranger. We settled for the stories through her. One Elder remembered other bodies buried, not just the 104. Children as young as three and a half years old were brought to the school. Most importantly, their ways and their language were forced from them so brutally that today they still speak their language in hushed tones.
Mazawasicuna and Tacan both recognize a solution to the problem has to be found.
"The people outside that don’t understand, I think the history books have to be re-written. I think when everyone sings the national anthem, is it true? We’re not free. This started a long time ago. It’s a deep wound for Canada," Mazawasicuna said.