May 18th, 2024

U of l honours late educators

By Lethbridge Herald on April 9, 2024.


The University of Lethbridge flag was flown at half mast Monday in honour of Lena Heavy Shields Russell who died March 29 at the age of 90.

It was the third time in a week the U of L honoured the passing of a former educator.

It paid tribute last week to former faculty member Steven Thibodeau who also died March 29 at the age of 70 and Professor Emerita Sara Stanley who died April 1 at the age of 80.

Stanley was an assistant professor in the drama department in the Faculty of Fine Arts from July 1, 1983, until July 31, 2008, was a pioneering figure in the world of theatre and academia.

Thibodeau, a mental health therapist, taught in what was the School of Health Sciences at the U of L beginning in 2006. He also held a position with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Social Work on the Lethbridge campus. Known for his passion and commitment, Thibodeau strove to be an ally to the Indigenous communities he worked with, including over two decades providing mental health services with Indigenous First Nations.

Heavy Shields Russell, a Blackfoot Elder, was one of the first women from the Blood Reserve to graduate from the U of L when she earned a Bachelor of Education in 1977 and was granted an honorary degree by the university at its Spring 2006 Convocation, recognizing her significant contributions to promoting, teaching and helping preserve the Blackfoot language. In 2021, she was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence, says the U of L.

“A fluent speaker of Blackfoot and one of the most proficient writers of the language, Heavy Shields Russell collaborated on the Blackfoot Language Project and taught Blackfoot language classes. She realized that to survive, the Blackfoot tongue must be transliterated into written form and included in educational curriculums and over the course of her life, she quietly and effectively made that happen.

“The matriarch of a large and extended family, Heavy Russell paved the way for many family members to follow in her footsteps as ULethbridge graduates, and she worked tirelessly to promote the bridging of traditional and customary approaches to the understanding of the Blackfoot culture,” adds the university on its website.

A funeral mass was held Monday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on the Blood Tribe after which she was laid to reside at the Russell family plot.

Heavy Shields was born October 5, 1933, at the Blood Indian Hospital in Cardston, Alberta. She was the first of 13 children for Eddie Sr. and Adelaide Heavy Shields, members of the Kainai First Nation and descendants of Chief Heavy Shield, who was present at the making of Treaty 7 in 1877. Lena’s mother stayed at home to take care of the growing family, while her father worked as a manager and rancher on the Blood Band ranch, says her obituary. A Kainai Elder gave Lena the Blackfoot name Ikkináínihki, which means “Gentle Singer.” From an early age, she was immersed in the rhythmic imagery of oral tales and grew up listening to her paternal grandmother, Kate Spotted Eagle-Three Persons, and other family Elders as they told stories purely in Blackfoot, sparking an early respect for the power of language. Her parents, strong believers in the value of hard work, instilled in her a fierce ambition to succeed and a life-long streak of perfectionism.

Lena brought those traits with her when she began her education at St. Mary’s Residential School on the Blood Reserve, which she attended until the end of Grade 8. Always achieving the highest marks in her class, she went on to an all-girls school in Legal. She was the only Indigenous student and had to learn French to communicate with her classmates and teachers. She continued to play the piano she learned while in residential school. Ultimately, Lena and a friend received the highest marks in the Sturgeon School Division for their Grade 9 departmental exams, earning Governor General’s medals for their achievements.

After high school in Pincher Creek, Lena went on to the University of Alberta, where she was once again one of the few Indigenous students on campus. She completed Normal School and qualified as a teacher, returning to St. Mary’s in 1956 to teach, says her obituary.

Meanwhile, Lena’s long-time friendship with James Russell grew into a romantic relationship and the couple married in 1955. Together, they had seven children and co-managed their cattle and ranch operation in the valley named “Where Bald Eagles Nest” on the Blood Reserve. James Sr. passed away in 1993, however, his ranch operation continues through his son James Jr.

As busy as she was at home, her thirst for learning remained unquenchable. Never one to limit her pursuit of knowledge to the classroom, she pushed herself to expand her skills, engaging with Elders and devoting as much time as she could to developing her talents.

Eventually, she would master an incredibly diverse range of creative endeavours – from tipi-making, portrait painting and outdoor landscaping, to sewing Jingle dresses and Grass Dance outfits, knitting sweaters, beading and canning – all benefitting from a rigorous attention to detail, adds her obituary. Her genuine enthusiasm for teaching, combined with vivid memories of her grandmother’s stories, led Lena to find her calling – safeguarding the Blackfoot language by passing it on to the next generation.

Determined to have Blackfoot recognized officially and used in the school curriculum, she became one of the first from her Tribe to begin writing her people’s language, which had remained almost completely oral to that point. She went on to produce 13 books, including Blackfoot Stories of Old, which have become invaluable resources for students and teachers. Lena worked with graphic artist and adopted son William Singer III to ensure her Blackfoot curriculum books would be used as visual and grammatical reference teaching materials for students. She gained particular attention for her ground-breaking Blackfoot translation of John McCrae’s classic First World War poem “In Flanders Fields,” which she was often called upon to recite at Remembrance Day ceremonies, her obituary adds.

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