When I was 18, I went on a vision quest…
I was seven years old the first time I experienced First Nations culture. My family went to the Guelph penitentiary, where two of my relatives were in jail. That day, the prison was holding a gathering for Indigenous inmates. It was the first time I heard a drum circle, and the sound was deep and powerful. But when I started to dance, my cousins made fun of me. I went back to pretending I wasn’t interested.
I didn’t have a happy childhood. My Cree father, a residential-school survivor, and my Ojibwa-Anishinabe mother split when I was three and sent me to live with my grandparents. I slept on a cot in their living room, and my little brother’s crib was in the hallway. When I was 10, I moved back in with my mom in a subsidized housing complex at Pape and Danforth. We argued all the time. A few months later, I reconnected with my dad, who was living in Sault Ste. Marie. When I was 14, after a particularly nasty fight with my mom, I hopped on a Greyhound bus and went to stay with my dad and his girlfriend. That didn’t work out, so they put me up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and bought me groceries once a week. Soon I was drinking and smoking weed. I was arrested several times—for stealing, for fighting, for selling drugs—and spent four months in juvie. Eventually, I was remanded back into my mother’s custody. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I knew she’d let me do what I wanted.
When I moved back to Toronto at age 15, my grandparents insisted that I prepare for my confirmation at St. Ann’s Catholic Church near Gerrard and Broadview, where they were parishioners. The church has a Native People’s Parish, which combines Catholicism with elements of Indigenous spirituality. The church leaders incorporate sage-burning ceremonies into Mass, for instance, and translate hymns into Indigenous languages. As part of my confirmation, the priest insisted that I go on a vision quest—a ritual that lasts anywhere from 24 hours to a week. You’re left alone in the wilderness without food or supplies, and you pray to the Creator for guidance and wisdom.
On the night of my vision quest, I set up my tent at Dreamer’s Rock, a sacred place on Manitoulin Island. I was skeptical. I just thought I’d be abandoned outside, bored, hungry and alone. To my shock, I had a vision that night. It was an old man, standing beyond my tent. He looked like he was beckoning me. I didn’t recognize him, but I believe he was a manifestation of First Nations culture—my culture—which was waiting for me to embrace it.
Over the next few years, I dove into my Indigenous heritage. I read about Crazy Horse, Tecumseh and Sitting Bull. I joined a drum circle that met regularly at the Native Canadian Centre. I learned about oppression and how these rituals provided camaraderie and kinship.
By the time I was 18, I was entirely estranged from my family.
I was living in a studio apartment at Broadview and Danforth, and working as a dishwasher at the Native Canadian Centre.
I was poor, isolated and depressed. Around that time, I went on my second vision quest, this one in Red Lake, Minnesota. It was a powerful experience. I was left out in the bush alone, 10 miles away from the camp, for three days. I had no food or water.
I just had to sit up in a tree on some scaffolding and pray. It wasn’t the fasting, bears or wolves I was afraid of; it was being alone with my demons that terrified me.
That first night, I yelled, I screamed, I cried and I sang. I prayed to the Creator and asked what my purpose was. I reflected on my mistakes and realized my childhood had wired me to believe that I was worthless, that I could never accomplish anything. Even though I was only there for three days, it felt like forever. The day after, I went to the sweat lodge. There was a conductor there to make sure I was safe, but, otherwise, it was just me and the fire. I stood in front of the flames and told the spirits my story. I prayed and I suffered. It was an intense, cathartic experience.
That vision quest saved my life. When I returned from it, I found a new sense of belonging in the Indigenous culture I had discovered. I became an active member of the community, serving as the vice-president of the National Aboriginal Youth Council until I was 25. I also started singing and performing at powwows and Native ceremonies in Ontario and across Canada. And I continued to do vision quests every spring and fall.
My life is richer than I ever imagined. Ten years ago, I met my wife, Erika. Today, we have three children: our son is five and our twins are one and a half. Last year, I was the head dancer at a powwow up in Sudbury, and the dance group and I officially invited my son to join us during the ceremonies. It’s one of the greatest joys of my life that my children will have unfettered access to something I spent years searching for.
Eddy Robinson is a musician, artist and educator.
Episode 12: TMT012 – Interview with Eddy Robinson, Indigenous Artist, Activist & Educator Part 2
If you listened to last week’s episode, you know that I had indigenous artist, activist, and educator, Eddy Robinson on the show. This is part 2 of that episode. Today, as a continuation of our discussion, Eddy and I are going to talk about leadership, some of Toronto’s odd choices for public indigenous statues, Truth and Reconciliation, and what the future holds for the exceptional work that he does. We’re also going to discuss his thoughts on multiculturalism and the impact it has on the indigenous community. If you are a music fan, I think you’re going to love this episode. Eddy deconstructs and demystifies indigenous music for me, and if you’ve always wondered what Pow Wow music is all about, today you’re going to find out.
Episode 11: TMT011 – Interview with Eddy Robinson, Indigenous Artist, Activist, & Educator Part 1
My guest today is indigenous artist, activist, and educator, Eddy Robinson. Eddy is an Anishinaabe/Muskegowuk Cree of the Missanabie Cree First Nation, raised in the city of Toronto. In our talk over the coming two episodes we’ll discuss what it was like growing up indigenous in Toronto (or Canada), what challenges he faced, and whether those challenges are common for others. We’ll also talk about indigenous music, multiculturalism, current issues like Truth and Reconciliation, and his career as as an “artist, activist & educator” as well as his company, Morningstar River.