Kawayo’t – Her name means Resting Canoe

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No matter where you go in Haudenosaune territory, somewhere along the path is the art of Arnold Jacobs. His murals decorate buildings everywhere, and his art even dons the side of an Air Canada Boeing 767. His body of work has become synonymous with Six Nations identity.

Last month, Arnold’s wife Isabel became gravely ill and we were told she would likely not recover. Cancer had taken hold of her and was not letting go. After a few weeks later her valiant battle came to an end; on January 13, 2014 Isabel Winnifred Jacobs entered rest at the age of 69.

The response from the community following her loss was beautiful. People from everywhere were expressing deep loss and sharing these profound thoughts of love. Isabel was a teacher on the reserve for 50 years. And not just any teacher, Isabel was everyone’s favourite teacher. She had a gentle loving kindness deep in her spirit that just penetrated the toughest exterior of everyone, even the students no one else could tolerate. Isabel could reach their hearts, and she gladly shared hers with them.

After the 10 day feast was over, I asked Arnold and Isabel’s sister Ruby if I could come visit, and hear more about her life. Foolishly, I expected that I would drive over, sit at the table with Arnold and maybe a few others with a cup of tea looking through picture books. As I pulled into the driveway I saw it was full of cars, and when I entered the house, I was greeted with the warmth of the furnace and the smiling faces of many Jacobs. Even a few Montour’s. It was then I realized Isabel was an extraordinary person, and this would be much more than drinking tea.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESEveryone gathered around and her sister Hazel began saying, “What really affected me was how many people came to sing at her wake. How many were there? Twenty-five?”

Arnold spoke up and said, “Twenty-five. Those were her students from Gaweni:yo. Normally they have about 8.”

Hazel asked, “What was the name of that song they sang for the first half hour? That was the part that really got me.”

Arnold cleared his throat, but the emotion quivered in his voice. “Esganye,” he said. “That is what it is called. Normally they don’t do that in the wake.” He paused and began to weep, but still pushed on through the words. “Ron Thomas said to me that they wanted to do this because she respected them so much. They wanted to show respect for her so they would sing for her these songs so that her spirit could dance that night before she had to go. They all stayed all night. A lot of time they end up with just a few left, but they all stayed… all night.”

This kind of gracious outpouring of love follows the name Isabel Jacobs, wherever it is heard.

Now everyone was weeping. Isabel’s son Bub passed around a box of Kleenex.

Her sisters, Ruby and Hazel, and her brother Bill began to share stories of the ‘old days’. Isabel was one of nine children who grew up on the Montour farm here at Six Nations. Her sister Ruby recalled the winter Isabel was born their father had to drive their labouring mother to Lady Wellington Hospital in Ohsweken with a “one horse open sleigh”. Isabel’s brother Bob added, “the snow was as high as the fence posts!”

They told stories of Isabel’s quirks; how she always had gum in her pockets and loved pencils. Back in those days, school didn’t start until the age of seven, but at six years old Isabel longed for nothing more than to be a student. In a funny twist, after her twin sisters Vera and Verna were born, Isabel wanted nothing more than to stay home and care for “her babies”.

When I asked Arnold how they met, Isabel’s brother Bill chimed in quickly with a grin and said, “He didn’t meet her, she met him!” Everyone laughed loudly. The couple met at a youth dance in the old Ohsweken Community Hall. That night Arnold danced with Isabel, and they were together from that day forward.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESIsabel went to teachers college in Hamilton and started teaching in 1964 when she was only nineteen. Her son Bub recalled after the family was cleaning up he found books stacked away in the corner of the living room. He said, “She had saved Valentine’s cards from her students from 1967 or 1968 all folded up into a book!” This was a common theme throughout the night, Isabel so deeply cared not only for educating children, but for the hearts of her students.

Isabel grew up going to Anglican church every Sunday, but it was after she married Arnold Jacobs who went to Longhouse that she started to take deep interest in the culture. Arnold said, “She wanted to learn. She wanted to know about the dance they were doing, or the ceremony and what was going on there. That really appealed to her. So she started coming to them more, and the more she learned she could see those things in my paintings, visually.”

“That was her thing,” said Isabel’s son Bub. “Art was her subject that she taught all the time. Once she started to see what [dad] was drawing it all made sense to her, it all clicked. It all fell into place the way it was supposed to.”

After teaching for years at J.C.Hill school, Isabel along with a dedicated group of parents started in 1986 to develop a Mohawk and Cayuga immersion program. Eventually, this led to the forming Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo Private School. Her sister Ruby said, “She really could see the importance of that transfer of culture into her students. I think she could see into the future that if something wasn’t going on like that, in 30 years there won’t be no reserve here.”

This was something the family spoke so passionately about. Isabel’s love of culture and language. She carried forward in her spirit true Haudenosaune values; a good mind, peacefulness, dignity, speaking with truth and gentleness, honouring the ceremonies, respecting one another’s differences, giving thanks and looking out for the coming faces.

One coming face stands out in particular, her daughter Sarah is expecting in June of this year. I can’t help but see the beauty, even in this tragedy. It was in Isabel’s spirit to look out for all the coming faces by revitalizing language in the schools, and giving them a sense of worth. Now it is our responsibility to repay that with gratitude by looking out for this one’s coming. The family hopes that will be done by carrying forward Isabel’s vision of building a school.

I asked her children to name three things that are instilled in them because of their mother. Without missing a beat, Bub spoke up and said, “Security, identity and belonging. She gave me security, she helped me know who I was and she had family built around us that made us belong. It’s that everlasting nurturing that I pass onto my kids. She was a doting mom, and I want to be a doting father.”

Bub began to weep, and the family cried alongside him. Moments like these are, in my opinion, holy. I turned off my recorder, put down the camera and listened as the family told me amazing stories. One of these stories that impacted me the most was from her son Jim. He shared that his mother used to pack him extra food in his lunch pail so he could share it with the kids who didn’t have any food that day. My heart felt stronger, all because Isabel loved Six Nations.

They spoke with much passion and love about Isabel’s dream to build a school fostering the language and culture from Kindergarten to Grade 12. It’s a timely vision, given the looming FNEA, that this spirit of indigenous led education would rise even in her passing.

At the end of our visit Arnold showed me a painting he did for her; a full moon hanging over calm waters and a canoe resting on the shore. He said, “Her name is Kawayo’t. That means ‘resting canoe’. I did this so she could see it. To me Isabel literally devoted her life to Kawenni:io/Gaweni:yo Immersion School. If and when a new school is built, then I will know her mission will be fulfilled. I was as proud of her achievements as she was of mine, but I am so proud that she chose me to share most of her life with.”

I thanked the family for sharing such a special time with me. On the drive home that night, something was warm and peaceful inside of me only having met Isabel through the love of her family, she touched my spirit and made a change.

When I got home I spoke with my husband who was a student of Mrs. Jacobs at J.C. Hill. His single memory of her was a song she played for them in class one day. We found the song online and I felt goosebumps. Why this moment in time stayed in my husband’s mind I do not know but I share the lyrics with you now. I think she would like it. As her sister Ruby said, “We were country before country was cool.”

Thank you Isabel for your love, your energy, your goodness and the hope you brought to Six Nations. It will be felt for generations. Thank you for your strength and bravery, even in the face of great illness. You lifted your children, your husband and all those around you by your love.

“Gentle as the sweet magnolia. Strong as steel, her faith and pride. She’s an everlasting shoulder. She’s the leaning post of life. She hurts deep and when she weeps she’s just as fragile as a child. She’s a sparrow when she’s broken, but she’s an eagle when she flies.” ~ Dolly Parton

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