Flags at Nipissing First Nation are flying at half staff in honour of Muriel Sawyer, a respected elder, community leader and language teacher who passed away on the weekend.
Sawyer, 69, was Nipissing’s deputy chief and had kept news about her battle with cancers among family members and close associates.
Always ready to laugh and joke but also stand her ground when needed, she left an impression on all who met her, especially those who were reconnecting with their language and culture.
Social media posts highlighted how Sawyer inspired many students and teachers alike. Several Facebook members shared their comments with BayToday for this story. A video at the bottom of this article from the Indigenous Family Literacy Circle's YouTube channel features several Sawyer songs, the first, fourth and 10th songs are of her singing.
Amanda Bellefeuille said losing a language carrier such as Sawyer “cuts deeply” into an Indigenous community’s cultural strength. But she said that should also motivate those left behind to work harder to retain and grow Anishinaabemowin.
“She was a wealth of language knowledge and a true fighter,” Bellefeuille said. “The loss of any language carrier in an Indigenous community cuts deeply, and in the same moment sparks the necessity for us to work more diligently to remember our original voices.”
Bellefeuille was most impressed with Sawyer’s positive energy and outlook.
“Muriel was caring, funny, gracious, so incredibly inspirational and hard-working,” she said. “I loved the joy that she poured into her life's work, the dedication to her family and community.”
Candace Shaabgiizhik described how Sawyer was a role model for young students.
“She was someone many of us looked up to and turned to for her guidance, knowledge, honesty, and simply to be in the presence of such a strong Nishnaabekwe,” Shaabgiizhik said. “Our community and Nishnaabemwin language have made exceptional gains because of her, and will continue to grow because of the knowledge she has shared with us all.”
Sawyer taught at Our Lady of Sorrows in Sturgeon Falls, where many Nipissing First Nation students start their education. She later became vice-principal at Nbisiing Secondary School where some of those same students completed their high school education. And she was a long-time language teacher for post-secondary education programs and night school.
Kelsey Borgford shared how Sawyer put her energy behind many community initiatives.
“As an educator, I looked up to Muriel Sawyer in a lot of ways. She was at the forefront of Indigenous education and was behind many movements that would ensure our community’s cultural continuation especially the language,” Borgford wrote.
“She fought for the community in every way. I think it’s our job as youth to recognize that and take what she gave us and put it to use,” she wrote. “I hope we can do our best to continue what Muriel gave to us.”
Sawyer named the 2014 Indigenous Youth Education Gathering at Nipissing University, ‘Debwendizon.’ In Anishnaabemwin, she said, Debwendizon is rooted in one of the Seven Grandfather Teachings – Debwewin or Truth. Sawyer said Debwendizon means to "believe in yourself," noting how that’s one of the most important things: “In order to pursue an education you need to believe that you can. So, by saying ‘debwendizon,’ you are commanding your spirit, and yourself to say ‘I believe in myself.’"
Chief Scott McLeod-Shabogesic broke the bad news to the community through a video posted on Facebook Saturday night.
“For the past six years, Muriel has worked tirelessly as a councillor, a partner, an elder, my right hand, my deputy chief,” McLeod-Shabogesic said after describing how she was a driving force behind the community’s efforts to preserve and revitalize Anishinaabemowin and other aspects of their culture.
“Although Muriel’s passing will leave a huge hole in our community, she will also leave an everlasting hand print on the many great things our community has and will continue to accomplish. She will be missed by many as we move on without her physical presence,” he said.
Mike Sawyer, her son and fellow council member, stated on social media Monday that details of funeral service were being worked out, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and protocols impact what they can do.
Family members have already honoured her with sacred fires and prayers, he said.
“She wanted everyone to do what they thought needed to be done in their own way,” Mike Sawyer stated. “So by all means, whatever anyone does for honouring her, by all means, do what you have to do in a safe way.”
On Monday evening, the obituary notice was posted:
Sawyer, Muriel (née Commanda) 1951 – 2021
With heavy hearts the family announces the passing of Muriel by her bedside in Sudbury, Saturday February 7th, 2021 at the age of 69 years. Daughter of Emelda Marshall (née Commanda). Partner in crime, John Sawyer. Loving mother of Michael Sawyer (Monique), sister of Len Marshall. As well as being a well-respected leader for her Nation, Muriel was also an ambassador, mentor, and language keeper of Nishnaabemwin who will be missed by many. The family will receive friends for visitation at the Theoret-Bourgeois Funeral Home in Sturgeon Falls on Tuesday, February 9th, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A funeral service will be held Wednesday, February 10th, at the Theoret-Bourgeois Funeral Home at 11 a.m. Due to Covid restrictions masks will be mandatory and attendance numbers will be monitored.
Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.