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sex education

Megan Whyte says her three-year-old daughter Kahnawiiostha can name every part of a uterus. Knowledge like that, Whyte adds, leads to language such as ‘my body is mine.’Christinne Muschi for the globe and mail

This is one of four stories exploring culturally relevant First Nations sex education. Read the other stories:
-Indigenous languages recognize gender states not even named in English
-How this indigenous youth is making sex education sexy
-How the traditional indigenous practice of beading can lead to frank talk about sex

Megan Kanerahtenhawi Whyte is encircled by a group of about 10 other young Mohawk parents and their children in a garden in Kahnawake, a community just outside of Montreal. All their hands are sunk in soil, planting seeds, pulling weeds and sculpting a woman out of earth.

A young parent herself, Whyte is leading a cutting-edge youth parenting program called Skátne Ionkwatehiahróntie, or "Our Families Grow Together." She partnered with Native Youth Sexual Health Network a year ago to undertake parenting and reproductive teachings in a land-based framework.

Touching the soil-laden female body and harvesting plants leads to a discussion about consent – the importance of asking permission before touching or taking. The planting of the seeds lends itself to talk about fertility, sex and pregnancy.

Taking care of the plot, the watering and weeding is representative of the responsibility to care for families and the land that feeds them.

"It's just a really powerful metaphoric space for parents and their children to interact with our cultural stories and our teachings but also to interact with the land and each other to build our own concepts of relationships," Whyte says.

As part of the program, the young parents and their children visit and tend to the garden on a regular basis. "It's just a really expansive kind of conversation that can happen from planting a seed in the dirt."

At each step of her program, Whyte cultivates traditional Mohawk teachings on life cycles, relationships, identity and even sexual anatomy.

She tells me, humblingly, that her three-year-old daughter "can name every single part of a uterus."

And most kids in her parenting program can probably boast the same anatomical prowess. In one of the activities, parents and children, armed with cloth and thread, sew stuffed uteruses, identifying the tubes, layers and lining as they go. "My little one can tell you what happens in the uterus, where it's located, and how important it is. And that knowledge leads to using language like 'my body is mine.'"

For Whyte, it's about instilling teachings about permission and boundaries early on so participants grow up knowing values that embody safety and respect. "Later on in life if they are exposed to really challenging situations where consent is involved, they feel better prepared and it's not unknown territory."

Her program is only in its infancy, and already its success has exceeded community expectations. And that's no easy feat. According to Whyte, filling gaps in services for young indigenous parents is difficult. One of her jobs as a co-ordinator of Skátne Ionkwatehiahróntie is to act as a liaison to help young parents access basic needs like health care. She says often youth with children face stigma and shame in receiving services because of judgment and discrimination.

In line with the Network's values, Whyte is reclaiming needed space for young Mohawk parents, but she's also reclaiming traditional ceremonies and teachings.

"Your body is framed as this gross negative thing and that stigma carries on for generations, so it's like trying to break that and reclaim and re-integrate our female ceremonies," she says.

Recently, Whyte's parenting group was part of a ceremony in a moon lodge that celebrated a women's moon time – or, in Western terms, her period. The lodge is made of a frame of willow branches and covered in cloth and blankets.

Participants sing songs and speak words to honour the moon and celebrate being a woman. Traditional and modern teachings are shared through ancestral stories that carry lessons about roles and relationships. Outside of the lodge, a sacred fire is lit and kept ablaze by a youth.

"We managed to have the fire lit and blazing through rain and wind. It was almost as if Mother Nature was testing us to see how committed we were and almost instantly, the weather improved."

For Whyte it was a powerful gathering for the young women that came. "To wear our skirts and bare feet on the earth in the middle of December – we all felt so connected."

The lodge was run entirely by the youth, from the organizing of it to the fire-keeping – keeping in line with Skátne Ionkwatehiahróntie's purpose of empowering young people to become confident in their identities, sexual health and teachings.

"I think that the most powerful element of the moon lodge was to see our young mothers take leadership roles in running the lodge and supporting each other. It was hot, it was raw, and it was ancient – it was everything it needed to be. It was truly an ancestral and empowering experience for all of us."

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