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Shayla Stonechild is Using Yoga to Shift the Narrative Around What It Means to Be Native

Through her Matriarch Movement nonprofit, Indigenous yoga teacher Shayla Stonechild is taking back the culture and heritage that was stolen from her—and helping other Native women do the same.

Two years ago, Shayla Stonechild awoke from a dream at 4 in the morning in her Vancouver apartment. She had goosebumps on her arms and chills running down her back. A voice had whispered a dharma in her ear as she slept. Three little words: the Matriarch Movement. “I believe dreams are messages from your ancestors or your guides,” Stonechild says. “And I thought, I need to make this come alive.” What that would look like—that became her pathfinding mission.

The Making of a Matriarch Movement

As an Indigenous woman living in Canada, Stonechild, 27, who is Plains Cree and Métis from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation, is no stranger to fear and discrimination. Today, there are more than 4,000 documented unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native women and girls in the United States and Canada, according to a 2020 report by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a research nonprofit tracking gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. And experts warn that these estimates are low “due to underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and Native communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” wrote the Urban Indian Health Institute in a 2018 “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls” report.

At the time her ancestors brought her that dream, Stonechild was sick of feeling vulnerable. Invisible. Disposable. But her vision told her that change was afoot. In that moment, she realized she could create a ripple effect—“a rise and a reclamation of who we are as Indigenous people, but specifically women,” she says. Her idea was to develop the Matriarch Movement as a platform to rewrite the mainstream narrative around Indigenous women, to create a community for sharing stories of empowerment, prosperity, and resilience with the unified message: We are more than just a statistic.

Shayla Stonechild holding her hand to her third eye

In Canada, one piece of legislation more than a hundred years old still controls Indigenous life. The 1876 Indian Act, which dictates Native status, land, education, and resources, also imposed a European-style electoral system that overthrew the Indigenous system of self-governance that had been in place for thousands of years.

Everything in the Indian Act was designed to strip Natives of their culture and remake them in the image of colonizers. Residential boarding schools were set up to “assimilate” First Nations people. This meant removing children from their homes, sometimes violently, and putting them in highly abusive, church-run schools designed to erase their heritage, traditions, and language. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that from 1883 to 1998, at least 3,200 children died in them. Many of the deaths were covered up, the bodies never found. In fact, in 2015, the now-dissolved Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (initially organized as an effort to record the history of the residential school system) found that for nearly one-third of the known dead, the name of the student was never even recorded. Authorities routinely neglected to report deaths to parents.

This brutal history is not far removed: The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, but Stonechild says it was merely replaced with the Child Welfare System—nearly half of the 30,000 children and youth in foster care are Indigenous, and in some provinces, the amount of Native children in foster care reaches 78 percent. What’s more, while Indigenous people account for only 5 percent of the population in Canada, of the country’s 651 murders in 2018, 140 of the victims were Native—more than a fifth of reported homicides.

Shayla Stonechild in reverse warrior

I first met Stonechild back in December, during a whirlwind couple of days when she was finally able to meet up between production of her television show, Red Earth Uncovered (a documentary series on Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, where she explores Indigenous mysteries, myths, and legends), and a photoshoot for Lululemon (she’s on the brand’s Vancouver Advisory Committee for Diversity and Inclusion). The Matriarch Movement had just officially gained nonprofit status and had begun hosting wellness workshops and retreats specifically for Indigenous youth.

“It started as a platform, but now it’s an organization amplifying Indigenous voices through meditation, movement, and medicine,” Stonechild says. I wondered what she meant by medicine. “It’s reclaiming an Indigenous worldview,” she tells me.

Last year, for example, she interviewed 11 Indigenous women for the Matriarch Movement’s Instagram account, asking them how they’re taking back their power and identities through the work they do. “Because for me, it’s meditation and movement, but for someone else, it may be totally different,” Stonechild says. “And so, how can we incorporate our traditions in a modern-day sense? It’s coming back to telling our own stories through our own lens.”

Throughout history, she says, Indigenous stories have been told from a white, colonial point of view: “We are always highlighted in a stereotypical way. It’s always a Native on a horse, or a Native at a powwow, or playing a flute, and it’s like, actually, we can be Indigenous people and not just be those stereotypes.”

Shayla Stonechild holding a rose and smiling

Among the 11 women Stonechild interviewed last year were activist, academic, and media-maker Nikki Sanchez and Canadian actor Grace Dove—best known for her role in 2015’s The Revenant, in which she starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as fur trapper Hugh Glass’s wife. Although the film received 12 Academy Award nominations that year (the most of any picture) and despite the very loud and viral conversation around the lack of representation among nominees (read: #OscarsSoWhite), Dove wasn’t invited to the event. For Dove, 29, like Stonechild, “medicine” is in helping control the narrative regarding her people. “I reclaim my power by continuing to push for acting roles that lift us up and challenge Hollywood’s portrayal of us,” Dove told Stonechild. “By standing up and using my voice for those who can’t.”

Sanchez, 34, who is Pipil/Maya and holds a master’s degree in Indigenous governance, was introduced to Stonechild through mutual friends. Sanchez says she was surprised by Stonechild’s humble and lighthearted sensibility, the way she’s able to laugh and play so easily. “Often, wellness spaces are very exclusionary and are known for not being very good at upholding diverse representations of what wellness looks like across different races and cultures,” Sanchez says. “So in order to gain success and recognition here, you have to cultivate a tough skin. And usually, there’s a lot of ego that assists in not being discouraged by those spaces that aren’t inherently welcoming. For Shayla to be so successful in what she does and be well received and still have such an open heart and joyful spirit, it’s really a beautiful thing.”

Decolonizing Wellness

Matriarch Movement workshops aim to decolonize wellness by bringing healing modalities to Indigenous communities through (now-online) lectures, breathwork, movement, and meditation exercises, and they’re custom-designed based on the needs of those in attendance: Suicide prevention, addiction awareness, and how to bring balance to mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health are all part of Stonechild’s repertoire. And she always works in a little bit of yoga and meditation.

Shayla Stonechild in goddess pose

After losing her father to suicide in December 2009 and growing up with the generational trauma imposed by colonization, at 18, Stonechild found much-needed healing thanks in part to yoga. And once she started understanding the philosophy beyond the asana through yoga teacher training, she immediately recognized a connection between yogic wisdom and her own heritage.

“If you think of how Indigenous people used to live, we had a direct connection to the Creator and to the world around us,” she says. “We had relationships to the land, the water, the sky, the stars. We spoke in tone, in a vibration and frequency. We passed down stories through oral tradition—not because we were stupid, but because we knew the power behind our words and vibrations and intention and prayer and song. We [found] purification of the mind, body, and spirit through sacrifice, through ceremony, through rituals. We were always cleansing and committing ourselves to something higher than just ourselves.” Even though much of yoga’s terminology may be different, the intention is exactly the same, Stonechild says. Both traditions recognize that we are not separate from the divine—we don’t have to look for a version of “Source” outside of ourselves.

And that’s exactly why she says she can’t separate herself, or her yoga, from the social issues that define her existence. Lately, she says, there’s been a push to keep politics out of certain wellness spaces and a demand for “good vibes only.” But that approach actually denounces wholeness, she says. “If you’re asking me to leave half of myself at the door, then I can’t show up in a whole, authentic way: Where is the balance of social justice and well-being at the same time? You need the entire picture to achieve the latter. My whole existence being Indigenous is political, because in the eyes of the Canadian government, I’m still disposable. Being alive is a political act in itself.”