by Karen Elgersma –
Lillian Underwood is an Employment and Training Service Manager for the Tsawout First Nation, an entrepreneur, a facilitator and “Train the Trainer” of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise (KBE). She is also a certified executive coach and a motivational speaker with liveitbydesign.com. Through sharing her personal journey, Lillian communicates how she overcame childhood abuse, phobias, lack of self-worth and overwhelming debt to live today debt-free and empower others to live their dreams. Lillian’s story will inspire hope in every heart that is open to change. She is Southern Tutchone from Kluane First Nation in the Yukon Territory. She resides in Victoria with her husband, former Chief Harvey Underwood, of the Coast Salish people of the Tsawout First Nation.
You grew up in a very remote area in the Yukon. What was your childhood like and how did that impact you when you became a young adult?
I grew up in a small First Nations community called Burwash Landing with less than a hundred families that lived there year round. There was a lot of alcohol in my community; I remember all the adults being intoxicated for a month at a time. Thankfully I had older brothers and a sister who watched us and my three younger siblings. There was so much alcohol that we would find and drink cheap wine from our mom’s room or anywhere else in the community. I remember my cousin and I finding home brew in the forest. We were curious and started to eat the fruit as it floated on top of the huge bucket of about four feet tall, only to find out it made us stumble and unable to walk. That was one of my first introductions to being drunk. I never knew why there was so much drinking in our community and in our home. I remember most of our Christmas holidays being filled with my aunts, uncles and their friends, all drunk. It was a hard, sad time. Of course with all the drinking came various abuses like physical, mental, sexual and emotional pain.
Share with us how you were able to overcome the pain and shame you carried from your childhood?
When I was sexually attacked at a young age, I remember running home and telling my mom what happened. She looked at me and said I was lying. As a result I became closed off from telling her or anyone else anything that happened to me. I never shared any of my experiences with anyone until I was much older and left home. I began to read self help books on being raised in alcoholic homes that began to help me understand what I went through. I married an amazing man, Harvey Underwood, who listened and supported me. I realized that prayer and forgiveness helped me to let go of the past and forgive those that hurt me. It was not easy, but in order to move on I needed to begin to care and love who I am and start to value who I was. All my life I tried to fix everything all around me on the outside, but meanwhile I needed to forgive and love who I am on the inside. I also learned later in my life that my parents, who separated when we were small, both went to residential school along with all their cousins and siblings in our community. My grandparents took care of us children when we were small. They both passed on before I learned about residential school. No one told us our parents, their family and friends all went to residential school. Today I wish I knew they went and that I could have asked my late grandma and grandpa how they felt when all their kids were taken away from them. When I began to learn about that I also began to understand why there was a lot of alcoholism in our small community. Learning about past history, prayer and talking about it to my husband and best friends also helped me to overcome the pain and shame I went through.
You are a facililtator of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise program – a unique, transformative participatory history lesson developed in collaboration with Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers and educators. It fosters truth, understanding, respect and reconciliation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Why do you think the key to reconciliation is through education and understanding?
The key to reconciliation is through education, understanding and building relationships with non-Indigenous peoples. The Kairos Blanket Exercise is a powerful tool that teaches about 500 years of history in 45 minutes of presentation and then sitting down and hearing first hand stories of what Indigenous people experienced. My husband Harvey went to day school here in Victoria and I went to Yukon Hall in Whitehorse; both were a form of residential schools. Our two daughters, who I homeschooled for most of their lives, are the first generation to not go to residential schools.
How do you use your gifts as a certified executive coach and motivator in your role as an Employment and Training Service Manager for the Tsawout First Nation?
I love working for Tsawout First Nation and the community because I am married in. I just started this new position. I enjoy talking to people, no matter where they are, and finding out what they want to do in life. It’s fun to be able to help them find training or support in the work environment. I think I like doing this because I struggled for so long to figure out what I wanted to do in life. I would say that the people of Tsawout and other First Nation communities are very friendly and there to help during hard times. My father in law recently passed away unexpectedly and the community came around and showed their support (food, drinks and money to help with funeral costs) to all our family members.
This past spring the death of George Floyd sparked a powerful and passionate movement. As an Indigenous leader in the community, what is your response to the Black Lives Matter Movement?
I think that no real change can come unless the heart is moved and impacted. The Kairos Blanket Exercise changes people’s minds and they become emotionally involved and change how they view Indigenous people by the end of the exercise. No matter what colour you are, you matter to someone who is connected or in a relationship with you. It’s when people of different colour are not in a heart relationship that misunderstanding from the mind happens.
As a white privileged female I know for sure I need to do better; what wisdom do you have for me and anyone looking to be an ally in this movement?
Build healthy relationships with Indigenous people, watch movies like We Were Children, Indian Horse and Taken to understand what happened in Canadian history. Attend a Kairos Blanket Exercise workshop. I am available to do one or I can set it up for your organization and send in trained Indigenous facilitators.
As an Indigenous female leader and a mom of two young women, what wisdom can you share to inspire us to be more open hearted and inclusive?
Be the change you want to see happen. I grew up in an alcoholic home with no relationship with my mom. Today I have an awesome relationship with her and understand what she went through more today than when I was a child. As a mom, I choose to build and love our two daughters who are now young ladies. I never had a relationship with my mom when I was younger, but I changed that in my close relationship with our daughters.
What inspiration can you offer to those who are feeling anxious or isolated as a result of the global pandemic?
What has helped me is prayer and talking to someone you trust to share your fears. Sometimes the old fears like anxiety can try to come and scare you, like they have for me. Breathe and go get some fresh air and start to be thankful for all that is good in your life. We have clean running water, medical help, food and shelter. What we focus on flourishes. We will all get through this together.
How can someone get in touch with you if they want more info about your coaching or KBE?
They can contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Janis Jean Photography