"As a young girl leaving home to further my education, learning languages foreign to me (English and French), I never realized one day my work would serve as a foundation for the preservation of the Blackfoot language. I am grateful to, and acknowledge, my late husband James, my parents and ancestors, my wonderful children, their spouses, my grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, my many adopted children and, of course, my siblings. I was blessed with a good, long life and I remain ever hopeful that our cultural and contemporary teachings will preserve our language and contribute to the strength and growth of the Blackfoot people."
Lena Heavy Shields-Russell (Ikkináínihki) is an Elder, author, teacher and translator dedicated to preserving the Blackfoot language. She created Alberta’s first Blackfoot curriculum, which is still used today. Her love of language, teaching and Indigenous culture have inspired countless Blackfoot people to build a deeper connection with their heritage.
Lena Heavy Shields was born October 5, 1933, at the Blood Indian Hospital in Cardston, Alberta. She was the first of 13 children for Eddie Sr. and Adelaide Heavy Shields, members of the Kainai First Nation and descendants of Chief Heavy Shield, who was present at the making of Treaty 7 in 1877. Lena’s mother stayed at home to take care of the growing family, while her father worked as a manager and rancher on the Blood Band ranch.
A Kainai Elder gave Lena the Blackfoot name Ikkináínihki, which means “Gentle Singer.” From an early age, she was immersed in the rhythmic imagery of oral tales and grew up listening to her paternal grandmother, Kate Spotted Eagle-Three Persons, and other family Elders as they told stories purely in Blackfoot, sparking an early respect for the power of language. Her parents, strong believers in the value of hard work, instilled in her a fierce ambition to succeed and a life-long streak of perfectionism.
Lena brought those traits with her when she began her education at St. Mary’s Residential School on the Blood Reserve, which she attended until the end of Grade 8. Always achieving the highest marks in her class, she went on to an all-girls school in Legal. These days were terribly lonely for Lena. She was the only Indigenous student and had to learn French to communicate with her classmates and teachers. But she did more than survive. She thrived. She continued to play the piano she learned while in residential school. She studied hard. Ultimately, Lena and a friend received the highest marks in the Sturgeon School Division for their Grade 9 departmental exams, earning Governor General’s medals for their achievements.
After high school in Pincher Creek, Lena went on to the University of Alberta, where she was once again one of the few Indigenous students on campus. She completed Normal School and qualified as a teacher, returning to St. Mary’s in 1956 to teach.
Meanwhile, Lena’s long-time friendship with James Russell grew into a romantic relationship and the couple married in 1955. Together, they had seven children and co-managed their cattle and ranch operation in the valley named “Where Bald Eagles Nest” on the Blood Reserve. James Sr. passed away in 1993, however, his ranch operation continues through his son James Jr.
As busy as she was at home, Lena’s thirst for learning remained unquenchable. Never one to limit her pursuit of knowledge to the classroom, she pushed herself to expand her skills, engaging with Elders and devoting as much time as she could to developing her talents.
Eventually, Lena would master an incredibly diverse range of creative endeavours – from tipi-making, portrait painting and outdoor landscaping, to sewing Jingle dresses and Grass Dance outfits, knitting sweaters, beading and canning – all benefitting from a rigorous attention to detail.
She would continue her post-secondary education with the same relentless focus. Rising early to drive the 130 kilometres from the ranch to her eight o’clock classes at the University of Lethbridge, Lena obtained a Bachelor of Education degree in 1977 and a professional diploma in education in 1987.
She spent much of her career on the Blood Reserve, rising to the rank of vice-principal at St. Mary’s. She also taught literacy classes for adults at night school. She particularly enjoyed teaching Elders who shared their own stories in Blackfoot as her grandmother did. Later, Lena taught at Cardston Junior and Senior High School, as well as at the University of Lethbridge and Red Crow Community College, earning a reputation as a gifted educator whose warmth, charm and profound intelligence won over generations of students.
Her genuine enthusiasm for teaching, combined with vivid memories of her grandmother’s stories, led Lena to find her calling – safeguarding the Blackfoot language by passing it on to the next generation.
Determined to have Blackfoot recognized officially and used in the school curriculum, Lena became one of the first from her Tribe to begin writing her people’s language, which had remained almost completely oral to that point. She went on to produce 13 books, including Blackfoot Stories of Old, which have become invaluable resources for students and teachers. Lena worked with graphic artist and adopted son William Singer III to ensure her Blackfoot curriculum books would be used as visual and grammatical reference teaching materials for students. She gained particular attention for her ground-breaking Blackfoot translation of John McCrae’s classic World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” which she is often called upon to recite at Remembrance Day ceremonies. Lena’s translation is now housed in Holland, taking its rightful place in a veterans’ museum.
Lena would go on to teach the Blackfoot language and general literacy skills for more than 50 years. Along the way, she partnered with Alberta Education to develop a Blackfoot curriculum for grades 7 to 12, which remains in use today. She is a proud member of the Aitsi’poyiiksi, a group dedicated to preserving the Blackfoot language. Her life’s work has done much to ensure that the Blackfoot have the knowledge they need to sustain this priceless piece of their heritage, now and forever.
Strongly community-minded, Lena has served with a number of organizations in southern Alberta and on the Kainai First Nation. She was a correspondent and board member at Indian News Media, and a member of the Senate Committee at the University of Lethbridge. Lena spent several years on the board at the Ninastako Cultural Centre, helping to transmit Blackfoot language and culture to younger members of her people. She also served as a board member with the Blood Tribe Police Commission, improving relations between law enforcement and the population. Lena regularly hosted Women’s Weekend Wellness tipi retreats and her tipi, which she made herself, was a fixture at sun dances, Indian Day celebrations and family gatherings for many years.
Lena’s achievements have led to her becoming an honoured Elder among the Kainai and an authority whose expertise is recognized around the world. She has received many accolades for her work, including recognition for 30 years of service at St. Mary’s School, the Blackfoot Confederacy Education Conference Lifetime Achievement Award and the Esquao Award from the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lethbridge in 2006.
Still, Lena is truly defined by the most deeply felt acts of generosity. She was brought up with the Blackfoot belief that help and comfort should be given before they are asked for and she has never failed to live up to that standard. Over the years, Lena has opened her heart and home to kids, adopting so many that even her family can’t keep track of the exact number. She has never hesitated to reach out, once showing up unannounced on the doorstep of a student when she heard he didn’t have appropriate clothing to wear to graduation. Lena took him shopping immediately and then drove him to grad so he could celebrate with everyone else.
This, too, is part of Blackfoot culture, which sees the mother invest everything she has in her children, sewing seeds of love and devotion that will bear fruit in her golden years. Lena’s definition of “her children” has always been broader than everyone else’s, but that’s in keeping with her personality and her long list of accomplishments. Lena continues to reside on the Blood Reserve. She has seven biological children, many traditionally adopted children, 46 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.
She has been a mother to all of the Blackfoot, leading by example, teaching them, protecting them and nurturing their sense of self as they make their way in the world.
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