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A risk taker reaches out to community

Ruth Stellgas is a vibrant new addition to the community A counselor for the Liard Aboriginal Women's Society, she comes to us from a position of teacher/counsellor at the college in Kelowna,


Ruth Stellgas is a vibrant new addition to the community

A counselor for the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, she comes to us from a position of teacher/counsellor at the college in Kelowna, a place she has lived for more than 20 years and which she found had grown too big and too busy for her comfort.

She arrived in search of community, and a sense of extended family. If she doesn’t find it, she is willing to play a part in creating it, a community whose members are more interested in ‘we’ than ‘me.’

Though she has been here only since mid-March, she believes she senses a hunger here, a longing for a feeling of family that goes beyond blood. There is a lot for her to learn, she says, before she feels she has an idea of how to be most effective.

It is hopeful, and meaningful that Kaska young people, for the most part, tend to refer to any woman of a certain age as ‘auntie,’ a cultural reminder of the importance of that kind of recognition, she says.

A woman of the Nez Pierce in Idaho, through her maternal grandmother, Stellgas found her own way to her cultural roots.

“We were a farming family, of Irish/German descent, and it was that part of our heritage that was emphasized when I was growing up. I sought out the native rituals; the dancing and the drumming and found myself there.”

“When I asked my father to tell me of our native blood, he would only say, ‘You’d have to have asked your grandmother, and she’s dead,’” she says.

Stellgas is the only one of her siblings to go on the search for aboriginal teachings. The journey took her from Idaho to Montana to Washington State, to Mexico and finally to Canada. Along the way she encountered and embraced many aspects of aboriginal culture and traditions while marrying, having two sons, and working a variety of jobs from cooking on oil rigs to working as a saleslady for Sears.

In Mexico, she decided to go back to school as a mature student, finding her niche in psychology and counseling.

“I discovered listening quiets my mind and gives me new perspectives,” she says. “My own path has been fraught with traumas and issues common to my clients; this gives me an empathy that is very useful in counseling. I love this work. I love helping someone who is feeling trapped and despairing to find a glimmer of hope. The first session, I want that person to leave feeling there is a real chance for a better life. I also want them to leave with something they can do that very day, however small, to start them on their way to wellness.”

The Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society hired her to work with survivors of residential schools, though she is trained and available to counsel on victims of trauma, addictions and most issues that may lead a person to seek her services.

It could also be mentioned that Stellgas does not demand clients come to her office for a session; she is willing to go almost anywhere a client feels most comfortable, providing it is safe, and claims some of the best exchanges are possible simply by walking together.

Her methods are a mixture of western psychotherapy and cultural healing and she sees them as complementing one another very well.

“Group etiquette is one of the most important aspects, to my mind, of working effectively,” she says. “There must be civility; it is of maximum importance in creating a feeling of respect, of attentiveness, of a willingness to listen to one another. It fosters trust among people.

“Confidentiality is a given, and healthy boundaries must be learned and observed. With those things in place, the miracles can start to happen.”

Her sons are grown and on their own; Stellgas sees this as her time to continue her education. She is currently working on her master’s in counseling.

“I am a risk taker; though I am loyal to my commitments of job and family, I try to follow through on working towards my life dreams and damn the resistance and challenges!”

She grows pensive.

“Often my family questions my choices; they wish I would just settle into something safe, and be where they can find me at all times, but I need to keep reaching and moving. I can’t imagine retiring.”

What does Stellgas do for fun? What activities can take her away from the seriousness of her job?

“I dance” she says. “I love music, and moving to it. And I also love to cook and bake. If I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed, I cook.

“Complicated recipes are fun for me. I made a roasted turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken last Christmas. Three kinds of fowl and three kinds of stuffing; all the birds deboned. It was a massive undertaking, but well worth it for the incredible tastes and the amazement of everyone who ate it.

“There were even pictures taken.”

Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer who lives in Watson Lake.