Sonya Nadine Mae: A Written Portrait

 

Date of Birth: August 19, 1963

Date reported Missing: August 26, 1994

Date of Passing: August 30, 1994

Twenty years have passed and justice for Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink seems like it will arrive anytime now. We hold out hope that out there lies the truth about the person(s) responsible for her premature death. Perhaps someone who may hold answers will come forward, realizing, 20 years later they have daughters or granddaughters who will benefit from the truth. The Ontario Provincial Police have been working tirelessly to solve her murder and we as First Nations need to stay vigilant as well. Sonya has become our passion and we will never give up hope that one day justice will prevail. 

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Sonya's artwork, age 3 years old (1966)

Gateway to Our Ancestors

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Sonya Nadine Mae was found at the Ancient Southwold Neutral Indian Earthworks, 65 km west of London, Ontario on August 30, 1994. Twenty years later her sister, Mag visited the site in honor of Sonya and took the photograph of the tree at which Sonya was found. Mag believes this place to be a "Gateway to Our Ancestors" and that Sonya was met by our people while transiting from this world to the next. A very sacred site.

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Moccasin vamps made by Kiki McGregor, dear cousin, in honour and remembrance of Sonya. The vamps are currently traveling as part of the Walking With Our Sisters bundle.

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Moccasin vamps made by O. Naomi, Sonya's eldest sister, in honour and remembrance of Sonya to the collection in Thunder Bay in October, 2014. The vamps are currently traveling with the Walking With Our Sisters bundle. 

Sonya’s written portrait: Biiskwaa-noodin–kwe

This story is also aboutAnishinaabekwe Sonya Nadine Mae and her unborn child. As the 20th anniversary of Sonya’s passing comes full circle we want to bring awareness to our youth, our leaders of tomorrow, the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Our sister, Biiskwaa-noodin–kwe, Sonya Nadine Mae and her unborn child were gathered to our people outside of Iona Station at an ancient Neutral Indian earthworks site, about 65 kilometers west of London in late August 1994.

Sonya expected people to behave and treat themselves and her with dignity and respect, which was a fundamental belief she lived.

Writing was a passion for Sonya; her beautiful cursive skill was honed to make you feel she was an artist with words filled with magic and mysterious in nature. Poetry and stories became a way of expression for her. Becoming a writer was always in the forefront of Sonya’s mind and reading her work was a pleasure. If we needed to find her, she could be found immersed in a book, a world of her choosing with no idea of time.

Laughter, light-hearted humor, adventure, genuine honesty, quiet and observant and kindness are definitely Sonya’s personality traits. She was a rare find, everyone’s best friend and judged no one. She was a well grounded sister and had a spirit of generosity and loyalty a trait we all long to posses. Sonya never took life too seriously. As young children we learned to polka, she had rhythm and a deep love of music, always the champion by out dancing us all.

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L-R front row: Sonya Nadine Mae, Mag, and Vivian. L-R back row: John, Alex, and Carl.

Sonya Nadine Mae was the twelfth child of thirteen, the seventh daughter, of Ojibway/Potawatomi and Polish decent, from a family of devout Catholics. She was petite and beautiful of appearance.  

Our parents Estelle Ruth (nee McGregor) and Wilfred Laurier Cywink Sr. were married June 6, 1949 and began their life and the rearing of a family immediately as family was always the center of their life. Lots of fun, laughter and intellectual stimulation could be found in our home and at our dinner table. Mom’s full time job was to raise the children and give us the life skills to go out in the world and become productive members of society. She taught us the importance of looking out for one other and to stand up for the principle, justice and to be charitable toward our neighbor, whom ever we found that to be in our life. Education and getting off the reserve was important to her, but never to forget the place and the people we came from was a life lesson she taught with conviction. Mom bought two sets of encyclopedias for us to learn and explore the world at home and to be able to help with our school reports, long before the internet or Birch Island had a library. 

Ojibway is the dominant language of our people, but because Dad was not fluent Mom believed we needed to learn how to speak English correctly and enunciation was important to her, English being the dominant language back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.We are all thankful today for this important foundation and communication is easy.  Sitting around the dining room table was always the highlight of our home. Discussing world affairs and debating was a favorite pastime, the principle was “key”, we all acquired very strong personalities because the fight for the principle of the matter was taught early. 

The Indian Act prior to 1986 removed Indian women from their nationhood by the loss of status prior to 1985 amendments, whereby marrying a man who was not a status Indian. We are a family of Bill C-31. We never knew the benefits of being “Status Indians” as they were once called because our mother who was “Status Indian”, legally married my father, who was of half Polish decent and half Ojibway. My paternal grandmother lost her status and would never regain it before her death. We did not get the “benefits” of being First Nation until after 1986 and so we had to learn how to get thru the world without it. This fact allowed some of us to realize independence and not to be caught up with the dependency of Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development DIAND. 

Dad worked and retired from Canadian Pacific Railway CPR, a job he held for 33 years and taught us the importance of hard work and being responsible for a family. He was quiet and mostly kept to himself, a deep thinker, a true role model. Sonya’s personality was most like Dad. He was a southpaw, a “lefty”, a trait Sonya and Mag shared with him and they always felt a bit special, apart from the rest of their siblings. Something only they possessed, a gift from Dad.

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L-R front row: Sonya Nadine Mae, family friend, Mag. L-R back row: Alex, John, and Carl.

Sonya was a domestic diva long before it become fashionable, a queen of grilled cheese and inventing a few new sandwiches along the way. She taught Mag to dip chips in ketchup long before dipping sauces or ketchup chips were popular. 

She never had an unkind word for anyone and would see the good everywhere and in everyone. She lent words of encouragement to her friends and picked them up when they were down. She was willing to help people out and put her own interests on hold in the process.  Sonya was more of a thinker, an introvert at heart, but when she needed to bring her larger than life personality out she lit up a room. She was a good student because we were taught that education was freedom and there was a big world out there waiting to be explored. Sonya’s aspirations and dreams to be a flight attendant and travel the world, as well as her vision of becoming a writer played a key part of her young life.

Sonya was a fun loving, energetic, and sweet sister. She was considered, “one of the babies” and was handled with kid gloves. She always took a back seat when it came to our youngest sister Anastasia and she was okay with her place in the family. Sonya learned early on that staying in her sister’s shadow was fine.

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Left photo - L-R front row: Anastasia, Mag, Vivian. L-R back row: Sonya Nadine Mae.
Middle photo: Sonya Nadine Mae. 
Right photo: Anastasia and Sonya Nadine Mae.

In essence we had two families. Our older siblings began to leave home in 1969. They either married or went off to school. The remaining six children of which, Sonya was the second youngest, grew up under more lenient rules and our parents gave us more freedom. Having more freedom can create its own challenges.

Sonya’s formative years were traumatized, an experience that changed her forever. Eventually, it led to early pregnancy, dropping out of high school, a change in lifestyle, questionable relationships and drug and alcohol dependency. Sonya never regained her dignity, self respect or confidence it was stolen. She essentially became a Stolen Sister. She began to numb her early trauma with substance abuse.

In 1991, Sonya wholeheartedly attempted to mend her fractured life by getting clean, but once again, coping with the overwhelming pain of drugs won over. Sonya’s story teaches us to report sexual abuse immediately to the authorities, seek professional counseling, encourage educational pursuits, and become role models in our communities. Such noble and valiant actions will empower women to move beyond the pain and become victorious. Without help, the road may lead to addiction, incarceration, and even death. 

All Sonya was looking for was love, acceptance and a way to deal with her early experience, something that would haunt her for the next four years. She began to work in the sex trade to support her substance abuse. Unfortunately, Sonya trusted the wrong person (s) and her downward spiral took her life on the weekend of August 26, 1994. We will never cease to forget and continue to seek justice for her.

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Anastasia and Sonya Nadine Mae.

“Honor Our Ancestors”, was a gathering organized for Sonya Nadine Mae at the site where she was discovered on August 30th, 1994, the ancient Neutral Indian Earthworks, at Iona Station Southwold Earthworks

In 1998, Sonya’s sister Mag and husband Tom asked their mentor, Floyd Hand Looks for Buffalo, Oglala Medicine Man from Pine Ridge, South Dakota to travel to Ontario to perform the sacred rite for Sonya and her unborn child, “Releasing the Spirit”. She was given her Indian name Biiskwaa-noodin–kwe and both mother and child gained freedom from this world to the next. So very early on, long before protests and the movement began Sonya was at the forefront of change. The ceremony brought us a great deal of peace and we felt Sonya’s and her unborn child were being honored. The gathering was attended by over 400 people and all participants walked away with a traditional teaching and a new respect of First Nations.

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Floyd Hand, Lakota Medicine Man from Pine Ridge.

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Floyd Hand, Lakota Medicine Man from Pine Ridge (seated, holding eagle fan.)

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Circle.

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Left photo: Floyd Hand, Lakota Medicine Man from Pine Ridge. Right photo: OPP Detective Inspector Chris Gheysen, Tom and Mag, nephew Sam Cywink. 

Life lessons

Sonya has taught Alex, O.Naomi, Ingrid and I how to work together. We have been able to accomplish a community gathering by putting our past differences aside. Acting on a principle our mother taught us. Sonya’s extended family and friends have stepped forward and gotten involved as a way of honoring Sonya. A new movement to end violence against Indigenous women to educate people with the emphasis on youth is one of our main objectives. Ending violence against women can be a catalyst for cultural growth setting the example for our youth, our leaders of tomorrow.

The upcoming gathering to honor Sonya and Missing and Murder Indigenous Women from Manitoulin and the North Shore will bring survivors of other First Nation families together and community members to work thru their grief. Allowing faith keepers and teachers to lead us and by lighting the sacred fire to offer up our prayers as well as spirit feast our loved one to help with our healing process. 

 The below quotes are from Sonya’s family on the 20th anniversary of her passing, on August 30th, 1994. 20 years later and Sonya’s case still remains unsolved. 

“My sister loved to laugh as a child, her eyes lit up when we would go out to play games as children. My fondest memory of her was seeing her try to outrace me as we played tag in the yard”. Alex (brother)

Quotes from Mag

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”, Rabbi Hillel (fl. 30 BC to 10 AD)

Sonya set the sisterhood bar high – she was intelligent, kind, gentle, and funny. I miss her every day. She has taught me to love deeply and to forgive others often.

Violence against women in our country is growing at a dangerous rate. Women must be advocates in our homes and communities by being responsible for our daughters, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers, and by educating our young people against the potential dangers of violence against women. As a united front, can we end violence? Waiting for the government to act will ultimately prolong the issue, and many more women will die, causing untold pain and heartache.

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Left photo: Lori Cook and Sonya, 1975. Middle photo: Sonya, 1987. Right photo: Sonya, 1978.

 “Sonya was one of the eighth daughters in our family of thirteen children. Her gentle nature and quiet disposition made her a friend to all and people loved to be around her, a true  social butterfly. Sonya was very loving and compassionate, and was one of those people who made you feel like she knew you all of your life”. O Naomi (sister)

Our community  endured many hardships including the loss of our older brother Sam who died with two cousins in a vehicle accident in 1974. Throughout Sonya’s life, these experiences made her resilient and strong building upon her compassion for others. “A true giver, she was always the one to give up her last stick of gum”. O Naomi (sister)

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Summer. Front row: Sonya and Anastasia. Second row: John, Ingrid, Mag, and Alex. Third row: Vivian and Carl. Back row: Olga, Naomi, and Mom (Estelle Ruth)

“She was a talented and creative person and could write or draw whatever came to her mind with such ease. Her passion for poetry and letter writing including journaling was always a pleasure to read. In all that she did and was, her natural beauty shone through”. O.Naomi (sister)

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Left photo: Anastasia, Sonya Nadine Mae, and Mag. Right photo: Sonya Nadine Mae, 1975.


Honoring Sonya

A gathering was organized in 2014 on the 20th memorial of Sonya aptly named, “In Honor of Sonya Nadine Mae and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” by her siblings Alex, O.Naomi, Ingrid and Mag, Whitefish River First Nation and Atlohsa Native Family Healing Services. The two gatherings took place, one at Sonya’s home reserve, WRFN and the other at London, Ontario simultaneously on Saturday, August 23, 2014. The twin events were the first gatherings to ever take place for a First Nations woman at the site of her disappearance and at her home reservation to honor and bring attention to MMIW and to seek justice for Sonya. Sonya was again, at the forefront of change and beginning a new trend to help our First Nations people heal and understand the importance of holding gathering to honor Our Stolen Sisters.

Whitefish River First Nation: The community solidarity walk will begin at 5:15 p.m. followed by women’s hand drumming, an evening vigil at 7:15 p.m., concluding with a community feast at the Whitefish River Community Centre.

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Below are photos taken from the Our Stolen Sisters gathering held in Whitefish River First Nation on August 23, 2014. All photos courtesy of the Manitoulin Expositor and Espanola Monitor newspapers.

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London, Ontario: An evening vigil was held on August 23, 2014. The event began in Ivey Park at 6:15 p.m. and was followed with a solidarity walk which ended at At^lohsa Native Family Healing Centre on Richmond Street. There was a feast held at At^lohsa following a press conference.

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Pictures below are from the gathering in London on August 23, 2014.

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Following the memorial events on August 23 2014, a series of Honoring Our Stolen Sisters teach-ins were held at At^lohsa Native Family Healing Services:

Day 1 Teach In – August 25th – 1-4 p.m.

Kanawayhitowin – Taking Care of Each Other’s Spirits

Day 2 Teach In – August 26th – 1-4 p.m.

Mino Bimadiziwin – Round Dance Teachings

Day 3 Teach In – August 27th – 1-4 p.m.

Kizhaay Anishnabe Niin – I Am a Kind Man

Day 4 Teach In – August 28th – 4-8 p.m.

It Starts With Us – Community Led Database Initiative by No More Silence, Families of Sisters in Spirit and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. Dinner will be provided by donation.

Day 5 Teach In – August 29th – 1-2 p.m.

Honoring Our Stolen Sisters Round Dance and Information Session

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For further information please contact:

Mag Cywink (434) 848-5385 - e-mail:  mcywink@gmail.com 

O. Naomi Cywink (807) 472-9611-  e-mail: nabotoss@confederationc.on.ca

At^lohsa Native Family Healing Service, Inc. (519) 438-0068.

 

Media coverage:

Online/newspaper coverage:

Windspeaker - Vigil held to honour Aboriginal women and end violence (2013) 

Toronto Star - Aboriginal Canadians take fight for justice for 'invisible' victims to U.N. (November 30, 2002)

Undone Magazine - Walking With Our Sisters Exhibit Honours Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (December 2014)

London Free Press - Anguish still fresh 20 years after killing (June 23, 2014)

Manitoulin Expositor - Commemoration of a sister’s murder raises awareness of issues of concern to all (August 20, 2014)

Espanola Midnorth Monitor - Honour gathering for missing and murder women in Birch Island (August 20, 2014)

Turtle Island - Sonya’s Story – Sonya Nadine Mae Cywink (August 23, 2014)

Manitoulin Expositor - Official enquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women a must (August 27, 2014)

Building A Bigger Wave - Remembering Sonya Nadine Mae, Provincial VAWCC Summer 2014 newsletter (pages 4-5)

London Free Press - Sister of murdered native woman from London seeks healing (August 28, 2014)

CTV News London - Reward posted on anniversary of 20-year-old homicide (August 28, 2014)

Espanola Midnorth Monitor - Community comes together to honour murdered and missing women (August 25, 2014)

Manitoulin Expositor - Response from government on murdered and missing aboriginal women is shameful (September 5, 2014)

VICE - Part I of II - How Indian Status Figures Into the Unsolved Case of a Murdered Aboriginal Woman (May 7, 2015)

VICE - Part II of II - Why the Sister of a Murdered Aboriginal Woman Is Opposing a National Inquiry (May 8, 2015)

 

 

 

Press releases:
Honoring the 20th Anniversary of Sonya Nadine Mae

Response from government on murdered and missing aboriginal women is shameful (September 5, 2014)

 

 



 

 

 


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