News Story

Indigenous Latter-day Saint Grandmother Tells Stories With a Moral

When Priscilla Yellowhead Tobey was growing up in Honey Harbour, Ontario, there was no such thing as National Indigenous Peoples Day on which to recognize and honour the rich culture and achievements of her Potawatomi and Ojibway nations and all the other Indigenous peoples in Canada.

In fact, says 75-year-old Yellowhead Tobey, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Indigenous people within Canada were not always treated kindly or fairly then. And in too many cases, severe abuse and death occurred, for example, in residential schools.

Life did not always treat Yellowhead Tobey kindly or fairly either, but she is happy. Her face glows with joy and laughter as she reflects on her years growing up in Canada, her conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ at age 30 and her career as a storyteller.

In the well-known legend of the evil wolf and the good wolf, the question is asked, Which wolf will win? The answer: The wolf we feed. Yellowhead Tobey knows that happiness in her life has come from “feeding the good wolf.” It comes from choosing to nourish the “wolf” of joy, peace, love, honesty, bravery, humility, truth, respect, compassion and faith.

Growing Up off the Reserve

“My grandfather didn’t want us to grow up on the reserve, so I didn’t meet my relatives until I was 10 and we went to Christian Island, now called Beausoleil First Nation, where they all lived,” Yellowhead Tobey remembers. “Before then, I thought we were the only Indians. We went to a Harvest Time on the island and wore native outfits. We got off the boat, walked to where they were dancing, and I said, ‘Holy cow, Dad! Look at all the Indians!’ I’d never seen that many Indians in one place.”

Yellowhead Tobey freely describes herself and her people as Indian, even though she knows the more appropriate current terms are Indigenous or First Nations. “I can say ‘Indian’ all I want because I am one,” she said, “and that’s what I grew up using, but non-natives aren’t supposed to.”

Although she did not grow up on a reserve, she learned the ways and stories of her nations. She recalls other First Nations people coming to trade berries and fish for medicine with her grandmother. “They’d come with blankets and pillows to spend the night,” she said. “And we made room. My people don’t ask, ‘Are you hungry? Thirsty? Want to stay overnight?’ They simply feed you and give you a drink and a bed without being asked.”

Being Ojibway at a Catholic School

According to Yellowhead Tobey, the nuns at the Catholic school she attended did not always treat the Indigenous students as well as other students. “The white kids with French names weren’t treated like Indians, but their relatives actually had Indian ancestry, and now they have full status cards,” she said. “They could speak French all day long, but we’d be punished severely for using a native word. Even just ‘aani,’ which means ‘hello.’”

A New Faith

When Yellowhead Tobey joined the Church at age 30, her extended family was very unhappy with her. Her uncle disowned her. It was a difficult and confusing time.

“I still don’t understand why it happened,” she said. “I never tried to make my family join the Church, and I never judged them for having different values. I joined the Church because the missionaries answered the questions I’d had all my life, such as ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Where am I going after this life?’

Journey Into Storytelling

Weary of family conflict, Yellowhead Tobey gave away everything she owned and headed off in a 1965 Cadillac with her five children and no clear destination. “The kids each got to bring three outfits and one favourite thing,” she recalled. “At the Buffalo border, I asked the kids, ‘East or west?’ We had $1,000 cash. We ended up in Provo, Utah, with $530 left and found a hotel room for $25. People at the hotel were so nice.”

Yellowhead Tobey found a job and a place to stay, registered the kids in school and lived in Utah happily from 1977 until 1999, when she moved back to Canada.

Before returning to Canada, and after her children were grown, she served a Church mission at the Washington D.C. Temple. As her mission drew to a close, she was at a loss about what to do next.

“I went on a walk in a park and heard my grandmother’s voice telling me a story,” said Yellowhead Tobey. “I told my two roommates the story. They enjoyed it so much they invited about 30 people to our apartment to hear it. When I finished, I told another story, then another. Stories kept coming into my head for about an hour.”

A schoolteacher from Virginia who was at the gathering asked Yellowhead Tobey to tell stories at her school, and thus began a new career. In the ensuing years, she shared her stories in schools, nursing homes, powwows and other places in the U.S., Canada and Europe. “I always told my kids stories when they were growing up but never thought I could make a living at it,” said Yellowhead Tobey.

Tales of Her Own Making

Surprisingly, her stories are not the well-known oral traditions of her nations’ elders, although she hails from a long line of storytellers. Rather, as she describes it, her stories spring from inside her head or from her dreams. She does not write them down, but all her stories are about Indigenous people and have a moral or lesson.

“A smack on the rear end as discipline might work short term, but if you’re told a story with a moral, your good behaviour might last longer.”

Today, she is mostly retired but still occasionally tells her stories or conducts workshops on how to make moccasins, walking sticks and medicine bags. She lives in Tobermory, a peninsula where the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron meet. She hopes to visit all the Church’s temples in the world and would like to marry again.

About National Indigenous Peoples Day, she said, “I’m glad they finally designated Indigenous Peoples Day, but it’s only one day to recognize that we’re an important part of this country.”

How can Latter-day Saints and other Canadians mark National Indigenous Peoples Day? Here are seven ideas for activities that can be done all year to learn more about Indigenous heritage within Canada:

  1. Learn about First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in your area, including their histories, achievements and contributions.
  2. Learn about the traditional territories in your area (a helpful resource is Learn the names of the people who have historically cared for these lands. Acknowledge the ways you share and love the land where you live.
  3. Watch films, read literature and engage with art by Indigenous artists and authors. Follow Indigenous organizations and news on social media.
  4. Watch for Indigenous community events that are open to the public in your area. Attend and learn.
  5. Volunteer to provide service or help to raise funds for an Indigenous organization or charity.
  6. Learn how to introduce yourself in the Indigenous language of the territory in which you live (a helpful resource is
  7. Follow the counsel of President Russell M. Nelson: “I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children” (“Let God Prevail,” October 2020 general conference).

Contributed by Gail Newbold, Canada Communication Council

Read the story in French

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