Not that kind of revival: Lekwungen

The other evening I went to the Royal BC Museum to an event billed as a storytelling event by Indigenous people.

In my mind, I was going to show up and First Nation’s people were going to tell me stories that I could romanticize all chock-a-block with salmon and ravens and full moons and North West Coast mythology. And afterwards, I’d be full, as if I’d eaten too much bannock. My belly would ache but emotionally, I’d feel satisfied, probably self-satisfied to be more accurate.  Reconciliation with a capital R. I’m all in.

Sady, it’s beginning to feel, to me, that the planet is going to melt and implode before true reconciliation makes any significant inroads. Too many non-indigenous people aren’t willing to listen and try and understand and it pains me to hear their ignorance.

But on Wednesday evening, I was in the small amphitheater on the fourth floor of the museum where I quickly realized, these stories weren’t going to be told in English. They were going to be told in their own languages, in this case, Hul’q’umi’num’ [Hull-ka-mee-num] and SENC?OTEN [sin-cho-ten].

An elder, Sarah Modeste, was there. Apparently, she’s the woman who turned the knitting of Cowichan sweaters into an entrepreneurial endeavour and, at one time, she had 300 knitters under her coordination. There was a linguist there named Andrew Cienski who works with First Nations’ speakers to develop language skills and resources for teachers and community members working to revive their languages.  The Lekwungen language has one native speaker left. It’s almost extinct.

The moderator who, unfortunately, was non-Indigenous, told us to listen to the pacing and the tone and the sounds. And as Sarah Modeste began to speak, even though at 82, recovering from a recent stroke, she’d sometimes have to pause when she forgot a word, I began to visualize her with her dad, on the beach or in a long house and how he may have spoken to her as she shared a story called “Clam digging with my dad.”

Afterwards, she shared a memory, in English, about how she’d be sitting on the beach and she’d hear the sound of the paddles from his canoe, returning to her, and how they’d knock against the side of the boat, the wake of the water and we’ve almost all heard that somewhere. She brought that alive.

Hearing the language, not knowing the words, brought home the reality that, OH MY GOD, THERE WERE ENTIRE FUNCTIONING CIVILIZATIONS THAT EXISTED LONG BEFORE US in a way that I hadn’t truly internalized before. It’s hard to explain it. Of course I knew that. But I hadn’t really internalized the implications of it until I listened to the people who spoke share their languages.

Sarah Modeste said that when she speaks in her own language, she’s always thinking about the trees and the water and the animals and everything that is the natural world. When she turns to speaking English, she immediately begins to have thoughts like, “I wonder what’s on sale at Walmart? How much did those shoes cost I saw at The Bay?”  English is a universal language of trade.

Other Indigenous people got up to speak, mainly women, and one of them was a Grade Two teacher. Unfortunately, I now can’t recall her name, but when she told her story, she used her entire body, gesturing and modulating her tone and when you hear someone speak a language the way she did,  you understand that when you refuse a people their language, you have destroyed the foundation of their lives.

Cultural appropriation or reverence?

nativebracelet2With all the talk in Canada these days fuelled by the new Liberal government in relation to Aboriginal peoples, I opened this blog, my blog, and realized not for the first time (but with deeper consideration) that what people see is a photograph in the header of a bracelet created by an Aboriginal man and I’m a middle- aged white chic.

What’s THAT image got to do with anything relevant to my life?

I wear this bracelet every day, and a silver with gold ring that was given to me by the UBC Department of Computer Science, after I worked there for almost four years doing Communications for them.

It was such a special gift and so amazing to receive because it was something more than I could have imagined any work place would ever give me, and because it represented something that I really revere: Aboriginal art and the culture it emerges from.

After all these years, (I left there in November 2006), I almost never take it off and it has become a part of my identity, a comfort, a symbol of rightness in feeling, when it’s on.

I realize that I have never even acknowledged the artist who created it, and now, unfortunately, I’m having trouble really recalling who that was. It could be Tony Hunt Jr.  The image on the bracelet is representative of the Wolf.

mynativebracelet

I’m thinking about this now because it is so heartening to see that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is at least moving in the right direction in terms of inclusivity and acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples trying to build on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As a non-aboriginal person, it can feel awkward speaking to aboriginal anything. Are you using the right terminology? What’s the difference between indigenous, aboriginal, and First Nation’s? Here’s an article from UBC about this topic of terminology. I’m hoping it’s as up to date as it should be in terms of understanding.

Where’s the line between appreciation and cultural appropriation? Is it wrong to call in aboriginal dancers and carvers at every major event (think Olympics) while throughout our country our lack of valuing Aboriginal peoples is carved into the landscape in reserves without running water, in missing and murdered aboriginal women whose numbers continue to grow, in the homeless,  in our prisons where the percentage of Aboriginal people is disproportionate.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2013/2014, Aboriginals account for one-quarter of admissions to provincial/territorial correctional services in spite of representing three percent of the Canadian adult population.  They made up 26% of total custodial admissions in 2013/2014.

Recently I was reading a paper written by Amrita Roy from Manitoba about Inter-generational Trauma and the implications for Mental Health in Aboriginal Women during pregnancy.

One of the sentences in this paper that really struck with me was this one: “The explicit patriarchy embedded into Aboriginal societies by missionaries, residential schools and the Indian Act have yielded inequities and oppression based on gender (LaRoque, 1994). It goes on to talk about how “the symptoms of the Intergenerational Trauma experience have been absorbed into the culture and transmitted as learned behaviour from generation to generation”(Sotero, 2006, p. 96).

When I read what now seems like such an obvious statement,  I had this lightning bolt realization that of course there is a connection between  missing and murdered aboriginal women and this history relative to Aboriginals, especially Aboriginal women, in Canada.

Now, you might think to yourself, “Duh, where have you been?” But, to really realize how the history of patriarchy has played out in the individual lives of aboriginal peoples, and focus that lens on how that continues to impact girl children and women, with the most obvious signs being that of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal girls and women, seems pretty key to learning how to overcome the humanitarian crisis in Canada in relation to Aboriginal people in general, and girls and women in particular.

So, that’s a very convoluted thought process to say that I wear this bracelet because it was a beautiful gift, because of what it represents to me in what I have overcome in my own life and how that specific job was a part of that, and for hope that understanding through cultural sharing can create a bridge to emotional recovery and success.