Answering the Question, how do I work with Indigenous communities – specifically MY community of the W̱SÁNEĆ people

For the past two weekends, I have been participating in a WAYK workshop. I’ve known about WAYK since about 2010 (potentially longer). My cousin connected the creators of the language learning method/game through a Twitter hashtag, and I found the game to be incredibly useful in helping a learner remember language: effortlessly. That’s my experience of this method.

This workshop was hosted by the Songhees Nation, and I felt deeply honoured that they allowed us into their territory and space to learn this method. Our languages are distinctly different, but similar enough that we could have a fairly good understanding of one another. Speakers and learners of Lekwungen, SENĆOŦEN, Hul’qumi’num, Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Anishinabemowin were present in the workshop. These folks are what would be called today, “Language Revitalists” or “Language Warriors”. And, once you understand the history of attempted (and, in some instances, successful) genocide of Indigenous languages  it’s understandable that one of the participants – a woman named Carmen – was called to ask, “How does a settler support the Revitalization of Indigenous languages in a respectful way?” I don’t actually remember if that’s how she specifically asked the question, but that’s how I’ll address the question.

People ask this question all the time in Victoria, BC. There’s discourse everywhere about how people can be good allies. It’s really great that people are questioning this, for our existence has hardly been acknowledged for decades, and for the longest time, the attention Indigenous people have received have always been in either a negative light, or a romanticized light. We are often depicted as alcoholics and addicts. Or, people assume we all live in teepees and use the medicine wheel. It is important for people to consider that America and Canada are not just two countries. They are hundreds of countries with hundreds of different nations of people. And the land shaped these people and cultures. It gave them languages and ceremonies. A ceremony from the plains doesn’t make as much sense for a Coastal person to use. Example, millions of people these days probably know about “smudging.” The practice of burning sage and using the smoke as a medicine. In new age terms you could consider it clearing your aura. It is natural for medicines to be traded among Indigenous peoples, but it’s important to be discerning. Because sage is so widely known, I make a point to be mindful of if/when I use it. Also, I think about what my people used to do. Smoke doesn’t make sense on the west coast. The two most immediate nations in my lineage of which I descend are Sḵx̱wu7mesh and W̱SÁNEĆ. Sḵx̱wu7mesh peoples are located on the lower mainland of BC, and our territory includes what is now known as Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, and north of Squamish (the anglicized pronounciation ofSḵx̱wu7mesh), BC – We are the Fresh Water people. W̱SÁNEĆ peoples are located on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Our territory includes the Saanich peninsula, the area known as the District of Saanich, and we had villages on the Gulf Islands and we traveled annually to SĆUOŦEN (Tswassen) to fish – We are the Saltwater people. When you consider we are peoples of the water, burning in a wet climate doesn’t make sense, right?. Water was our medicine. It’s not to say it’s entirely inappropriate to use sage, but it’s important to be conscious.

Before the arrival of invaders from Europe, we were peoples who – yes – didn’t believe you could own the land. However, we belonged to the land. Today there is a term (and it’s existed for decades) of “Aboriginal Rights and Title.” However, with our teachings we are not an entitled people. We are people who were nurtured into being responsible. Responsible for our feelings and actions; responsible to our family and neighbours; responsible to carry on traditions from our family as they taught them to us; responsible for paying for help from healers; and responsible for being humble in the harvesting of the land for food and resources.

So, when it comes to answering the question. It’s important to know a some things. First, I am recognizing that I am becoming a storyteller. And to be a storyteller doesn’t just mean that I am good at telling a story. I am recognizing that when I speak, my words help people understand their pain and stress in a way they didn’t before. They feel seen in their pain, and that allows for integration of lost soul aspects to return. So, I answered this question in depth with Carmen in her podcast. For that version of the answer, I will post a link once she posts her podcast.

Next, this is an answer that came about after my talk with Carmen. It’s a big question with many answers. And, this is normal for my people. We would have ceremonies that lasted for days. Weddings, Memorials, Funerals, and more, they lasted for days on end. Which involved a lot of talking by many speakers. So, this is a question that cannot be answered by one person. What I appreciate is that Carmen is asking W̱SÁNEĆ and Lekwungen people. Because, I am recognizing there is a problem in settlers having this discourse with, essentially, other settlers. And I’m not talking about white settlers. I’m talking about Indigenous folks who settle in W̱SÁNEĆ and Lekwungen territory. If you’re going to ask this question, you’ll need to get to know the Indigenous peoples of the land on which you’ve settled.

It’s important to note: Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island have had their cultural teachings stolen from them for decades upon decades. And, here in Coast Salish territory, many Indigenous peoples’ make names for themselves in Coast Salish territory in a way they cannot in their own territory. They take up space and often defend their space from the Indigenous people who are living in their own ancestral territory. They can be just as guilty as conducting themselves as oppressors and invaders. What I recognize as being an Indigenous person in my own ancestral territory, is that these territories have rich culture and medicine within them. We are humble and generous peoples when we are in tune with the land and waters. I also recognize that people within my community can also be oppressive and in a mentality of lack. If someone is defending all their resources against their own people, they’ve assimilated the colonial mentality of “lack”. It’s a complex issue, with a lot of trauma, and a lot of healing is happening right now in Indigenous communities as a result of Residential Schools and constant destruction of land. This is all based in a colonial paradigm which has existed for centuries that people in power must conquer each other and the land to gain power and prestige, and this destruction that is inflicted on the land and the peoples is just a casualty of war. This is a painful world to live in when you’re so acutely aware when you are born that this country that landed on your country does not value you as a human being, and sees your land as an object rather than a spirit speaking teachings and sharing messages of healing and nurturing to you. And, that pain can often leave us feeling disconnected. And, literally sacred spaces have been, and continue to be destroyed.

All that being said, we have always been and continue to be strong people. And we are all finding our strength in our own ways. And, I mention all this, because: We were a people who never said no when asked for something, but we always gave because we could trust that the people we were dealing with knew how to respect and give something back in return. We were not a people who created any value in greed. And, today’s society puts a value on greed. So, this idea that an Indian is backwards if they say, “No. You’re not welcome here.” is false, because at this point in time, sometimes we do have to say, “No” because people don’t know their own integrity. We have to protect what’s sacred, and that includes our spirituality as handed down by our elders, our land and waters, our own lives, and most importantly, our children’s futures.

So, when you ask a W̱SÁNEĆ person, “Can  I be involved with the work in your community?” Know that we have to ask ourselves, “Does this person have good intentions?” Because, even with learning language, you’re going to get a lot of knowledge about understanding the world in a new way. And, by learning about this understanding of the world is healing for the average person in Western society, because Western society objectifies everything. W̱SÁNEĆ people, from my understanding, saw life and energy in everything. The “objects” of our time were wooden and rock, but I feel like everything we see and can’t see has a spirit, an energy. And, I see this reflected in my language.

Next, we have to ask, “What does this person bring to the table?” Because, if you are wanting to be involved with Indigenous peoples, you need to be self-sustaining, at the very least. It would be better, if you actually have something to offer in return for your work with Indigenous people. For decades upon decades, and to this day, White people and other Indigenous peoples have managed to be more like invaders of our space rather than settler allies. They took from us to give themselves prestige. And, when someone is in a colonial mindset, I can see why that’d be easy for them to do. If you see Indigenous languages as data rather than people, you’re not going to care about your impact on them. And, our education systems and societies really aren’t doing a great job of raising humans into being people who care about their impact on one another, nor the land and waters. I do not mean to paint a generalization. Many people feel offended. But, sadly it’s true. It’s really god damn true. There are pedophile rings around the world. And, residential school was just one of them. Same with the foster care system. I say this because people who get offended by the idea that this WORLD is sick and it is in big part to do with things like the education system, like the justice system, and all forms of industry, are really ignoring that this society is extremely abusive to children, and no-one is going untouched by this epidemic. People take and take and take, because the world is full of adults who were once children who had something taken from them. Children who were seen as objects or property, rather than souls within bodies. And, the reality is, Indigenous communities have been going with fractions of the resources afforded to non-Indigenous peoples. Our schools receive less funding per child compared to the public schools. Our families on welfare on reserve receive less money to feed their family compared to off-reserve people. So, when you ask to work in an Indigenous community, you need to have something to bring to the table, because otherwise you’re taking from a people who already have less than you in terms of resources like finances. As I said, we’re a strong people, and always have been. And have always been generous and saw themselves as wealthy even when they were poor in terms of their finances. We’ve been getting by with less than the rest of Canadians. And, my elders have busted their asses to give us everything that we have today. And, this was at a point in time when, under law, they were not seen as human (look up enfranchisement and history of the Indian Act).

I have an aunt who says that if someone came into our territory, and they were a trusted visitor, they only harvested what they needed to get by within our territory. They were not allowed to take something within our territory outside of our territory. You only took something (ex. hunting/fishing) you needed because you didn’t have enough to get yourself back to your own home territory. Example, if a Nuu-chah-nulth person was in W̱SÁNEĆ territory, they would know they were only taking goods from W̱SÁNEĆ territory if they were trading. It was a way of keeping peace and trust. It was a boundary. So, if a Nuu-chah-nulth person was visiting. They would have understood this rule, and we would have honoured this rule wherever we traveled.

So, this is the best answer I can give. And, when I provide this answer, it is only MY answer. I do not speak for W̱SÁNEĆ or Sḵx̱wu7mesh peoples. No one person can speak for an entire nation. And, in fact, I may be more lenient than another person of my nations. Keep that in mind. If you wish to work in Indigenous communities, only participate if you have something to return to the people with which you’re working. If you’re there to feel good about yourself, and fatten up your resume in allyship and activism, and think that “good feelings” (ÍY ŚḰÁLEȻENs is a teaching emphasized in our culture which means “good thoughts/feelings) is just enough. At this stage it’s not.

A suggestion I have for any settler – be you white, asian, or another Indigenous person etc. who has settled in my peoples’ territory – is that if you want to come learn our language, make sure you get one of our kids from our community as fluent as you are. It’s using that concept of “Leave a place better than you found it.” When we go to beaches we’ll pick up garbage. When we visit someone we hope we lift their spirits instead of cause them harm. This may be a way someone can respectfully tread the learning of an Indigenous language. This is the best answer I can provide. It’s what I’d want to do if I was learning the language of another Indigenous nation. But, that answer took a lot of self reflection to come to.

My peoples are a very generous people, and sometimes too lenient, other times too harsh. This is why it’s important for allies to learn how to mind their own behaviour. “Why am I doing this? How am I the same as Emily Carr? Am I the same as Franz Boas? Am I stealing and romanticizing culture like E. Pauline Johnson?” Because we’ve spent a lot of time giving and educating people and those people gave nothing back. We do need allies, but we need allies who know what healthy boundaries are. And who will listen with their heart and mind. Who recognize that we are and have been working with what little we have for a long time, yet still gave. Because we will continue to be generous people, it’s a strength. It’s a trust that you deal with people who know how to be respectful. It’s the world our ancestors lived in, and the world we hope can exist again. HÍSW̱ḴE HÁLE.



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