SERIES EDITOR: JANICE DICKIN
Social history contests the construction of the past as the story of elites—a grand narrative dedicated to the actions of those in power. Our Lives seeks instead to make available voices from the past that might otherwise remain unheard. By foregrounding the experience of ordinary individuals, the series aims to demonstrate that history is ultimately the story of our lives, lives constituted in part by our response to the issues and events of the era into which we are born. Many of the voices in the series thus speak in the context of political and social events of the sort about which historians have traditionally written. What they have to say fills in the details, creating a richly varied portrait that celebrates the concrete, allowing broader historical settings to emerge between the lines. The series invites materials that are engagingly written and that contribute in some way to our understanding of the relationship between the individual and the collective. Manuscripts that include an introduction or epilogue that contextualizes the primary materials and reflects on their significance will be preferred.
A Very Capable Life: The Autobiography of Zarah Petri
John Leigh Walters
Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery
Helen Waldstein Wilkes
A Woman of Valour: The Biography of Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle
Man Proposes, God Disposes: Recollections of a French Pioneer
Pierre Maturié, translated by Vivien Bosley
Xwelíqwiya: The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch
Rena Point Bolton and Richard Daly
1 Born at a Very Young Age Born at a Very Young Age
My Father and My Brother
Hiding from Destiny
After Xéyteleq: Family Ties
More Family Ties
3 Devil’s Run
Peter “Speedy” Bolan
4 School, Work, and Marriage
Home for Summer
Uncle Ambrose and Auntie Jean
Marriage and Family
A Personal Experience
Responsibility for the Masks
Passing on Sxwóyxwey
6 Breaking the Silence
Weaving My Way into Political Life
Meeting Other Activists
7 Moving North
Promoting Native Arts and Crafts
The North: New Threads
Life with Cliff
Baskets and Textiles
8 They Begin to Listen
Children of Mother Earth
Xwelíqweltel and the Queen
Still a Long Way to Go
9 Life Cycles
When We Come Back
Water and the Cycle of Life
For the Young
A. Rena’s family through her mother’s second marriage
B. Rena’s maternal grandmother’s family
C. Rena’s maternal grandfather’s family
D. Rena’s father’s family
2 Rena at five months, with her mother
3 Rena around the age of three, in her “Kimiko” period
4 Sumas Lake, looking north
5 Surveyor’s map of Sumas Lake, ca. 1920
6 Dan Milo and his wife, Agnes Milo (née Edwin), in the 1920s
7 Th’etsimiya, Rena’s great-grandmother
8 Frank Hilaire performing with Coast Salish exhibition dancers, ca. 1912
9 A portrait of Rena’s mother’s family, ca. 1910
10 Silva family portrait, ca. 1929–30
11 A youthful Rena is a cedar bark dance costume
12 Rena and Roy Point with their first child, Tim
13 Rena’s “grandmother-in-law,” Mrs. Dan Milo
14 The children of Rena and Roy Point
15 Rena’s son Mark, wearing a Salish robe that his mother made for his graduation
16 Rena and Steven on the occasion of his graduation from law school
17 Dugout canoes created from red cedar logs, the work of Mark Point and Cliff Bolton
18 The Si:l’hiy crest, painted on a drum
19 The Si:l’hiy crest, knitted into a sweater by Rena
20 The large basket that Rena made to house the female Sxwóyxwey masks
21 The large basket, also made by Rena, that houses the male Sxwóyxwey masks
23 Mark Point and his wife, Brenda, with Rena
24 Wool, after the carding and spinning, that has been treated with natural dyes and hung to dry
25 Rena at her loom, weaving a Salish swó’waxw blanket
26 Two Salish robes, which Rena made for her sons
27 A Xwélmexw basket, woven of red cedar, wild cherry, and grasses
28 Family members dancing in Rena’s cedar bark costumes at Expo ’86
29 Mrs. Agnes Sutton, of the Gitxsan Nation
30 Tsimshian weaver Willy White and Rena, modelling gifts they made for each other
31 Cliff and Rena Bolton
32 Rena, during the Christmas season, in what was then the newly built log house on the Zymacord River
33 Cliff Bolton displaying one of his moon masks, made red cedar inlaid with jade and abalone shell
34 Cliff and Rena in 2010, exchanging stories over tea at the kitchen table
35 Rena working on a northern-style basket
36 Rena at work on a North Coast spruce-root basket
37 The first rows: beginning a North Coast basket
38 Rena edging a North Coast basket
39 Examples of Rena’s North Coast basketry in spruce root and cedar bark
40 North Coast spruce-root hat, interior view
41 Rena holding one of her rare Salish fish baskets, made from split cedar boughs
42 One of Rena’s Salish textiles
43 One of the traditional Salish robes that Rena wove for her sons
44 A “rattle” basket, made of spruce root
45 Producing the lid for the rattle basket
46 Rena working on a Thompson River (Nlaka’pamux) basket
47 Rena holding the Coast Salish basket that accompanied her to the British Columbia Lifetime Achievement awards
48 A marriage of two worlds: Rena beginning work on a basket at Government House, in Victoria
I have been asked to pen a few words with regard to my mother’s book, and I am very pleased to help in this way. Any time that people put their whole life into written form I think they run the risk of misapprehension and even criticism from others. Richard Daly has taken on the monumental task of listening to and recording my mother’s thoughts and memories about her life. For this I am very grateful. This book has been an ongoing project for many years, and both Richard and Rena have devoted countless hours to making this book a reality. Richard’s training in the field of anthropology, together with his self-critical attitude toward his work, lends itself very well to the task at hand.
For too long, anthropologists and historians have written about Aboriginal people from a purely academic perspective, with their mind on audiences somewhere else, perhaps in Europe. This has produced some marvellous reports, but in some cases it has resulted in a one-dimensional, ethnocentric, and subjective analysis of people about whom the writer in fact knows very little. That is, such accounts simply describe the surface and not the depth of Aboriginal people’s reality.
Richard Daly has chosen a much different approach, in that he spends time with the subjects of his study, attending gatherings and feasts and even residing inside their communities so that he can gain a deeper, inside perspective that later informs his written work. He brings a passion for learning and a compassion for the people he studies. His voice is not demanding, nor is it condescending or fraught with the attitude of superiority that too often prevents some writers from getting at the broader and more complex story before them. I am very pleased with the end product of his long and hard work.
So that there could be no mistake, in September of this year, 2012, at Chilliwack, I presented Richard with a talking stick. This stick was presented to him at my home in the presence of my mother and with her approval, so there is no doubt that he speaks on behalf of my mother in this book. Richard and Mother have done a marvellous job and I know that you will enjoy this book, as I have.
20 October 2012
We would like to thank the acquisitions editor at Athabasca University Press, Pamela MacFarland Holway, for her considerable editorial assistance, her literary, historical, and linguistic vigilance, and her good humour. Thanks as well to copy editor and linguist Joyce Hildebrand. We also acknowledge the constructive work of the anonymous peer reviewers who suggested, among other things, that we make more explicit our actions in the crafting of this book. Thank you to Athabasca University Press’s book promotion team and to Rena’s daughter Wendy Point Ritchie, a teacher of Halq’eméylem, for her work on the glossary and for standardizing the spelling of the Halq’eméylem words in the text. We are grateful for the encouragement we got from Wendy’s siblings and their spouses in the Sardis area, among them Gail, Charlotte, Mark, and Steven.
Will Lawson helped to draw up one of the early clean copies of the work from the hitherto scattered transcripts, notes, and fragments, and this enabled me to see some of the story gaps that needed to be filled in by Rena, who then responded by elaborating on her narrative. Will has also provided sensible advice through the years on the anarchic realm known as “English usage.”
Liv Mjelde has kept me on my toes by arguing that the problematic of “told-to” autobiographies is coloured more by social stratification than simply by colonial heritage and that the questions being raised about “who contributed what” to the life story are usually fewer when the subject enjoys power and influence in society than when they do not. I hope that this project answers her question about why textual accounts of life stories of people with less power and influence in society are subject to more skepticism regarding authorship. This project has shown me that telling a life story, writing it down, organizing it, and then “writing it up” can be a true and deep cooperation, even though the formal presentation may obscure much of this cooperative and consultative work.
I deeply appreciate the long years of unflagging support, warmth of spirit, and good talks that both I and my wife, Liv, enjoyed with both Rena and the late Cliff Bolton. And finally, Rena and I are grateful for the introductory words provided by Steven Point.
Northern British Columbia. Rena lived for many years near Kitsumkalum, in Tsimshian country, although she is originally from the southern part of the province (see map 2, a detail of the area within the rectangle).
Xwélmexw (Stó:lō) territory and nearby Coast Salish areas. Born at Kilgard, Rena was raised at Devil’s Run, on the banks of the Fraser River, and spent much of her life in Sardis (Skowkale), just south of Chilliwack.
An indigenous culture with sufficient territory, and bilingual and intercultural education, is in a better position to maintain and cultivate its mythology and shamanism. Conversely, the confiscation of their lands and imposition of foreign education, which turns their young people into amnesiacs, threatens the survival not only of these people but of an entire way of knowing. It is as if one were burning down the oldest universities in the world and their libraries, one after another—thereby sacrificing the knowledge of the world’s future generations.
Jeremy Narby, The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (1999), 155
Back in the days when we both had more bounce to our step, Rena, Mrs. Point Bolton, asked whether I would help to prepare a book about her life. She wanted to leave a document “for those who come after” to show how she was raised and what the culture she grew up in was like. She also wanted to record the teachings she had learned from her grandparents and other elders, as well as the insights about life that she has acquired over the years—not to mention the values she stands for in regard to addressing the ecological and spiritual imbalance between the natural and the human worlds.
We first met in December 1988, while I was working for what was then known as the Alliance of Tribal Councils, gathering data on the past and present use of the Fraser River and its salmon fishery by local First Nations—the Secwepemc, the Nlaka’pamux, and the Stó:lō, who also call themselves the Xwélmexw.1 In the course of my research, two of Rena’s sons, Mark and Steven Point, recommended her to me as someone knowledgeable about the river’s importance. Rena was living and working far from the Fraser River at the time, residing with her second husband, Cliff Bolton, outside Kitsumkalum, on the Skeena River west of the town of Terrace. Cliff, a Kitsumkalum Tsimshian simoogit (chief), was known for his wood and jade carving, as well as for the canoes that he and Rena’s son Mark jointly produced.
Our first meeting occurred neither in Xwélmexw territory nor in Tsimshian country, but rather at a motor inn on Burrard Street in Vancouver—which, of course, sits on traditional lands of the closely related Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. We got down to work, and Rena told me how, when she was a girl, she had lived on the banks of the Fraser River, and it was there that her family had survived the Depression years of the 1930s by relying on what the river provided. She explained that they had also suffered from the loss of their main source of food, Sumas Lake, the body of water that once stretched south from Abbotsford to Yarrow and across the border near Lummi, in Washington State. In 1924, just two years before Rena’s birth, the lake had been drained to create rich farmland. “Those were hard times,” she told me. “The next meal had to be earned. We really had to work for it.” She went on to describe how the family members who raised her “caught ducks with nets suspended from poles” and also survived by fishing. “We carried our nets over Sumas Peak to Murphy’s Landing,” she recalled. “We took coho in the fall in a creek called Kw’ekw’íqw. Grandmother was so happy to see the fish because then we had food for a whole day.”
Of course I had more questions. Rena suggested that I come to visit them at their home since I, too, was living along the Skeena River in northern British Columbia at the time. I met Cliff and Rena again six months later, in July of 1989, at their home on the Zymacord River, where it joins the Skeena, some miles west of Terrace. When we finished talking, Rena handed me a sheaf of papers and a couple of brown envelopes containing news clippings and other writings. “I wonder,” she said, “if you would be willing to help write my life story. I’ve already started. Can you take these pages and look them over?”
On her mother’s side, Rena Point Bolton’s origins lie at Sumas, or Semá:th, where she was born.2 Upon her first marriage, to Roy Point, she moved upriver to live in his family’s settlement, the Skowkale (Sq’ewq’éyl) reserve, at Sardis, just south of downtown Chilliwack, where her children, the Point family, live today. On the basis of the old teachings, many of them learned from their mother, Rena’s children continue to embrace many of the traditional customs and outlooks of their people, but they have managed to do so without turning their backs on modern life.
The name Rena carries is Xwelíqwiya—a name with a history rooted at Semá:th, as she explains in chapter 2.3 Her mother’s grandmother, the last daughter of Chief Xéyteleq, was matriarch of the Steqó:ye Wolf People. Her matriarchal duties were passed to her daughter and eventually to her daughter’s granddaughter, Rena. Through her maternal grandfather, who belonged to the upriver Tii:t people, Rena has also, by birthright, become custodian of the ceremonial Sxwóyxwey masks (about which see chapter 5).4
In her turn, as Xwelíqwiya, Rena Point Bolton has become the mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, or foster mother of many. She is also an artist and craftswoman and a hereditary carrier of specific traditions and spiritual practices. She has been an activist, inspiring her family, her people, and First Nations in general both to persist in acquiring formal education and to learn how to build their lives on the basis of locally situated knowledge. For her, this knowledge encompasses the spiritual, meditative, artistic, and scientific traditions lived by her people in their daily life on the land and river.
The creation and maintenance of silence in any human relationship is often transactional. It can be a perverse form of dialogue, albeit one in which the participants seldom interact with an equal degree of power, social standing, or influence. Those who have been denied power and influence, who have been silenced by figures of authority, are often silenced internally as well, of their own volition. As a means of self-protection, they choose to maintain silence, to refuse interaction—but their silence can also be a powerful form of communication.
During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, like other First Nations across Canada, the people of the lower Fraser River were silenced, and efforts were made to obliterate their culture. Under the banner of social and moral improvement, a process of forced assimilation was undertaken by Canadian institutions that variously administrated, policed, schooled, and proselytized among Aboriginal peoples. These actions were informed by the values and protocols of the “Dominion of Canada,” a component of the British Empire, which provided the social infrastructure on which Canada still models itself.
In Xwélmexw culture—before the great silence—the values, stories, histories, and protocols governing interfamily life had been sources of power and legitimacy and were accordingly well-guarded by elders, who passed these traditions carefully down along socially sanctioned lines of kinship and marriage to a new generation of custodians. There was a subtlety to this process of transmission, such that the members of each generation were guided by a flow of silent, family-based knowledge that “felt right,” as a result of their upbringing, and yet could be adapted to variations in personal abilities and talents as well as to changing conditions of life. As the colonial administration extended its reach, however, the old procedures for passing on culture and knowledge met with new legal and ideological pressures. The federal government imposed on First Nations communities, previously organized in many and different ways, a standardized administrative model of Indian band membership and elective band councils. For good measure, it carried off most of the children to residential schools and placed decision making in the hands of Indian agents rather than family elders.5 More recently, provincial and local governance has consistently sought to alienate First Nations from lands, rivers, and coastal regions whenever such peoples are deemed to be getting in the way of development—hindering the activities of those seeking to exploit the raw materials that lie in, and beneath, the home territories of these peoples.6
These Canadian initiatives were modelled on the idea of freeing First Nations peoples from their kin-based systems of land holding and land use, by replacing relations based on kinship with those that, while decidedly Christian, would also be market driven.7 Part of the overall plan was to convert such peoples into modern wage earners equipped with European parliamentary democracy—that is, to impose a system of community political management based not on kinship alliances but rather on the individual’s relation to the nation-state. Officials were to be recruited by means of a “one-man, one-vote” electoral process oriented toward individual decision making (a model that imperial Western nations have been trying to spread to the rest of the world for over a century). These government initiatives overrode the kinship-based, hereditary system of governance that existed in most small-scale Aboriginal societies—a system that relied on elders and on interfamily diplomacy couched in the metaphors of competitive and cooperative gift giving, alliance building, and power balancing, as well as on kin-based knowledge transmission in the form of family lore, history, stories, and other teachings passed down the generations.8
In the area of the lower Fraser River, the hereditary keepers of Xwélmexw culture were silenced by the standard combination of traumas: dispossession from their lands, paternalistic attitudes on the part of both government and church bureaucracies, and massive intimidation born from the stern mother of colonial prejudice, as well as a fundamentally racist contempt for Indigenous knowledge and ways of life. Those administering the infrastructure of government, church, and education were deaf to concerns voiced by local communities. They would not listen to the hereditary carriers of culture, and, for their part, the hereditary carriers responded by refusing to attempt to talk to people who would neither listen nor respect what they had to say about the preferred ways of conducting local society. Here is Rena’s description of the onset of the silence:
When the elders found out that the new society had such contempt for our ways, when the churches called our respected ancestors “naked savages” and “children of Satan,” then the old people who were the guardians of the culture, they said to themselves, “Oh goodness, the only dignified thing to do is to say absolutely nothing.” They went silent and were ready to take the knowledge to the grave with them. It became sxaxá—taboo—to talk about private matters. The old people were afraid. They stopped talking, mainly because there was nobody to listen to them any longer.
By the 1950s, this situation had resulted in a deafening two-way silence and considerable social breakdown across First Nations communities, now largely confined to reserves.9 On the one side, family knowledge, always jealously protected, became even more secretive; on the other side, shared cultures based on hunting, fishing, and gathering were undermined by individual proprietorship and the commercialization of the land. Old ways, tried and true, were of no interest to the dominant commercial and cultural forces in a society that wanted “Indians” to forget the past and become, at first, Christian small farmers and then later job seekers and minor entrepreneurs in the new resource-based industrial economy.10
Prior to the inauguration of the government-imposed system of bands and councils, Indigenous governance along the Fraser River consisted of small communities that largely ran their own affairs. As Wayne Suttles (1990, 464) explains, “Most local groups consisted of the household of an established kin group and several dependent households. Men identified as chiefs of local groups were probably heads of leading households or kin groups.” For the most part, these local communities would act together as united political bodies, in the modern sense, only in moments of crisis such as raids and attacks from abroad.11 Politics and administration were conducted in large cedar houses, where extended families lived, worked, and held their ceremonies.12
Before the colonial conquest of what is now western Canada, knowledgeable elders played a pivotal role as forces of moral influence, as advisors, and often indirectly, in the course of steering communities of kinfolk and affines (in-laws), as shapers of local political decisions. In many places, the moral and political influence of elders continued long after the advent of the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), which presumed the right to administer these affairs in the best interests of the Canadian government. The knowledge, experience, and social managerial skills of elders were family-centered and kin-based, and their skills and wisdom extended to those families into which they and their descendants had married. They also exerted moral influence and enjoyed respect and a reputation for wisdom in the wider society of the day.
But legislation was enacted, and official reports were published. As far as Rena’s elders were concerned, the legislation that affected them most was, first, the Indian Act of 1876, which gave government the exclusive right to administer the affairs of First Nations; second, the potlatch ban of 1885, inspired by missionaries, which outlawed ceremonies by which kinship rights and duties were passed from one generation to another; and, third, the recommendations of the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission (1913–16), which established and delimited reserves for First Nations in British Columbia. These legal and administrative activities were, and continue to be, predicated on the assimilation of the First Nations into mainstream Euro-Canadian life. In the eyes of nineteenth-century missionaries and government agents, Aboriginal peoples were, in their “natural” state, childlike and backward, ignorant of the virtues of modernity and the Christian faith. The original inhabitants needed to be raised to social and political adulthood, brought into a civilized state under the stern but dispassionate parental guidance of the government and its supporters. It was therefore assumed that they would benefit from severe tutelage in Euro-Canadian ways.
Over the decades that ensued, the accumulated actions on the part of government intimidated and in fact traumatized the old kinship societies; their members had to become furtive and adept in subterfuge if they were to continue to fulfill their ceremonial responsibilities to each other and to the land. The era of silence was most pronounced during the period marked by the so-called potlatch law, enacted in 1885. This amendment to the Indian Act of 1876 made illegal Aboriginal ceremonial practices, including the hosting of feasts in the course of which families gave away, in what missionaries and others saw as an “improvident” manner, their wealth to their guests. In so doing, of course, the families demonstrated not only their industriousness but also their proprietary rights to land and fishing sites (as was evidenced by the fact that the hosts always announced to their guests the names of the family places from which these gifts originated).13
Once ceremonial practices were outlawed and customary family-based forms of leadership usurped by the Canadian government, Aboriginal elders and leaders were encouraged, as well as bribed and pressured, to conform to the ways prescribed by the new society. In the name of equality and democracy, and under the gaze of the European version of the Creator, Aboriginal communities were expected to shun their spiritual beliefs, give up their ceremonial life, and convert to some form of Christianity, to embrace the individualism of the modern ethic, and to try their hand at entrepreneurship and competition in the capitalist market. They were expected to forget their collective heritage and their seasonal round of living from the land, as well as to reject social practices of hospitality and veneration for the natural world. They were further expected to destroy their material culture, to cease to produce their visual arts, their crafts, and their music, to relinquish their storytelling traditions, to abandon the kin-based status system and the taking and keeping of captives from other tribal groups, and to apply themselves to becoming literate and learning a trade. This was the wider world into which Rena Point Bolton’s grandparents were born, and, as the twentieth century replaced the nineteenth, they witnessed the fruits of government policy.
Rena is of the opinion that those who were most willing to adapt to modernity and who therefore responded most readily to the new order often belonged to sections of extended families whose members had not enjoyed much authority in the pre-existing society or had fallen in status owing to some calamity, such as being taken captive by raiding tribes from along the coast. Another category consisted of those family members who had intermarried with the newcomer settlers. Such persons, raised at least partially outside the old culture, possessed little of what was by then esoteric Xwélmexw knowledge and had little to lose socially by cooperating with the new society and new power structure.14 For their part, those who had been the “old guard,” or had, in a sense, occupied the position of cultural elite, often refused to participate in the new ways. Here is how Rena explains the split between new and old. Speaking rather formally and diplomatically but at the same time acknowledging the hierarchy inherent in the old society, she begins by describing those who welcomed the new order:
These people often were not from the high-born families, or at least not people who were in the traditional line to inherit responsibility for guarding the culture. They did not have the right or responsibility to be, as you say, stewards for the old culture. Anyway, some of them wanted to move with the times and abandon all the old ways, leave them behind. Their aim was to be modern. So when the anthropologists came around, the people who would talk to them were usually those who were most familiar with the white ways, and often, these people were the ones least sympathetic with the old ways of our people.
The old society had a pecking order. Those who were high-born, they sort of kept the culture and the procedures among themselves. They looked after it. […] The free people, the ones without such responsibility for the culture, they didn’t have such restrictions on them. They seem to have been able to mobilize ties to people through both sides of their family. In the Xwélmexw times, such people were usually treated as “younger brothers and sisters.” The oldest were respected. […]
The high-born had responsibilities. They were stewards on behalf of their people and on behalf of their relatives in other species, the ones who lived out on the land. These duties were not imposed on the rest of the people to the same degree. Oh dear, what’s the word I want? Yes, “privilege”! The DIA has privileged those who have been educated in the Canadian way. They have never recognized the hereditary leaders. The old hierarchies have been broken up like kindling wood. The large family units that ran the village affairs, they’ve been broken up.
So the real Xwélmexw were silenced. They became timid. And most of the knowledgeable ones had died in the epidemics. As I said, those with Chinese, Scottish, Japanese, or English blood mixed in their veins, they survived. And the new DIA way of organizing things narrowed our possibilities.
When the old guard witnessed the paternalistic contempt exhibited by teachers, missionaries, police, and government administrators toward Aboriginal ways of living, they tried to withdraw from the new society as far as was possible. Rena’s maternal grandparents “voted with their feet” by loading Rena and her brother into their freight canoe and paddling away from the main Semá:th village, Kw’ekw’íqw (Kilgard), to live through the Depression years behind Sumas Mountain, on the banks of the Fraser River. Here, a day’s travel from the village, they occupied an old cedar smokehouse and survived by means of fishing, hunting, and casual labour at nearby farms. They preferred to live in self-imposed exile. Their exile may have been marked by poverty, but it allowed them to keep their freedom and continuing reliance on their own productive efforts. They refused to compromise their principles by accepting the subservient “recipient” position in the donor-recipient relationship fundamental to the colonialism of the Indian Act.
Gradually, then, what Rena calls the “real Xwélmexw” were sidelined and silenced, in part by an active assault on their culture and in part of their own volition, in response to that assault. In the 1960s, Rena was asked by Harry Hawthorn, a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, to explain the esoteric or secretive nature of the Stó:lō. Still relatively young, she was not authorized to speak on behalf of her culture, out of respect for her elders. In fact, the heavy silence of the era is reflected in her response to Hawthorn:
And he said, “Your people were very unique. Why is it that none of the Stó:lō will talk to us?” I told him because Stó:lō people are not allowed to. We’re not allowed to talk about things. It’s just our way. You don’t hear about us because no one will tell you anything. He said, “Well, that’s no good. The world should know about you!”
Chief Earl Maquinna George, of the Ahousaht First Nation, has written eloquently on this silencing, underscoring its origins in fears inspired by the Indian Act:
Part of the reason for the lack of understanding in the writings about us is that for much of the time we have existed under the control of the Indian Act, which we believe prevented us from discussing our culture. We believed that to do so would land us in jail. Whether or not such a law exists is not the issue; the point is, we believed that was the case. The entire story of our people exists as a large body of information carried in our memories, sometimes with conflicting details between families, but always subject to the same sorts of forces that shape our culture. It is an ongoing conversation among the people. (George 2003, 38)
As Chief George suggests, maintaining silence runs the risk not only of misunderstanding on the part of outsiders but also of the loss of some of the riches of an oral tradition. During a focus group discussion on Native education that took place in 1993, Rena’s first husband, the late Roy Point, called attention to the need to redress this loss:
How are we going to learn our history, now that it’s getting lost, without telling it? We are taught to not let go of any of our own teachings and our own ways, medicines, our own teachings of each tribe, our own secrets. That’s the way it was. Now that [knowledge] is being lost. How to keep it alive is a really big question, because so many of our older people are gone, just a handful of us left … I don’t know how we can keep it alive. (Quoted in Archibald 2008, 78)
A century after the active years of the generation that raised Rena, the community has indeed moved far from its traditional foundations, from the time when the people lived directly from the land and when the exchanging of salmon and other foods, ceremonial goods, craft products, and services was more extensive than is the case today. Many younger people have little familiarity with the old ways, the old knowledge, philosophy, and ways of being. This knowledge fails to come alive for them in the way it did for earlier generations, who lived their lives on the land and river and carried out, on a daily basis, the rights and duties that had descended to them through birth and marriage.
As I have said, Rena was raised on the land and the river, away from the trappings of modernity. Because her parents were still young at the time, busy working in various jobs and locations, she was raised by her grandparents, in the customary way. Her grandparents’ lives remained enmeshed in what urban Euro-Canadians call the “natural world,” a world that was as much a part of their lives as were their own body rhythms. These family elders showed Rena the “old way,” the way that they had been trained to live. They made sure Rena kept her head clear, her hands busy, and her ears open. She learned to be a good listener and to respect words and use them judiciously.
After these years with her grandparents, Rena was taken to a government-supported church school and subsequently joined modern First Nations life. She worked seasonally—processing fish and farm produce—before marrying Roy and moving to his family’s community. She gave birth to and raised a large family and engaged almost daily in her artwork, as well as showing great respect for literacy and formal education. Hers is the story of life within a distinct set of family relationships, but it is also a story of moving beyond a quiet domestic life into a larger world. She was among the first to take action, together with her children, to revive some of the old ways—in crafts and ceremonies—and, relying on her childhood learning, she has shown both Xwélmexw people and the wider society how Aboriginal creativity can enrich modern life. Now, as the years pass, she, like others who have gone before, feels compelled to find ways to pass on what she knows and has experienced, as well as her creativity and her artistic skills, to her descendants and to the broader community.
Readers might wonder how, today, we can speak of silence in relation to the First Nations when so much is currently published by them and about them. Especially during the politically active 1960s and 1970s, the silence began to spring leaks, and, today, the situation appears to be anything but quiet. Aboriginal peoples are often in the media, fighting for their rights, seeking the best media coverage and struggling to mobilize opposition to the latest mega-resource-extraction project to disrupt their lives, whether this be a hydro-electric dam, mammoth cut-block logging, gas fracturing of the earth’s crust, petroleum extraction, tar sand pipelines, toxic waste burials, or open-pit mining. As for the Stó:lō (or Xwélmexw), we now have many accounts by the people as well as about them. These have entered the public arena—memoirs, ethnographies, atlases, archaeological reports, local histories, school texts, poetry, and interactive websites.15 Why then, despite this abundance of material, have we produced yet another book that purports to break the silence separating Xwélmexw ways of being from those of their mainstream neighbours?
The answer lies mostly in the ever-present need for cultural renewal. Even though, today, Xwélmexw traditional lands have been encroached upon by the urban expansion of Vancouver and its surrounding municipalities, a vibrant Aboriginal culture has somehow continued not only to exist but to flourish. That this culture remains vibrant is due to all those who ceaselessly “break the silence” and now manage to do so much more overtly than was possible in the past, people who are willing to share their knowledge and insights and to hand down their traditions to coming generations in a perpetual, always evolving process.16
Still, much work remains to be done to get information, understanding, and respect flowing back and forth between the two sides in the war of silence—a silence that is “both embedded in and also continually reborn from our praxis and from our inability to listen” (Sider and Smith 1997, 17). When cultural continuity is disrupted and traumatized, the silences tend to grow more intense. Moreover, cultural and historical transmission, just like food and shelter, are essential to the success of each new generation. Indigenous activists living within modern nation-states such as Canada thus feel the necessity to recall, to speak out, to elaborate on and pass down their community heritage and distinct ways of being to their descendants. Not to do so is to risk cultural inundation, the total loss of identity. Mrs. Point Bolton’s story is part of this concerted effort at cultural continuity and renewal.
“Sit down and listen, that’s what our ancestors used to say,” Chief Simon Baker, of the Squamish Nation, told Jo-ann Archibald (quoted in Archibald 2008, 47). Learning to be still, to listen quietly and absorb, was an important part of traditional Xwélmexw culture, as well as other Salish cultures. Young people were encouraged not to speak out or talk back to their elders, not to argue and attempt to justify themselves if they were criticized. The young were taught instead to listen, to take criticism and learn from it, to bide their time, to strengthen the mind by practicing patience and learn to use both their hands and their heads to gain skills in life, and to sift out from the old wisdom whatever was relevant to their present lives.
There was a degree of hierarchical discipline built into this training, as there often is in any apprenticeship. Indeed, the need to obey the instructions and wishes of one’s elders would silence the learner, possibly causing inner frustrations to build. But the day would come when those learning showed by their actions that they were capable not only of obeying but of taking the words, opinions, and experience of the authorities and using them to build their own lives—not as a carbon copy of those lived by their elders but as an expression of their own generation’s energy and outlook. Then, all too quickly, this new generation would become mature and be expected to teach the next generation—those who only yesterday were babies but who now needed to understand who they are and where they came from so that they could, in turn, guide their descendants.
In the 1970s, Archibald, a Stó:lō educational researcher, had begun working with a group of elders from the Central Coast Salish area. The members of the Coqualeetza Elders’ Group, as they were called, met regularly at the Coqualeetza Cultural Education Centre, in Sardis, in order to exchange stories and teachings. In Indigenous Storywork (2008), Archibald discusses her project, which focused on the erosion of the culture of the old Salish world and on how to transmit the remaining knowledge, values, and stories in ways that would preserve their character and integrity despite radical changes in the society. In addition to the late Roy Point and other elders (many of them Xwélmexw), Archibald worked closely with Aboriginal storytellers, teachers, and writers, all of whom were concerned to find ways to keep the stories flowing down the generations, especially today when Salish people’s lives have become highly urbanized and increasingly divorced from daily experiences on the land.
In any “told-to” project, perhaps the principal goal of both teller and listener is to record the past for use and appreciation in the future, in hopes of providing assistance in cultural continuity. As Chief Baker said to his “told-to” collaborator, First Nations educator Verna Kirkness, a couple of decades earlier, “I would like to tell about my life, what I’ve seen, what I’ve done, so my grandchildren and their children will learn things that happened in these last hundred years. I believe my story will be interesting for schools” (Baker 1994, 173, cited in Archibald 2008, 23). Our collaborative project in this book is very much in the same vein as the work described by Archibald. The younger generations that Rena hopes to reach have imbibed many cultural prejudices and values from the dominant culture, including the assumption that Xwélmexw ways of the past are quaint and old-fashioned, with little to say to people starting out in modern life. Her aims are thus very similar to those of Chief Baker and all the various Coast Salish elders with whom Archibald worked.
Telling any story is a social act, one that involves a teller, a listener (or listeners), and a cultural context, which is necessary to an understanding of the story and which the listener must be able to supply. Telling a story to someone is thus a dialogue, even if most of the tongue action comes from one side and most of the ear action from the other. When the aim is to publish the results, the “listener” in the dialogue must be prepared to provide whatever assistance potential readers may need in order to understand what is being told. In such cases, the listener is asked to “witness” the story of the speaker, and witnessing is acknowledged as an essential element in legitimating important oral narratives and decisions in Salish and other Northwest Coast cultures, all of which found such alternative ways of recording important social events without the aid of written documents.17
Nevertheless, collaborative, “told-to” life stories such as this one are problematic, both for the witness who listens to, records, and edits the narration and for the narrator herself or himself. The two active participants in the interaction seldom share the same influence, reputation, and access to power, the same cultural understanding, or the same personal background. How then do we cooperate as equals, rather than creating the sort of “collaboration” in which one side is forced to compromise its principles so as to gain favour with, or even simply recognition from, the more dominant other? Especially in postcolonial countries such as Canada, the act of producing life histories based on the oral narratives of Aboriginal speakers is particularly fraught with historical imbalances of power and with institutionalized prejudice and preconceptions. But it is also weighted down by the degree of ignorance that each side, but particularly the empowered side, tends to possess with regard to the other, in light of the institutional silence that still separates Native and non-Native communities.
In First Person Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship (2011), Sophie McCall explores the cultural hegemony at work in the continuing reluctance to recognize transcribed oral accounts as literature, stressing the imbalance of power that exists when oral narratives must try to find a place within the mainstream literary canon by being “told to” someone else, usually someone familiar with the intricacies of today’s text-mediated world:
Told-to narratives do not fit the criteria that govern European concepts of genre; the collaborative process challenges the author-function and notions of the literary by foregrounding process over product, context over text, and audience over author; and literary critics have assigned the study of oral literature to the departments of anthropology and folklore, contributing to the view that transcribed oral narratives are the domain of linguistics or other cultural specialists. Meanwhile, Aboriginal literature in Canada has increasingly come to mean singly authored texts, as if told-to narratives were synonymous with literary colonization. (2011, 4–5)
As McCall points out, dialogic and oral forms of expression—which are simply alternative modalities in which stories can be created and histories recounted—are not accepted as literature in their own right because they are culturally foreign to the dominant culture. Once they have been edited and reshaped, however, they are deemed sufficiently civilized to possess a degree of literary content. Thus “made over,” they have, in a sense, been colonized by the mainstream. In McCall’s view, then, “told-to” collaborations can be “productive sites for analyzing the shifting dynamics of cross-cultural interaction” (2011, 7).
Apart from this differential of power between the “speaker” culture and the “told-to” culture, there is a striking difference in the way that stories are told, as well as the purpose for which they are told. Situated as we are in a world of written texts, we expect information to be presented in a logical, linear order. Stories (including historical accounts and biographies) are generally told in a straightforward progression, from beginning to end, without what we would regard as needless repetition. In oral cultures, however, stories tend to be recursive. They circle back on themselves and revisit earlier scenes in the plot, such that their repetitions acquire a contrapuntal power—a jazz riff, if you like, or a set of variations on a theme. Moreover, whereas modern Western readers typically view stories as entertainment, in oral cultures stories are more likely to be told for pedagogical purposes, with each telling of the story contributing a new angle or interpretation, a new way of understanding.18
Depending on where and when and how it is told, and by whom, the same story can, for example, serve to inform listeners about psychology, social relations, history, politics, the spiritual realm, or the natural environment. As Julie Cruikshank found in her classic study, Life Lived Like a Story (Cruikshank et al. 1990; see also Cruikshank 2005), a particular telling of a story tended to reflect issues facing the teller’s community at the time, at once illustrating and offering a commentary on the situation in which the telling was embedded. She emphasizes the powerful social and political effects of verbally performed narratives, as well as stressing the constructive power of stories that are told between living interlocutors, as opposed to stories composed for a readership whose lives are largely governed by written texts.
In view of prevailing expectations, however, told-to narratives almost invariably adopt the standard linear chronology familiar from written biographies, even if the teller did not originally tell the story in such a straightforward way. As Kathleen Sands explains in Telling a Good One, the life story of Papago elder Theodore Rios (Rios and Sands 2000), while a linear account was the finished product of her collaboration with Rios, it was certainly not how Ted Rios actually told his story. In her introduction, Sands quotes the opening of the biography that she and Rios have created and comments: “This version reads like the beginning of a conventional biography because the dialogic nature of the collaborative methodology has been suppressed. But this is, in fact, what Ted expected to go into print—a continuous narrative that I would order and edit from the interviews we did” (Rios and Sands 2000, 3).19 From the tenor of the book, it seems unlikely that Rios would have been knowledgeable about what publishers would or would not accept; rather, his expectation was presumably grounded in the conviction that, to appeal to mainstream readers, one must create a product that conforms to the prevailing conventions of storytelling.
Another prominent voice in the told-to discourse is Greg Sarris. Sarris (1993) addresses similar issues, but he does so from the standpoint of someone who personally identifies (through blood ties) with a range of American cultures—the mainstream, immigrant minority groups, and the Native American. He argues for an inclusive, “holistic” approach to Native American stories, seeking to find common ground and common cause for encouraging positive and democratic interactions between the storyteller, the listener, and the mass media. As he reminds us, a story is not the product of any one person. It is always enmeshed in a social process of formation and transfer between people.
Sarris also seeks to collapse the personal and the scholarly in research, so that the literary text being examined, or the people under study who tell the stories, are not distanced from the researcher. He rejects the myth of the cordon sanitaire that supposedly separates scholars and scientists from what they are studying, counting, recording, and then analyzing—the epistemological demand for objectivity that goes to the extreme of removing from the frame of investigation any sign of the researcher and her or his assumptions and prejudices. Sarris argues that researchers must acknowledge their role in a project—what feminists have called affirming one’s “standpoint of knowing.”20 In other words, observers—those listening and recording—must include, as part of the subject matter of the project, the epistemological perspective that they inevitably bring to bear on whatever they study.
When I embarked on this project with Rena, it was certainly not in the spirit of the impersonal observer, someone who strives to be present only as a sort of tabula rasa, with the goal of producing a book that would masquerade as a disembodied, “objective” ethnographic account of Xwélmexw life. Rather, both Rena and I were materially present as the story was created and the book took form. The result is the product of an ongoing conversation, one that unfolded in episodes that stretched across many months. For the most part, I would ask questions about one or other of the themes we had chosen beforehand to discuss. Rena would then reply, sometimes sitting over tea, with hands idle, and other times while working on a basket. As was the case for Rios, Rena’s original narration of her life story was not a continuous monologue. Instead, it took place within the context of what might be characterized as discourse-driven dialogue.
Richard Daly, Rena, and Richard’s wife, Liv Mjelde, in Rena’s workroom at her home on the Zymacord River, not far from Kitsumkalum, 2009. Photo: Richard Daly.
By dialogue, I am referring to a form of linguistic exchange that has been analyzed by the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin was interested in the dialogic nature of speech and writing and, especially, in the question of how, through our social interactions with one another, we arrive at a common, or at least an overlapping, set of understandings that allow for a degree of mutual intelligibility. This is achieved, he argues, through the interactive language of social communication, when people are engaged in the joint activity of speaking and listening to one another (Bakhtin 1986).