Saturday, July 30, 2016

Thoughts on a First Reading of the Summary

St. John's Wort
We have been drying it and boiling it into tea.
St. From Rebecca Johnson: 

This morning I woke up to Arta, sitting beside me, telling me that she wanted to talk about 2 concepts that she found interesting in the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

These ideas were first, we are all treaty people, and second, we have to learn to respect the land.

These two concepts came with us on our morning walk up and down Pilling’s Road.

 I asked Arta why she thought the line, we are all treaty people was a helpful concept.

Actually, the exact line is “we all inherit both the benefits and obligations of Canada”.

Arta said she had always thought that the treaties were just between Indigenous people and the crown, but that it didn’t have anything to do with her directly.

I thought that was a good articulation of it, and I could see that I had probably had that thought for most of my life as well.
... catching our breath at the top of the road ...

If we all inherit the benefits and obligations, then we have shared responsibility.

Arta said that somehow that concept made it seem more important to do the work of TRC action.

So we walked along the road looking at the plants and thinking about the land and the ways we benefit from it and our obligations. What ways might we move forward, showing respect for the land, ourselves, and teaching respect for the land to our children.

... looking back to the west on our walk to Bernie Road ...
Those are the big concepts. But then our questions turned to pedagogy. So? For the rest of the walk we talked about story telling and introductions.

So let’s skip to introductions, first. 

Introductions are hard for everyone. This came up in a discussion with one of my sons who says he hates it in groups when you have to introduce people or find out things about people. It can be stressful. Others ion our discussion group agreed and one said, sometimes you can’t even listen to the other people’s introductions because you are worrying so much about what to say when it is your turn. It is all too easy to feel that you will be judged by what you say or fail to say, or feel pressured to disclose things you don’t want to disclose.

 So I was thinking about the hundreds of times I have hear First Nations people introduce themselves in gatherings. It has often taken the form of an introduction in a language I don’t understand, followed by translation into English. Often the person then tells us in English their lineage, who their parents were, what their indigenous names were and what territory they come from. At some point I began to realize that I was hearing something different than an introduction in English. What I was hearing was better understood as law. By giving an account of who they are and where they come from, the speaker was also making explicit the shape of the authority they did or did not have in speaking and sharing with us.

 The introduction is doing many forms of legal work. And it is doing its work, whether or not the audience realizes what they are hearing. Telling who they are and where they are from also lays the foundation for the relationship that is being built with the listeners. It is not only about credentialing (for example, Professor X from Harvard), it is also an invitation to understand authority and relationship as rooted in people and the communities they come from and the land they occupy. As a performance of law it also provides us with a model. What ways would we introduce ourselves back in return. In various places I have been, as a settler I have found myself defaulting to my own form of introduction. That is, my name, my university degree and the city where I was born, or where I currently live. Sometimes I heard people identify themselves as a settler. Sometimes I have heard people identify themselves as immigrant. I found myself thinking more about how we might introduce ourselves in different ways. If we took seriously that we are all treaty people, how might we introduce ourselves in accordance with that law.

The goal of the introduction is partly to acknowledge where you are on the land. It is also to share enough information with the other, so that the conversation can begin in an open fashion. So what is being shared is not necessarily your credentials. It is something more neutral that describes your ancestry and inheritance, not your achievements. Maybe it is more properly understood as a way of acknowledging your inheritance. So Arta and I tried to imagine 5 different introductions for people in our family.

Treat 7 Territory
I might say, my name is Rebecca Johnson. I was born in Treaty 7 territory. On both my mother’s and my father’s side, my family came as settlers from Utah to southern Alberta in the 1880’s. I have been living in Coast Salish territory for 14 years. I could also say I am the mother of two boys and I teach at the university, depending on the context. Again, depending on the context, I might add that I am currently trying to better understand my role as a settler in doing the work of reconciliation. Whether to do the smaller or the longer version really depends on how the first introduction goes and what the facilitator asks of participants. The first time I introduced myself in this way, I felt a bit of shame at calling myself a settler. The word feels very comfortable to me now and it helps me be more conscious of both the benefits I have the obligations that are also attached to me.

My friend, Sally, introduces herself as Miq Maw and with some adopted family, adopted into the Salish community.

My cousin, Tonia, might introduce herself by saying on her mother’s side we are settlers who came to settle in southern Alberta, in Treaty Seven territory, and her grandparents on the other side are both a settler grandmother on one side, and a settler great grandmother who is Metis. Tonia could also add my father’s work took us around the world, so I grew up in Malaysia, Belgium, the Philippines and the U.S. but my family always returns to the Shuswap, Swepmec Territory.

The question is, how might people prepared to introduce themselves in this way?  For fun, try to do an introduction about yourself in this form.

Then our talk turned to stories. Glen told us that they had taken the kids up to the Enchanted Forest. On the way there they realized there that the kids did not know the story of "Hansel and Gretel" nor the story of “The Three Pigs”, so Glen turned into story teller, telling what is indeed a horrifying tale of a father abandoning his children in the woods. He was telling these stories to 3, 4 and 5 year olds. 

It made me feel a bit less bad about having told the young girls, yesterday, the story of Sedna, whose father not only throws her out of the kayak, but smashes her hands with a paddle to prevent her from saving herself. I was reminded of Louis Bird’s quote that stories are tools for thinking. The TRC report emphasizes this on page 17.
Traditional Knowledge Keepers and Elders have long dealt with conflicts and harms using spiritual ceremonies and peacemaking practices, and by retelling oral history stories that reveal how their ancestors restored harmony to families and communities.  These traditions and practices are the foundation of Indigenous law; they contain wisdom and practical guidance for moving towards reconciliation across this land.
It is interesting to begin to think of those stories as a way of teaching law.

Yes, entertaining and terrifying for small children, but at the heart of it is a different way of understanding how we do law in our everyday practises, including through stories and the ways we introduce ourselves to each other.

I told the story to Senya, Daphne and Autumn. I had been working with them on their necklances at the pottery wheel. I was telling stories as we went. I told them became Senya’s name sounded so close to Sedna, that they might as well hear the story of Sedna. I had recounted the story of the Salmon People earlier that week. The story started off slowly, but when I got to the part of where the father smashes his daughter’s hands, I could see the look of horror on Daphne’s face. I told them I would send them a version of the story that they could read again.

Here it is:

The legend of the sea goddess, though known in various regions by different names, is one of the most widespread of Inuit myths. One version is that some time ago, during a violent blizzard, a handsome young stranger enters a family igloo wearing a necklace with two large canine teeth. He is welcomed into the bed and sleeps with the entire family. When they awake the next morning, the young man is gone. The father, seeing only animal tracks outside, says, "We were deceived. That must have been my lead dog disguised as a man." When his daughter becomes pregnant, the father, ashamed of what she might produce, makes his daughter lie on the back of his kayak while he paddles to a small island where he abandons her. In some versions of the myth, her lover changes into a bird and flies her to the island.
Image from 
Alone on the island, the girl receives tender pieces of meat from the lead dog, who swam out to provide for her. She gives birth to six young; three are Inuit children, but the other three have bigger ears and snout-like noses. The young mother sews sealskins into one large slipper, places the three strange children inside, and pushes them off the island toward the south, calling out, "Sarutiktapsinik sanavagumarkpusi'"(You shall be good at making weapons). Some Inuit say that European and First Nations peoples are descended from those three dog children and only through them are they related to the Inuit.
The second part of the story, usually told on the following night, tells of the father going in an umiak, a large skin boat, to take his daughter off the island. On their way home a storm rises, threatening to capsize the overloaded boat. The boatmen decide that to lighten the load they must throw the daughter overboard. When she tries to climb back into the boat, her father cuts off her fingers. These fingers become seals in the sea. She tries again and he cuts off her hands, which become walruses. She makes one last attempt to climb aboard the boat but her father cuts off her forearms, which transform into whales.
Cast out of the boat for good, the girl sinks into the depths of the sea and becomes Sedna, or Nuliayuk or Taluliyuk, the woman who controls all sea beasts and is half-woman and half-fish. Sedna is a centrally important goddess for the Inuit, and is said to hold sea animals entangled in her hair, only to release them when she is appeased by offerings, songs or a visit from an angakok (shaman). Many songs are sung to this powerful goddess and in new seasons, pieces of the liver of the first-killed sea mammal are returned to the waters, imploring Sedna to release her bounty to the hunters so that they might feed their families. The angakok may visit Sedna in a trance, where he hears of the taboos and disrespect inflicted on her by the people, and soothes her by combing her hair with a bone comb. 

With all difficult stories, the story does its work after the telling, including questions about should women be forced to marry people they don’t want to marry, what happens if marriage turns out to be not what one had hoped for, what happens when families to harm to each other, what are the relationships between people and the animals they eat, what obligations continue to exist between us and our dead relatives.

Well, enough random thoughts for the day.



  1. I am amazed. How did you do all this posting Arta and Rebecca? What a valuable history right here.

  2. To answer the question about where do we find time to do the posting -- it seems to be available to us in the early mornings after we take a walk. No one is up when we get back and we have already talked on our walk about what is on our minds -- which is usually a tallk about indigenous stories for Rebecca. Indigenous or Inuit stories that have lessons for us.

    I got thinking about wolf and wolverine this year. She knows the same principles through the story of porcupine and beaver from another tradition.

    Still, a good question, about finding the time to write. So hard for anyone of us to find time to sit and think and tpe.