Last year I enjoyed some of the literary wits online, poking fun at National Aboriginal Day acronym~ never ever express your enthusiasm by chanting "Go NAD!" opined one esteemed thinker. Now that the day has grown to a week, we have a new acronym to kick around, NAW... Alas I am not on facebook this year, continuing to prefer some flesh-and-blood "face time" with my community building experiences.
I am still often online, however, blogging and emailing with an array of correspondents. One thing that I did that was quite silly, was to write a four page questionnaire about "secondary literature," and share it with forty or so of my writer friends. I have had a ten per cent return rate, thus far, and managed to conquer my immediate urge to write an "Important Update on Questionnaire!" within hours of the initial sending. Big playful energy, with real questions underneath, and more to tell or report about that on another day.
Richmond NAD~NAW Celebrations
In recent years we have had a banner between trees announcing our celebration and a big outdoor stage, dominating the space for a few hours of life, and inviting all to join in. RYSA/Pathways has been the main organizational spirit behind this, Rain Daniels, Rhiannon Bennett, Jelica Shaw being some of the overworked organizers in different years, showcasing many local talents and cultural greats from Chef Malu's annual presentations of affordable feasts, to Urban Heiltsuk Dance Group, M'Girl and Murray Porter, the Oskayak Drummers and Pathways youth, Richard Van Camp and myself as writers/storytellers/presenters from the literary publishing side of the arts world.
Many interactive activities, very visible and welcoming. Most years we have also had a school district graduation ceremony, a community supper, and last year we celebrated the signing of our Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, as well. All's moving in a good direction, it seems, from the early 90s when Roberta Price first initiated the First Nations Parents Support Group, and we grew and grew... supported by the First Nations teachers of the school district. While some continuities and positive directions continue to unfold, some wrong roads have also developed. I will try to notice both, in my report on what I saw, heard, and experienced this week.
This year, the day was cut in half, and delivered in two parts. June 21st was under school district auspices, and June 23rd by the RYSA/Pathways heroes.
On Thursday, I took my elementary school age children out of class in order to participate, along with classes of students from three area schools. It was a day of presentations and interactive activities at the Richmond Cultural Centre, hosted by Diane Jubinville. Urban Heiltsuk Dance Group performed and presented, and many thank yous were shared recognizing community partners and volunteers. Stations were set up for the classes to enjoy two of a variety of cultural experiences, some organized by a new community group, Kloshe’nem, and altogether these appeared to satisfy the youth and to unfold smoothly.
In my personal view, regarding the presentations, the protocols on this day were not honoured. The very first stated goal of our signed AE Agreement was given only token verbal nods, letter of the law interpretation, while the spirit and intention of the participants' goal setting in formulating the AEA was insulted, and local First Nations shoved far to the side: the Chief Dan George Song/Salish Anthem was presented deep in the sandwich of activities, in the thin reedy voice of inexperience and co-optation. The booming voice of the longhouse was not it seems felt to be needed, creating an unnecessary Them and Us that is genuinelt harmful to our community.
Every school child was given a bag of goods from the fedgov, hand delivered by the school district staff and volunteers. Many Canadian flags were also visible, and none for First Nations: we did not recognize our veterans, our elders or our families, our communities, in any kind of meaningful way. It was a school event for school children, and the community presence and involvement was extremely limited.
Having recently been informed that the cherished pull-out groups-- the small group community-building efforts that my children have benefited from since we arrived in the district-- have been summarily cancelled, and that Rhiannon Bennett-- a local youth worker with years of experience in this specific region, with both RYSA/Pathways and Tswassen First Nation as well as her home Musqueam First Nation, UNYA and more-- was summarily dismissed from her employment, it seems a very difficult turn in our collective journey.
Hey, we didn't need Mr. Porter to show us how to sing the blues in 2012.
My children enjoyed their day of activities, and we took the afternoon off school to play in the sun, and be a family together. The non-indigenous guests had a very good experience, if not a reliable deeper teaching or orientation about actual First Nations protocols: a lost opportunity. I enjoyed seeing a few old friends, long time area cultural workers and community organizers, and hearing the words and seeing the work of cultural people who are new to me this year.
At the same time, I did feel that my efforts over the years to speak in to the developing Way We Do Things Around Here have failed utterly, and that I must make a much better effort in the future.
I think back over the years, my many impressions gathered at community celebrations. I see again the pleasure, the joy, in elder Larry Grant's face, looking down across the gathering in front of the big mainstage, having been called home to be with us as elder, speaker, to welcome us in and to share some of the history and life teachings he has gathered through his years. After his time on stage, just watching from the sidelines, I could feel and see his pride, and I liked to be close to that happy energy of his.
I think about visiting Britannia Shipyard with Terry Point, another day, and having him point out that the Native bunkhouse at that location was for diasporic Native people-- people from away. Musqueam fishermen and cannery workers didn't need a bunkhouse, of course, they just went home at the end of each working day.
Musqueam people were already here: always here: that's so obvious, once you've seen it. It is hard to unsee once the blinkers have dropped, and the multicultural line that "Everyone Is From Away" is set aside, for the people to gather in truth together.
My experiences with Jelica Shaw and Pathways/RYSA continue to be a positive support and influence, but I do sense, today, that the powers-that-be in the Richmond school district simply don't get it, yet. That in effect we are busily creating a separated suburban community in a way that conflicts with, rather than is wholesomely aligned and continuous with, both the original First Nations of our district and the larger urban Indian context of the Greater Vancouver area.
My concern is that perhaps the organizational development is designed specifically not to threaten the settler society by which we are dominated, that it is too strongly affiliated with and identified with and accommodating of-- seamlessly bonded with-- the very mainstream school district structures and union structures that legislative call for agreements was meant to offset, and that no space has as yet developed for a meaningful third way to arise, one that honours and accommodates and integrates all, in a good and healthy way.
My feeling in the school district is that all is not well, that Something Fundamental is being overlooked. Instead of honouring the people who were here first, by inviting a substantial and meaningful presence, by giving thanks for the "organizing principle" of coherence that we can benefit from by listening to and gathering under the wings of those who have been here from time immemorial, there has been a terrible shift away from respectful collaboration, and toward a marked preference for urbanized unionized hierarchic-- school district norms-- leadership and structures.
One example: imagine the shame, sorrow, anger, regret, so many of us felt, seeing a Salish elder shushed and told his voice wasn't needed in the singing of the Salish anthem. Is this what my children are being taught, as an expression of the mangled multiculti interpretation of indigeneity? To participate in a turf war rooted in arrogance?
Choices are being made, and it appears that we have taken a profound step away from our good road of dignity and cohabitation. Better to say nothing at all about indigenous culture, than to demonstrate class-race insensitivity and bias as our best public effort of community expression on National Aboriginal Day.
The second half of our day took place on Saturday, in the afternoon. Again we gathered at the Cultural Centre. We did without the banner, this year, and the school district didn't share their expensive signage, so we made due with some sidewalk chalk on the paving stones, beside the stairs leading in to the cultural centre. Those in the know would understand that the gathering was in the room behind the staircase. There were many more community members than school staff, who had all gone home for the weekend, and yet the room was not nearly as full as in previous gatherings. The only RSD # 38 staff person that I saw on Saturday was Rhiannon Bennett, because she is a community member with many years invested in the well-being and healthy communityt of this town.
On this day, the protocols were somewhat better respected. Marlene Hale~ Chef Malu~ was our mc, the Oskayak Drummers and youth storytellers performed, Mike (David) James shared his bundle and beautiful teachings, inviting the community into a circle of being. The Urban Heiltsuk Dance Group again performed, and again brought us up to dance together: these are meaningful community-building threads repeated year after year.
But the first half-day experience has got me very sensitized. Is it enough to take a big blender, and dump all of the stories and dances and traditions into a big pot together, and randomly draw from this to teach the different "learner groups," "elementary school children," "youth," "single parents," "mothers," "adult learners," "inmates," in all the different institutions of Canadian society/culture? Is it okay that when government funds NAD we can afford a big banner, rent a mainstage, and welcome the people in, and when the social engineering interests of the fedgov shifts, we must hide ourselves away, because we can't afford to make a big splash, to advertize ourselves in a mainstream way? How do we develop resilience as a community, independent of the whims of funding agencies?
Personally, I benefited a great deal from Traditional Parenting programs throughout the Lower Mainland, in the mid to late 90s, and while many of these fell away when the funding interest shifted (to the uplifting title, Suicide Prevention). I participated for a while in Multicultural Friendship Group programming within the school district for a few years, too, in the new millenium. However, the teacher sponsor bless her heart was not willing to allow the parent sponsor to lead, and so, after a dream-catcher making afternoon that featured a Chinese craftsperson helping us wrap our dream catchers with silk thread, and use golden threads to create the web, I retired. It was not an involvement without satisfaction and success: I was able to host a panel of Chinese mothers from Jamaica, Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere, teaching the children something very interesting and meaningful about who all those quiet mums were outside the school classes, waiting for their daughters and sons.
Somehow, though, the road is much more difficult for indigenous mothers. We are not given the same platform to speak for ourselves, to lead from a solid sense of integrity, or to gather in community in a way that is respectful of and subordinated to the original Musqueam, Tswassen, Tsleil Waututh, Burrard people and nations... Salish, and specifically this is my home-- First Nations.
As was my experience with the Multicultural Friendship Group, I volunteered on the Aboriginal Agreement Enhancement Committee for a time, and I became demoralized by being present-and-not-accounted-for, rendered voiceless by the dynamic of middle class educated people speaking among themselves.
For me, it is a health issue. I am deathly allergic to perfume, and it is not worth my life to sit again and again with people who cannot see or hear me, and cannot comprehend me when I do speak. It is demoralizing. Why should I take my life in my hands for this?
As a single parent I owe it to my children to maintain a healthy balance in life and a positive frame of mind, and so, I withdraw in the face of a hostile process, and attempt to influence through one-on-one conversation, and by keeping in touch by email.
In sum, I do take responsibility for what I see as a giant step toward defining a suburban indigenous school district that operates in a way ignorant of or hostile to actual original local culture. I do take responsibility for having retreated for my own private comfort and relief, call it sanity, focussing on earning a living to support my family, and to support family members directly, rather than continuing to engage in the conversation, to remain vigilant on behalf of my family and community. It is just a fact that you cannot retire from the field, saying "you do it," then come back with a passionate backlash: "you didn't do it right!"
In answer to a question from the school district organizer, here is Mike James' blog and website. Mr. James has been teaching indigenous games in this area for over a decade, and perhaps the local poet-- rather than the long time First Nations teachers and community developers and organizers-- was not the best person to ask. But, I am very glad to provide the information now:
I believe he is a very close relative of Chief William Sepass, whose poetry I have discussed elsewhere in these pages (see a few elder writers of importance to BC and other entries linked to his name).
What felt very good for me was what felt very good for me, the very heartfelt contributions of good people, seeing community leaders I have known many years still engaging, still healing, still working toward the collective good of all. Seeing my family coming together within community celebrations, especially the youthful ones, who continue with community and school district supports to rise and shine. Sitting beside Mike as he gathered up his bundle and put it away, continuing the ceremony while the attention of the group and the needs of the organizational structure of activities moved on, and my beautiful son sang with the Oskayak singers...
Bit by bit and year by year, we all move forward together, no one left behind.
All my relations