Singing for the End of the Line

Last night I went to visit my mother and instead of listening to an audiobook or a pop song on the drive over to her house, I listened to a CD of my father singing Haida songs. This is not unusual, I often bring the CD out in the weeks before a performance to prepare my voice to sing publicly.

I am currently teaching a course on Indigenous education for teacher candidates. One of the last classes in the course has to do with respectfully hosting Indigenous guests. To teach this, I invite the teacher candidates to host me in the classroom. The idea is that it provides them with the opportunity to practice hosting and to learn about the associated protocols in a safe environment. The teacher candidates practice doing a territorial acknowledgement, an introduction, and they also practice thanking me at the end. For my part, I do a short presentation for them, similar to what I might do in a school. I sing traditional Haida songs and tell some of the stories about my regalia. Last night, I was practicing for this presentation.

Haida singing has always been a part of my life. Unlike my father who was alive during the Potlatch Ban, I grew up being part of a traditional Haida dance group from a very young age. There was no need for my father to hide the songs that he sang to me before I went to sleep, no need to use paper bags for masks when he showed me the dances that accompanied those songs, and there was no Indian Agent to report him when he did. During my lifetime, it has always been legal to practice our Haida culture.

Though there were times when I was embarrassed to practice our dances and songs and times when I equated my Haida identity with the negative stereotypes associated with Indigenous peoples in Canada, I rarely questioned why I sang. It was a part of my life, it had always been a part of my life, and in the future it would be a part of the lives of my children. Those songs were what made me Haida and regardless of my future children’s other ancestries, the songs would make them Haida as well. Perhaps because I have always had access to Haida songs, I took it for granted that these songs would always be a part of my life.

Years ago, I attended an event hosted by another nation. Our dance group was invited to perform; however, many members of our dance group were unable to attend the event. As a result, there were only a couple of us there that day. When the time came time for us to sing our songs, I quickly realized that I did not truly know them. In that moment, I discovered I only knew how to follow the songs – not to lead them. This realization led me to wonder what would happen to these songs when our leaders were no longer with us. What would happen when it was left to me to lead the songs and to teach them to my children?

I returned home and asked my father if he would teach me some of the songs well enough to lead them. I worked closely with him to learn the words and the meanings and the protocols connected with them. I wanted to be sure that these songs continued into future generations, for they had survived far greater hardships than I was facing at that moment.

My father describes our connection to our history as a thick rope that has been made up of thin threads we all hold. Our songs bring us together and strengthen that rope. I did not want to be the one who broke the rope that connected us to our ancestors.

Years passed, and I became pregnant with a daughter. From early in the pregnancy, I imagined passing the Haida songs onto her, and I sang them to her knowing that then they would be familiar to her when she was born. Being pregnant changed my perspective on my life. For the first time, I began to think about the long lines of ancestors reaching back across the history of our world whose lives had all lead up to the life of this tiny being I was carrying. My daughter became the end of that line. She died shortly after she was born. With her death, the line that stretched back to the beginning of human life and passed through me, ended. With her death, I felt that I had let down my ancestors. Without children who lived, it became hard to know how I could contribute to the world. I had always believed that my contribution would be my children and the life and experiences that I passed onto them.

Last night, as I sang in my car, I asked myself, for the first time, why do I sing? Why do I sing when I am now at the end of this line with no children to teach? Why do I continue to work to learn the words? Why is it important that I know how to lead the songs? Why do I continue to sing?

As I continued my drive home, the answer came to me: I sing for the end of this line.

I sing for my daughter who took those songs with her when she returned to our ancestors. I sing for those ancestors so they know that their songs and their knowledge did not die with them. And when I sing for those who are not Haida, I sing to remind them of our strength and our resilience as Indigenous peoples. I sing so our history continues to live on in the present. And so the rope of which my father speaks is never broken.

Prove Them Wrong

When I was finishing my masters, I read the book Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson. I would like to say that when I reached the last page, I wept. It would likely be more poetic than the truth. I didn’t actually weep, I just felt kind of sick and tremendously sad. I was sitting on the couch in my living room, and I remember being hit with the realization of the impact of my formal education upon my beliefs about myself and my limitations as a person of Aboriginal ancestry. And worse, that many of my feelings of inadequacy could have been bypassed if I had simply come into contact with the right educator.

In my early years, my mother and father would come to the school and do various presentations and activities about Haida culture for the students in my class. It was largely uneventful until I went into grade four. Then, I was at a larger school and the presentations brought attention to my ancestry. Once the other students realized what I was, they taunted and teased me about being a chief and echoes of the ubiquitous war whoop would regularly follow me down the hallways. It was, perhaps, my first clue that being Aboriginal was not a good thing.

As I moved into secondary school, I surrounded myself with non-Aboriginal friends attempting to create a barrier between myself and what I understood to be the Aboriginal identity. I assumed that my association with non-Aboriginal people would create a chasm with me on one side and failure in school, issues with drug and alcohol addiction, chronic behaviour problems safely on the other. I did not want to be Aboriginal, so I simply wasn’t.

I was in the French Immersion stream, so the focus was upon inclusion of French Canadian culture and with the exception of the minor mandatory injections of Aboriginal content in social studies, my courses were entirely devoid of anything authentically Aboriginal. Of course, my world outside of school was teeming with Aboriginal content. At the time, I was living with my father and my stepmother who were both Aboriginal artists. I was part of a Haida dance group. I frequently traveled to my father’s home community to visit all the members of his Aboriginal family. I never once admitted to them the fact that being Aboriginal was a source of shame for me. I simply tried to continue to separate myself from the aspects of the Aboriginal identity that I found most despicable. And at school, I made every attempt to maintain the illusion that I was not Aboriginal. I maintained my grades. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I was well behaved. And in all that time, nothing happened at school to change my thinking. Not once did anyone challenge my negative beliefs about Aboriginal people or by extension, myself. I left the school system with my negative assumptions intact and it took me a very long time to come to accept the Aboriginal part of my ancestry. To discover that being Aboriginal did not mean that I was unintelligent or prone to alcoholism. Eventually I began to accept my identity; however, the years of self-loathing did not simply fade into the background.

When I was adding the final words to my thesis and only weeks before my defense I read Monkey Beach and was spontaneously filled with devastation. Not because the book was anything less than brilliant, but actually because it was so amazing. Here was this book that was an example of quality literature that could easily have met many of the learning outcomes for any of my high school English classes (though to be fair it hadn’t been written yet). Its 80s equivalent could have been held up in my class as an example of good literature that was written by an Aboriginal person (not to be confused with “good Aboriginal literature” which is decidedly different). Any one of my teachers could have told me about the important contributions to science or math that were made by Aboriginal people. I am not saying that it would have changed my thinking, but I believe I could have begun to question the validity of my assumptions that Aboriginal people were unintelligent or lazy (or whatever other negative stereotype I could think of) long before I had left the school system. And what could the implications have been for my non-Aboriginal classmates?

I suspect that it was that kind of thinking that led to the introduction of English 10 First Peoples. A course that I never had when I went to school, but to be honest I would not have taken it voluntarily at that time either. It is a course that consists entirely of Aboriginal content. Stories, novels, poetry, films, non-fiction. All brilliant. All created by Aboriginal people. And perhaps it is not the silver bullet that the creators had anticipated, but it has achieved several things. It has challenged peoples’ thinking about the capacities of Aboriginal people. When the course was offered at our school, the assumption was that because it was an Aboriginal course, it would be “easier” or “less academic,” and I delighted in having conversations with colleagues that informed them that this was not the case. That this course stood up to the proverbial bar set by the Ministry of Education for English 10. Furthermore, the students who enroll in this course will never know what it is like to receive an education devoid of intelligent and meaningful contributions by Aboriginal people. Regardless of whether they pass or fail the course, they are exposed to some of the incredible achievements of Aboriginal people.  And, as I have said before, this ensures that they do not need to view their Aboriginal ancestry as a barrier to their academic success.

On a more personal level, when I taught this course, I was able to have the difficult conversations about what it means to be Aboriginal and the value of formal education. I was able to talk about some of the discrimination I faced as a result of my desire to continue to pursue it. This resulted in the students sharing with me some of their own challenges of trying to pursue education for themselves. And truly I wanted to tell them that it has changed. That by embracing my Aboriginal identity, I have become stronger. That the kind of teasing that I faced in elementary school no longer exists or that when you grow up people keep their negative opinions to themselves. That in pursuing my education, I have combatted the negative stereotypes. But that simply isn’t true. I continue to endure the teasing associated with people who fail to understand.

What is worse, however, is that we as educators continue to make the same mistakes, even though we should know better. Following my realization about the potential impact of including Aboriginal content in all courses, I had a conversation with a colleague about ways to include it into a “non-Aboriginal” course. I shared my epiphany about the impact that it could have had on my own life, but it was met with reluctance then resistance and then a barrage of questions regarding the ability of content written by Aboriginal people to meet the rigours of an academic course. As an educator of Aboriginal ancestry, I felt that my own intelligence and capacity had been questioned as well.

I didn’t know whether to laugh it off or to scream obscenities or to cry about the futility of trying to change people’s minds. Instead, I left the room, which failed to achieve anything at all except to end the dialogue completely.

There are many factors that contributed to my decision to pursue further education, and that conversation was one of them. It forced me to realize how difficult it is to enact change in the educational system. Honestly I don’t know if more education will help me to change anything for Aboriginal students, particularly since I suspect one of the most important things that I did in the classroom was to have the difficult conversations. The conversations about what it is like to be Aboriginal and formally educated. The conversations about the resistance from my own community to the pursuit of higher education, but also the conversations about the encouragement I have received. I must admit, however, that one of the most important conversations was the one about what we, as Aboriginal people, can do to challenge all of the negative stereotypes associated with being Aboriginal. Inevitably this is the conversation we had the most, likely because this was the most destructive for the students in my class, and sadly because it is the challenge that they face the most. And although no student has ever asked me for my advice about how to overcome such devastating assumptions, I always end this particular conversation with these three words: “Prove them wrong.”

In response to the writing on the wall…

Nobody has ever called me a “dirty indian” to my face, and yet it has been a label that I have tried to erase from my mind for as long as I can remember. No amount of education, professional success, or achievement has been able to eradicate this label from permeating every aspect of my existence.

This is not to say that I have not experienced racism. What began in grade four as taunts about being a chief and war whoops in the hallways, transformed into more subtly subversive statements and implied discrimination as I grew older. Because of my education, I was not “like the rest of them”. My choice not to drink was likely “because I was in AA”, not out of personal preference. The fact that I didn’t look the way some people believed that an indigenous person should look meant that I had to endure countless conversations about the problems with “the native students”. And I admit, there were times when I just smiled wanly and remained silent.

Yesterday, I helped to facilitate a class discussion for educators about indigenous perspectives on research. One of the tasks was to record notes from the small group conversations on chart paper that would be posted on the wall. At the end of the activity, each group presented the highlights of their discussions to the whole class. As the last group finished their presentation, I noticed that on the bottom of the page (presumably as a critique of our readings) was written:

“Dirty” aspects of indigenous people are not represented.

At that moment the room was completely silent, but the words deafened me. And then a single voice wavered, “I am uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘dirty’ to describe indigenous people”. The voice was my own, and I spoke because I knew that my silence would give everyone else permission to remain silent too.

My objection to the word “dirty” resulted in the decision to scribble it out on the wall, but scribbling out the words could not erase them from my memory.

A conversation began – one that I don’t remember much of.  What I do remember was the sound of another voice explaining that we try to focus on the positive aspects of indigenous people and communities because focusing on the challenges does not help us to move forward. And I am very grateful to that voice. It served to remind me of the impact that a single voice can have. And it helped me to understand that I was not completely alone.

I have always tried to find the positive aspects of the adversity I have faced in my life, but it was not easy for me to find it in this particular experience. Following the completion of the class, I fled into the hallway and then outside and I spoke to someone who listened patiently as I cried and yelled and even swore. Someone who reminded me quietly of my courage and strength, and for that too I am grateful. It helped me to return to a quieter place – one where I was able to better reflect upon what had happened.

What I came to understand was that this student was a messenger – a canary in the coalmine if you will. And perhaps I needed this experience to be reminded that it was possible to be highly educated and an educator and still remain unconscious of the power of the use of words like “dirty” to describe aspects of human beings. And perhaps I needed to be reminded of how far we still need to go in our education about how to demonstrate respect for those around us, even when we don’t necessarily understand their realities or experiences.

The truth is that those words should never have been written in the class. Human beings all have challenges and complications in their lives; these should never be labeled “dirty”.

The truth is that those words should never have been posted on the wall of an educational institution where attempts to achieve understanding and respect, particularly for indigenous people, has been made such a high priority.

The truth is that in a classroom of educators pursuing the highest possible level of education, my voice should not have been the only one to object.

And the truth is that I will never be able to erase devastation that I felt in the moments following that class.

But it was not for those reasons that I chose to object.

I objected in the hopes that no student ever has to look up on the wall of his or her classroom and see the word “dirty” associated with any aspect his or her ancestry.

I objected in the hopes that the next time my voice will not be the only one to speak out.

And I objected because I know that in order for people to have their assumptions challenged, I cannot remain silent.