Early afternoon, dappled light reflects on the quiet waters at Sasamat Lake. I sit on the ledge of the lake surrounded by nature, a hot thermos of coffee, and the words of Tanya Talaga and bell hooks beside me.
As I wade into the lake, I think about the surface microlevel that exists between the atmosphere and water. I think about the way language structures our imaginations and how it has everything to do with how we relate to each other and the world around us. I think about the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous structures that sometimes condition our world. I think about storytelling as survival. I think about the seven generations before us and the seven generations after and how at this moment in time, we are currently the microlevel between the two.
Submerging my body in the water, I want to let the lake hold me while I think about what reconciliation means to me. On September 30, Canada marks its second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day to honour the lives of Inuit, Métis and First Nations peoples who were and still are impacted by Canada’s Indigenous residential schools. At this moment, only 11 out of 94 Calls to Action have been completed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, according to Indigenous Watchdog.
For Indigenous communities, this is a day of mourning and gathering, a day where we invite settlers to give us space, sit with an open heart, and take learning about this country’s complicated legacy into their own hands. Settlers are encouraged to donate to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, wear an orange shirt to honour Phyllis Webstad’s story, and listen to the stories, experiences and perspectives of Indigenous people in your community. Here, I’ve spoken with four community members on the West Coast to gather such perspectives.
Taleetha Tait, who is Wet’suwet’en, Gitxsan, and African-American, born into Tsayu/Beaver clan, has a love for community that is reflected in the work she does as an International Indigenous Youth Internship Project Coordinator for global education centre and charity VIDEA as well as a facilitator of a weekly Indigenous Wellness group.
“My work is primarily focused around Indigenous youth, nurturing their gifts and building them up with competence, love and community to take up space in this world and be a part of it,” says Tait.
Before the pandemic, Tait helped Indigenous youth learn about international development and what decolonization looks like worldwide. After the pandemic hit, she co-created a virtual wellness community that brought in a weekly guest speaker to share tools for navigating Indigenous-specific wellness. For the past two years, 120 Indigenous youth have had the chance to participate in weekly meetings that may involve tarot card readings, traditional healing and blanketing ceremonies; they also receive care packages like traditional medicines and books in the mail. One of Tait’s favourite resources has been SkipTheDishes gift cards that allow participants to share a meal virtually.
“Having a meal provided for you, that’s harm reduction. To take that off someone’s plate for one day of the week that’s suicide prevention. We need more of that. We’ve had participants say: ‘I look forward to this. I can finally have a meal I want to eat,'” says Tait. “My hopes and dreams for Indigenous youth are that they have it better and that they always have it better, and that’s what motivates me to do the work that I do.”
For Tait, connection and community building continue to bring healing not only for the youth but for her as well. This past summer, she and her mother had the chance to return home and connect to their traditional territory, learning the ancestral knowledge of harvesting fish from relatives.
As for September 30, Tait will be spending it practising an act of self-care. One of her favourite ways to connect with nature and the self is through ocean dips.
Eli Hirtle is a nêhiyaw/European filmmaker, artist, curator, brother, son, uncle, friend and community member based in Lekwungen Territory in Victoria, B.C. His debut film, Resist, a half-hour documentary used as a fundraiser for the Unist’ot’en camp in Wet’suwet’en in 2013, was the first time he realized the power of film as a form of storytelling.
“I was at an event, and a friend came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I watched your film, and I went and volunteered at the camp afterwards.’ That means everything to me. This is why we do this work, and it made me want to do it more. I think it is a really potent, powerful way to touch people’s hearts because there are so many layers to it,” says Hirtle.
Storytelling is a sacred tradition that sustains and nurtures relationships and knowledge sharing. Hirtle’s most recent film project, Voices on the Rise, focuses on the revitalization of Indigenous languages through connecting with various storytellers within communities around Canada.
Hirtle’s mother, who was given up for adoption as part of the ’60s scoop, had only been to her community twice in her life. A big part of connecting and reconnecting with family, culture and language has been being able to share this journey with her. “Thinking generationally of being within a continuum. We’re not doing this as individuals. We’re doing this to heal things from the past and to create better futures,” says Hirtle.
“To attend ceremony together, through filming Voices on the Rise, and working on that project, brought me home,” he says. “I was 25 when we found out we were Cree. My mom was 50. So, it’s been easier for me to access these spaces and build these relationships. It was an incredibly special experience to share that with my mom, and a huge part of that was hearing the language and the songs. We may not know what is being said, but there’s this deeper knowing and resonance within our bodies, within our blood and within our bones.”
On September 30, Hirtle plans to join the Songhees Nation in honouring survivors’ and their families’ past, present and future lives through song and dance. “I can’t think of a better way to spend that day than wrapped up in community,” he says.
Jaskwaan Bedard, born to her Haida father from the Yahu’ jaanas Raven clan and her white settler mother—who was adopted into the Tsiits Git’anee Eagle clan—is one of the few X̲aad Kíl speakers left in the world. Currently the Haida Culture and Curriculum Implementation teacher for school district no. 50, where both her parents met, Bedard feels honoured to have the opportunity to carry on the family tradition.
“My dad went to day school in old Massett, and he knew the language before he went but lost it while he was there,” she says. Many Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools and forbidden to speak their language, but it was never lost, and Bedard hopes the work she and her community are doing can bring healing across generations.
Language is at the foundation of everything we do as Indigenous Peoples. It is shaped by our environment, connects us to the past, and holds our cultures at its very core. Language revitalization creates possibilities for different worlds.
Currently working on a PhD with a focus on language resurgence and decolonization, Bedard has spent the last 20 years of her life immersed in her language. She wants the next generation to have the opportunity to experience the love and care she did when growing up surrounded by Haida language. When speaking about reconciliation, Bedard questions whether we should use the word “reconciliation” as a verb.
“In my language, there are very specific verbs for making something right. Either you’re doing it through actions or you’re doing it through words. You’re either about to do it or you have already done it. And we haven’t done it yet,” she says.
On September 30, Bedard will be attending a pole raising on Haida Gwaii with her family. “It’s going to be pretty neat to join together and witness this and know that my kids have this as a normal thing in their life. Their dad will raise a totem pole, and I’ll be there to support in ways that I can, wearing orange and thinking of my dad and others who went to those schools and are still affected.”
Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun is a Snuneymuxw (Coast Salish) artist and a storyteller with a practice rooted in honouring and celebrating the stories and teachings that come from their Coast Salish community and worldview.
“My work is so inspired by my late great-grandma. She was such an incredible person—a storyteller, healer, midwife, language teacher, who spent her whole life working for our community and doing activism work,” says Kwulasultun.
When Kwulasultun’s great-grandmother passed away in 2018, they were hit with a loss so vast that they began reading everything they could find about Coast Salish culture, attending language lessons, and listening to stories from those within their family and community. As an act of continuing her legacy, Kwulasultun felt a call toward art. “I feel like this is a gift that I’ve received from her in a way. In our culture, she’s still here. She’s on the other side now, but she’s still around,” they say.
“In our language, we don’t even really have a word for art. It’s this beautiful thing that is meant to tell stories, honour our history, our connections to place, and to the different beings in the natural and supernatural world who have helped our family and us.”
When reading all the colonial and anthropological texts about their culture, Kwulasultun became keenly aware of the disconnect between stories told by their people and by those outside of the community.
“If you want to learn about Indigenous Peoples and who we are, you have to go to our own forms of self-expression, like our art and our stories, and do that in a way to really learn,” they say. Kwulasultun’s focus is on continuing the Coast Salish tradition of art in a modern way that still captures that distinction between past, present and future.
As for September 30, they will be focusing on self-care and being kind and careful with themselves and their loved ones. “We as Indigenous People don’t need to do anything. Our healing is our own. It is unique to us and doesn’t need to be performed. All we need to do is love each other and be there for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their Residential school experience.
Kayla MacInnis is a Métis storyteller born in the prairies but raised by the sea. Through sharing stories that mix visual arts and the written word, Kayla hopes to inspire people to find different ways to connect with themselves and one another.