Let me tell you a story of a Salish woman who came from two worlds. She, being the youngest of many, started off on a secluded island. She came from poverty, but like so many others from that era, was rich in so many other aspects. She came from a strong traditional family, and was raised in a traditional way. Yet the tides of change experienced across all of Canada and the United States at the time created havoc, and it truly was survival of the fittest. She grew up with her siblings as they all eventually left the island, she followed her mother place to place working odd jobs, and spent summers with her grandmother. She at times lived in the longhouse in the winter time. Her first language was Hulq’umi’num. Without the opportunity for education, she taught herself to read and write in English. She came from many things in the Salish way, and one of those things was storytelling, and she read and told stories until her eyes went blind, and until her last breath. She lived a long life, but it could have been longer.
She experienced health problems young, being diagnosed with arthritis at the age of 18 (most likely from early and frequent exposure to the pesticides working the fields in Washington State, and a lack of calcium in her regular diet). She lost trust in the medical community young, because there were a few incidences when they used her as a guinea pig. They took her middle finger on her right hand without just cause, and the majority of her teeth. She was a beautiful woman but she did not see it because of this. In her lifetime she was silenced, shown that her voice did not matter, and her body was not sacred. But she was a strong woman, and the last thing she wanted was to be a poster child for her struggle, and hated having someone’s pity.
Her life may not have been typical because she did not go to residential school, yet these incidences still happened to her. And as much as it affected her esteem, she moved on. She was not social nor political, she lived a humble life. Yet she connected and affected many lives by her being, because she knew where she came from. She raised her children in a small town a top a meat shop, off the reservation, on the salary of her knitting. She remained in contact with all her older siblings and was deeply affected by deaths in her family. She remained in the undercurrents of the communities she was connected to, active but never in the spotlight. She gave of what she could at her families cultural gatherings. She instilled value in her two children so they too knew where they come from, one taking on the role of his father and being the hunter and gatherer, the other raised to be the best of a ‘lady’ she could. She loved the gift of life and held on to it and appreciated it with all her might.
That lady was my maternal Grandmother and she came up from many struggles. She was old school and was adamant on us learning to survive in the white world, as well as our own. She wanted us to work the system so we never experienced what she did. She wanted us to embrace the beauty of our people because she never lost site of that. There was nothing she liked better than a beautiful song, with some nice people. She was all about being ‘good’ and righting any wrong because all aspects of indigenous life relies on balance. She was all about connecting with people and knowing family relations so we knew the richness and goodness we came from.
In the sixth grade I wrote a speech regarding the residual effects of residential school and the continuous oppression experienced of Indigenous people (maybe not worded like that at the time), and included that aspect of my grandmothers life. My teacher laughed and told me to get my facts straight. On the record and off, and there are now accounts of how incidences like these were of regular occurrence. My Grandmother did not attend residential school, yet the prejudices and lack of support of the time she was born into allowed this to happen. Her human rights were not protected because at the time indigenous people were not human.
What drove me to share this story, is the Truth and Reconciliation week happening in September, in Vancouver B.C. Because of my close relatives who did go to residential school, and what happened to my grandmother even though she did not go to residential school. I stand for them. Every story is not meant to be shared, but the humanness of those that remain untold still needs to be acknowledged. Huy’ tseep qu to all my Elders and relatives, for keeping the indigenous spirit alive.