Guest Post: Shirley Swelchalot Hardman, Senior Advisor on Indigenous Affairs

Not even a sack of potatoes —

Indigenous history in Canada is long but many of us do not think of it that way. I recall being on a bus tour with my son; we were with his classmates in Europe. My son was in awe of the history. He commented, “This is awesome. We should do this back home”. His teacher smiled and replied, “Oh, but Canada is so young… there is no history there”.  I had learned long before then to pick my battles. I did not need to tell the teacher that the long history in Canada had been confiscated, burned and destroyed by other means. That the early history of “Canada” had not been treasured by most and was dismissed as “pre-history” to many. I did talk to my son about it because it was crucial for him to know why I had not spoken up.

Oftentimes at UFV we get to hop on a Place Name Tours bus with Dr. Naxaxalhts’i “Sonny” McHalsie and bear witness to the history of S’olh Téméxw (our sacred land), now referred to as the Fraser Valley. It is an eight-hour tour and we learn more in eight hours than we could learn in a three-credit university course. (Our colleague Sonny starts talking as we leave the UFV parking lot and he does not stop until we return.) The land teaches us so much that is not in the history books, nor the ethnobotany books, nor the geography texts.  All of this history, all of the stories, all of the names of places come from the lived experiences and memory of Naxaxalhts’i. Our dear friend and adjunct professor has been listening to his Elders, our Elders in S’olh Téméxw and the extended area for nearly sixty years, and in real earnest this has been his job for thirty-five years. Sometime I pause and wonder what would have happened if Sonny did not do this?

One evening I was sitting in a basement classroom on the Abbotsford campus. I was there for an advisory committee meeting. My friend and dear Elder Joe Aleck was also on the committee. Before the meeting started, he and I were chatting about this and that, and that and this, when he asked, “You know what really hurts my heart Shirley?”  I did not have to say anything; I knew he was going to tell me. “My kids, my grandkids and their kids… will always know Mariah Slough as Mariah.  It had a name you know…but they will always call it Mariah Slough.” I listened, and I could hear Joe’s heart breaking just a little bit. He told me the name of the body of water that is now known by a “settler” name. Suddenly, the meeting started. Somewhere in the meeting I forgot the name Joe had told me. Someone arrived to pick up our dear Elder from the meeting and I never got to ask him to repeat the name.

I never asked Joe. Seems strange now but I wanted to live with the not knowing; I wanted to remember Joe’s voice, the look in his eyes… I did not want to forget. Time passed as it always does. Joe left us. Awhile back I thought I would like to know the name of the water that hosts the canoe races, that runs the span of the reserve on one side and that deserves remembering. I was on the bus with Naxaxalhts’i, so I asked. He thought for a minute and said, “I dunno. What is it?” I had to admit it was a real question. More time passed. I was on another tour, and I asked again. I was told he would have to look it up. I asked a community member; she did not know. Finally, Sonny remembered… he told me; I wrote it down on my phone. I always say you can fit into a thimble what Dr. Naxaxalhts’i “Sonny” McHalsie does not know about Stó:lō territory and our history. Stranger still are the real-life things that happen. Some time later I looked up the name. It was not in my phone. I phoned Sonny, he was home from work that day and told me that he would have to look it up when he was in his office next. Well, I have not tracked him down to ask him. See, I know now, I am meant to learn something from this. I share the story because it is important for you to learn something as well.

As I read the websites describing Indigenous History month, its origins, and its purposes, I remain wary. Repeatedly we are asked to learn “about” Indigenous people. However, I am encouraged to see that here in the ivory tower there are signs that everyone from students to faculty to top administrators are beginning to genuinely recognize that it is time to learn “from” Indigenous people. It is not the published articles or a chapter in the book, but the knowledge from the community that is valuable and that we should cherish. For this Indigenous History Month I invite my colleagues to join me in Indigenizing our academy. This is no easy task, I know, but I believe that we have turned a corner and that the process cannot, and will not, be stopped. As I contemplate these things I look forward to a time when the next generation of Elders and Knowledge Keepers will not lament to me, as my grandmother did, about being treated like a container that outsiders can come and squeeze for knowledge and then forget. I remember only too well my grandma telling me that “They all traipse to my door, the historians, the linguists, the teachers, the anthropologist and those other -ologists. They ask me to tell them, so I do. Then they go away, and they write it in their books. Then they sell those books. Who is the expert then? Not me. And what do I get? Not even a sack of potatoes”.

Ey Si:yam Hoych’ka Si:yam.

Shirley Anne Hardman
Senior Advisor on Indigenous Affairs