By Roy L Hales
I recently took part in a “Village Workshop” at the Klahoose New Relationship Building on Cortes Island, in BC. This is a novel introduction to the First Nations perception of their history in that it involves role playing.
There were probably close to 60 of us and, contrary to what I expected, we were primarily of English or Irish descent. There were also people of Scotch, Scandinavian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese and First Nations ancestry.
Our facilitator, Kathi Camilleri, told me, “There is a reason for this.”
The event began with one of our hosts, Norm Harry, greeting us in Klahoose. Then he spoke in English. The thing I most appreciate from what followed is Norm’s observation that it is not correct to single American Indians out as indigenous. We are all indigenous peoples, whether our ancestral roots were in North America, Europe or elsewhere.
After the welcoming ceremony was over, Kathi began to tell her story. Throughout the day Kathi wove her own personal life story, the words of elders who have taught her with the experiential exercise which is based on the work of a woman named Jann Derrick, together as a powerful teaching
Kathi was of mixed ancestry. Her father was Irish and her mother was a Metis/Cree mother. She grew up up being very proud of her Irish heritage, but many years passed before Kathi could say the same of her native ancestry. Now she helps others come to grips with the same issues.
What does it mean to have First Nations ancestry? How does the First Nations community fit into the surrounding country of Canada? or the US? And how can we heal the rift between European colonists and First Nations?
One of the phrases Kathi kept repeating, as we explored these questions, was “No shame; no blame.”
Chief Dan George once said that his people used to go deep into the forest to seek a giant tree that they could use for a 40 foot long canoe. Those trees are all gone. Now they need to find two trees, that can be joined together without a seam, to make a canoe that large. He was referring to the fact that White and Indian must join together.
We began the role playing session by building a pre-contact village. This involved placing symbols of all that we hold dear on a deerskin: government, the arts, the sea’s bounty, a canoe to travel in, ceremonies etc. Then we chose roles. Some became”children,” others “parents,” “uncles and aunt.” I could have chosen any of those, but picked “elder.” Those who had not come forward up to that point became hunters/protectors.
She described the First Nations’ emphasis on extended family relationships, how everyone had a voice at tribal counsels and the absence of the concept of private ownership of land.
Then Kathi put on a red hat and assumed the role of a colonizer. She became a poor European labourer who was drawn to the new world by the prospect of owning her own land. She walked past “our village” and exclaimed, “There is no one here! This is all free for the taking.”
That was followed by a confrontation, in which she produced a deed to her property and told us to get off her land. That was when my anger started rising.
One of the Klahoose told us they were conquered by disease. Many bands were decimated by smallpox, which took up to 90% of the population, before they even saw a white person. The survivors were grieving the loss of their people when the colonists moved in.
(I remember reading how 6,000 First Nations people had once descended on the infant city of Victoria. Luckily for the colonists, they came in peace. This was the last chance they had to push the Europeans back, for smallpox spread among the Indians the next year. Whole villages were depopulated.)
Red Hat came into our village. “I’m doing this for your own good,” she said, as she took the deerskin where all the symbols of our values were stored. She added that if we resisted, she had armies and canon and would make an example of us, so that other tribes would know they can not resist her.
We watched her. I pondered resisting, but knew I would not be able to prevail over Red Hat’s canon and armies. One of the “artists” hid a sacred rattle.
“Do you think that did not happen?” Kathi said, taking off her red hat. “We have sacred objects and ceremonies today because people hid them.”
Next, Red Hat came to take our children. It was for their own good, she explained. We were obviously ignorant savages: not capable of learning civilized ways and not fit to be parents. Our children were still moldable.
“Do not resist, or I will bring my canon and armies,” Red Hat said.
The “children” did not move at first, even when Red Hat threatened to attack their families and put people in prison. Their collective resistance lasted until the first one rose. Most of the others followed her example. One lingered, as the others went off with Red Hat, but ended up following.
Yet there was a “child” that hid. We did not know that Kathi had seen this until she took her red hat off.
“There were children who hid and never went through the experience of residential schools,” she explained.
“So how do you feel?” she asked those of us who were left in the village.
One of the parents said, “The reason for my existence – the children who could take our village forward into the future – has being taken away.
“There is no hope,” someone said.
I did not mention my anger, but continued to observe in silence.
Kathi produced an empty whiskey bottle, “Some found solace in this.”
One of the Klahoose mentioned how the Colonists brought whiskey to their ancestors.
Kathi spoke about her own experience with alcohol. It had given her a buzz and freedom to express herself, but the freedom was fleeting and the emptiness that followed worse. It was a depressant, not a liberator.
She told us about the residential schools, which attempted to remake Indian children into Europeans. They were not permitted to speak any languages except English and French.
“The people who ran these schools were not all bad,” she said. “Some came because they wanted to help.”
Kathi mentioned a previous workshop, in which some of the participants seemed to be ashamed when she spoke of residential schools. She had tried to reassure them, “You did not take these children from their families.” Instead of releasing them, this only increased their sense of shame! They were former teachers! They had not meant to do such harm.
There were also teachers who chose that profession from less pure motives, it gave them access to children. Speaking as a counselor, Kathi spoke of the residential school survivors who had been sexually abused.
The last residential school in British Columbia closed in 1984.
(There were once 100 “American Indian Boarding Schools” in the United States. There still is one in Riverside County. Most appear to have been as harsh as their Canadian equivalent, but some are remembered fondly by Native Americans.)
Red Hat returned to our village. She acknowledged that there had been some problems in the residential school, but insisted that had been hundreds of years ago. She told us that we were lazy and ignorant savages that no one would hire. So Red Hat would do it herself. She took away our hunter/protectors, to give them jobs. She made them line up facing the wall.
Then Red Hat returned for the others. This was “my hour.” For though it would have been impossible to fight Red Hat, I was not going to take part. Let Red Hat put me in prison, if it comes to that. Most of the “parents,” “uncles” and “aunts” and “elders” allowed themselves to be led away. The “child” who had hidden rather than go off to residential school and I exchanged glances, as we watched them go.
Kathi turned all the others around, “One of the elders has refused to come, do you think he is not a culture keeper?”
Then she pointed to the “children” coming back from the residential schools.
“How do we fix this?” Kathi asked.
It was obvious that we must do this ourselves. Some people off to the side were the first to join hands. I watched for a moment then, as I started to go over to them, one of the “children”came to me. “Please do not go now,” she cried. This exercise had touched the feelings of apartness/isolation within her. I held her hand for a time, but had little comfort to offer. I joined the growing circle of people who had joined hands.
Red Hat came back. This time she tried to be ingratiate herself with us. As she tried to be friendly, she turned her hat sideways, then backwards. Nothing worked.
“How do we fix this?” Kathi repeated.
“Forgiveness,” someone said.
It came in the form of a hug. Kathi would later describe it as a real hug and in the course of it her red hat came off.
“That is the only way complete healing can come,” Kathi said. “Red Hat’s hat must come off and she must meet you as an equal.”
Thus was the blueprint for the healing of two Native American cultures, European and Indigenous, was laid out before us.
There was a celebration afterwards. This consisted of a ritual purification, followed by dancing and a group talking time. Someone said he hoped the Klahoose would hold more community functions in their New Relationship Building, especially ones that involve eating. (Lunch was delicious.)
(Image at top of page: Kathi Camileri looking out from Klahoose New Relationship Building on Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo)