I was inspired, when I was working on this column, by reading Skalulmecw Chief Dean Nelson’s words on the Lil’wat website:
To be presented the culture and to embrace our culture are two very different things. I have always believed that culture can save or condemn a First Nations person depending on where we are in life. I was fortunate to have key people at a crucial time in my life to assist me with the embracing and the practicing of the Lil̓wat7úl culture that would motivate me to where I am today culturally… Initially, I saw myself standing on the sidelines, watching our culture for most of my youth. When I became a teacher, I saw my students looking to me for direction as to whether or not to participate in our cultural practices. I asked myself, “How can we expect our children to embrace the culture when we cannot ourselves?” I started by holding a drum on the sidelines — again watching. I felt it was my responsibility to do what I could, so I joined the drumming circle and became strong enough to lead some of the Lil̓wat7u̓l songs.
It made me realise, even the leaders around us had to decide whether to remain on the sidelines or step forward.
All photos by Natalie Langmann.
Yes to the dancing
My friend has a brain tumour.
She mentioned it to me once, almost as an aside, when we were catching up over coffee, and as I mind-rifled through all the things I actually did know about her, trying to fit this new fact into the matrix – her work, her bullshit detector, the power and irreverence of her laugh, the time she makes for poetry, for people, walking in nature, yoga, skiing – I thought: huh, unfair and unfathomable as this is, it actually fits. That’s why she is so “woke.”
She’s neither “fighting” nor “dying”, which is what an undiagnosed person assumes are the options in the face of a shitty medical pronouncement. Those options are such unfortunate verbs, so limiting, so reductive of a person’s everythingness.
On the contrary, she is living, mindfully, vividly, and navigating all the daily tedium of life – the bill paying, commuting and garbage recycling – albeit in the heavy-breathing presence of impermanence. We’re out there on the same dance floor, moving to the same tunes, bouncing along to the same existential metronome, the constant battle of now versus tomorrow, being versus striving, process versus finished product. And yet, she moves in a way that is utterly alive. Her constant dance partner is a shadow. But somehow that translates into some extra magic moves.
Something I wish I had a few more of last week when I was asked to dance.
Shivering into my down jacket, I joined a hundred other community members in the frozen mud to celebrate the groundbreaking for the new gas station to be built by the Lil’wat Nation’s Business Development arm, in Mount Currie. It will be my local pump, right next to the new Tz’sil Learning Centre, positioned to catch all the road-trip traffic heading up and down the Duffey Lake Road.
It will replace the current gas station, a building that Retail Operations Manager Graham Turner joked is being held together with duct tape, and is one more step forward towards economic health for the community.
Lhpatq Maxine Joseph Bruce, a five-term councilor for the Lil’wat Nation has held the Economic Development Portfolio for the last 8 years. The Band, and the Lil’wat Nation’s Business Corporations, have been steadily moving forward with a mission to create jobs and opportunities, by Lil’wat, for Lil’wat.
Bruce believes that a combination of character and consistency has helped get them to this place – a steady hammering at the issues and at the books, getting them into the black and on to this blue sky place, where the second ground-breaking ceremony was taking place in a week, set against the percussion of actual hammering from over at the Ts’zil site where dozens of Lil’wat are working on the Graham Murphy Construction-led project.
The crew eventually took a break, and came and joined the ceremony, and as we gathered there, listening to the speeches and the drumming and singing, I could feel the power of things coming together – the stories of that piece of land that the Land and Resources team gathered up, to share, to pass on to the young ones; the two year old dancing his ancestors’ dances with such presence; the physicality of the drummers singing, pounding out a wave of sound that seemed designed to lift that boy up; the prayer of thanks and acknowledgement that was offered to the elders, the ancestors, to all who had kept going, making progress that didn’t always seem like progress, helping bring about this moment.
Then there was a final dance, and an invitation thrown to all the people present to join in.
I folded inwards, trying to be quietly invisible. I anchored myself to the sidelines where I was happy being respectfully present, thinking, oh please, don’t look at me, I’m just here to watch. At that moment, Mamaya7 Lois Joseph, dancing in her regalia, beckoned. I scrunched up my face, trying to communicate through facial micromuscles that I don’t dance in broad daylight, stone cold sober, in front of strangers. That I don’t know these graceful moves and these stories. That I don’t want to tread on any toes. I don’t want to make the wrong moves. I don’t want to stand out. Nothing personal…
She danced on.
Instead of relief, I immediately wished for a take-back, a do-over. Someone beautiful and kind and wise, whose regalia includes a woven crown that makes her look deservedly regal, leaned towards me and said, come, come, dance with us, and I responded with a flinch.
Then, another drummer put down her drum, and moved into the circle, and she gave me a shot at redemption. Ruth Dick invited me to dance too, and I clutched her hand like a kid terrified of being abandoned, and she danced by my side, with slow steps, making it easy for me to follow along. And I let go of my self-consciousness as best I could, and felt, though not exactly graceful, grateful.
Afterwards, Dick said to me, I asked you to dance because I figured you’d be writing about this, and I knew that if you actually danced, it would make you a participant, instead of just a witness.
I was happy to be a witness that day – to hear the stories, to observe the positive energy, to be enchanted by the two year old boy in his woven hat and his buckskin vest who loves to drum, dancing with his granny.
But I believe as fiercely in his right to grow into a fully actualized beloved human, to dance and express himself and flourish and enjoy the fruits of his labours and be happy, as I do my own son’s. And that doesn’t happen from the sidelines. That happens when we all participate.
I got a second chance, but next time, I will try to remember that, given the choice between watching and doing, it’s a powerful thing to be a participant. (Scary, awkward, uncomfortable, also.) There’s an uninvited growth in my friend’s brain, reminding her of this, every day. It reminds me too.