Nicola Jones is a smart cookie. The local mom-of-two is a science writer and editor, with a masters degree in journalism, and the ability to speak intelligently about particle physics and oceanography, amongst many other things. She opens up about realizing how much she didn’t know, about the place she lives, and the people of this place, in this guest post.
by Nicola Jones
As a science journalist I am used to asking stupid questions and feeling just fine about that. People expect you to be ignorant about quantum physics, the state of the melting Antarctic, or the precise effects of noise pollution on marine animals. I am allowed and expected to ask anything and everything from “just what are those electrons doing?” to “how loud is whale song anyway?” But there are some subjects in which I have, lately started to feel uncomfortably ignorant—including the First Nations history of my own country and town.
I bump into First Nations issues daily—as a writer, editor, mother, and citizen. Part of my job is editing an anthropology journal; I invite anthropologists to write about their work, and then edit it so it’s (hopefully) readable and exciting for the general public. Often these pieces touch on Indigenous issues, like the portrayal of Indigenous characters in the media (from Little House on the Prairie to the X-Files) or the renovation of anthropology museums to be more sensitive to Indigenous cultural issues. Sometimes the authors are Indigenous.
One of these pieces recently was about ‘cultural appropriation’, and the fine line between appreciating and stealing someone’s culture. I do yoga, eat sushi, and adapt each to my own tastes without any feelings of guilt; many aspects of global culture are freely shared and offered up for global consumption. But other things—Pocahontas costumes for Halloween, or the made-in-China Inukshuk figurines sold at the Vancouver airport—are arguably stepping over a line. Where is this line, and why is it there? The piece I edited gave answers, but left me with yet more questions.
Meanwhile my daughter comes home from school speaking Ucwalmícwts (yes I had to look up how to spell that). Many of her classmates and some teachers are First Nations. The Lil’wat First Nation band includes one of the largest Indian reserves by population in Canada, and I often drive through the Mt. Currie reserve on my way to Birkenhead Lake; yet I know so little, and had become, through my ignorance, scared to find out more: scared to ask a stupid question that would not only showcase unforgivable ignorance but also, potentially, offend.
So… I signed myself up for a course. The University of Alberta hosts an excellent MOOC (massive open online course) called Indigenous Canada; a series of 21 hours of videos and lecture notes that walk you through the history and modern issues of Indigenous peoples in our country over about 12 weeks. The wonderful Jeanette Bruce of the Whistler Public Library was hosting a group enrolment in this course; students met once a week at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre to watch the videos and discuss them. The marvelous Suki Cheyne of the Whistler Learning Centre got me signed up. For me, it was revelatory.
I learned many things over the few weeks I was able to attend*, and allowed my mind to wander through many stupid questions. The course opened with an exploration of First Nations storytelling, sharing some of the origin stories like Turtle Island (in one lovely version, a pregnant woman called Sky Woman is so hungry that she digs right through the roots of a tree in her heavenly kingdom looking for food, and falls through the hole to a flooded land where she finds respite on the back of a turtle; Turtle Island has become the name in many cultures for North America). But what, I wanted to know, were the true purpose or tenor of these stories; are they like Santa Clause (shared stories that we tell to bind one generation to the next without taking them too seriously), or like Little Red Riding Hood (morality tales that are wide open to re-telling and re-interpretation), or like the story of Jesus Christ (not to be taken too lightly without fear of offense)… The answer, of course, is yes: all of these, sometimes, and often something else entirely. The line between sacred and secular is so blurry as to not exist, anyway. Some stories just some families know; some are widely told. Some should only be told by certain revered people; others are a free-for-all.
I struggled a lot to understand what it feels like to belong to a people. I’m Canadian, I suppose, and also British. I’m not sure I really know what either means. That I’m nice? And have a self-deprecating sense of humour? I have a greater sense of belonging to my career (the tribe of science journalists) or my sport (the tribe of rock climbers). Imagine attempting to understand your culture after it has been actively repressed; children taken away, languages squashed, lands settled. It will take me a long while yet to wrap my head around this.
Other weeks in the course were inspirational. Many First Nations peoples, for example, understood that gender was fluid rather than binary: people who were neither male nor female but somewhere in between, or something else entirely, were often an accepted part of life. But, of course, every band and group differed, in its stories, gender acceptance, and customs. There is no “them” that defines a continent-worth of people, any more than there is for “Canadians”.
I also really came to understand for the first time the fact that when people say “I acknowledge we are on the traditional lands of…”, this is not some casual act of politeness like thanking the bride’s father for paying for the wedding. This is a serious acknowledgement of rightful ownership. When colonizers came to Canada, while no one would say they were wholly fair and polite they did have rules about how treaties needed to be signed, and compensation given, when the settlers settled. The word “treaty” is important: these are international treaties, the same as modern agreements between nations over trade or such. How fully-understood those treaties were by the First Nations groups signing them is a matter of debate, but the fact is that by the time people got to BC they basically gave up on the whole idea; the vast majority of BC was settled without any treaties in place at all. My understanding is that this really, really means—not just morally or ethically but legally too—that the land belongs to the original Nations that lived upon them. Treaty negotiations continue, and old treaties are still frequently brought before the court. In 2008, for example, the Province of BC transferred the University of British Columbia Golf Course, along with some other land and $20 million, to the Musqueam.
I grew up in BC. I went to the University of British Columbia. Most of this stuff existed somewhere in a haze in my head—it all rings a faint bell—but how I managed to become an adult without really coming to grips with it still escapes me. I guess I was spending too long thinking about electrons, climate change and quantum computing.
We all have embarrassing gaps in our knowledge: a phrase or a word that we use wrongly, or not knowing why the sky is blue. I heard a podcast the other day in which a former editor of the Economist magazine admitted that when his wife called him “a mammal” he thought it was an insult, not recognizing it as a fact. He took up science only after he retired, at 71, and became obsessed with the periodic table. I too feel far better for starting to address my own personal gaps, thankfully a little earlier in life; I can now start to ask less-stupid questions, with less fear of insult, and continue my education—probably at the same, first-grade level as my daughter, but it’s a start.
*any mistakes or misrepresentations in this piece are, almost certainly, my own, with apologies to the excellent teachers.