Native People: Changing Our Ways of Seeing

Haida totem carving, British Columbia. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In the early 1960s while a student at the University of British Columbia I became fascinated with the study of cultural anthropology. Anthropology, for me, held up a “mirror for man.” It challenged us to see ourselves in the experience of others of different colour, to respect different ways of seeing values, kinship systems and social organization. But, I soon discovered, it was not easy to grasp who Natives were and how they understood themselves in their world of constant change, upheaval and intense traumatic suffering.

Indians had long filled a pathetic imaginative space for the dominant culture. Their cultures had been steadily eroding, at best hanging on in museum-like reservations or, perhaps worse, living only in anthropological displays. Anthropologists rushed out into the field to record the dying languages and capture fragments of once proud, beautiful but now vanishing people. Anthropologists were the saviours of non-western cultures.

I moved out of the schoolbook world of the University of British Columbia in the summers of 1963 and 1964 to travel up the North West Coast to see for myself the magnificent cultures of the Tsimshian, Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl and Coast Salish. My teachers (famous scholars like Harry Hawthorn, Wilson Duff and Wayne Suttles) had taught me to appreciate the meaning of majestic totem poles, the wonders of North West Coast mythology and art, the mysteries of the potlatch and the profound native sensitivity to land and sea. They presented me with powerful images of cultures as integrated, meaningful wholes.

But these images sat uneasily with my evangelical Christian beliefs. My anthropology teachers had nurtured respect for beliefs and practices different from my own. My Baptist teachers had encouraged me to see others in need of conversion. So, with these conflicting images of the North West Coast Indian in my imagination I sailed up the coast with twenty other members of the Marine Medical Mission. My assignment was to run youth programs on the island of Kitkatla, a Tsimshian village of about three hundred, located about 40 miles to the west of Prince Rupert, and in Port Edward, a cannery town reminiscent of Steinbeck’s cannery row on the mouth of the Skeena River.

As we sailed from Thetis Island six hundred miles to the mouth of the Nass River, my imagination danced with images of pioneer missionaries from times past. Father Morice had translated languages, wrote books on the Beaver Indians, built schools and baptized converts. In 1859 William Duncan, despised by the British Church Missionary Society, moved into the community of Metlakatla, situated on the lower tip of the Alaskan panhandle. He singlehandedly assumed control and reshaped the structure of the village. By 1879 Duncan was presiding over this Tsimshian community—known for its orderly, respectable and industrious nature—with its gardens, 36’ by 18’ houses, church which seated eight hundred, school for five hundred children, sawmill, sash factory, blacksmith shop, bakery and brickyard.

I also thought of Thomas Crosby, famed author of Up and Down the North Pacific Coast. A man of immense courage who had braved raging storms and furious, icy waters to reach village after village with the gospel. Apparently, a Christian revival had swept much of the NW Coast in the late 19th century with thousands of Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Haida, Bella Coola and Salish peoples turning to Christianity.

Their work had borne fruit. I discovered that Roman Catholic, United and Anglican churches had been granted areas and villages as their special territory. They maintained control over their wards through the little “red” schoolhouse and the white wooden church. Where the church was most vital it was of the Pentecostal variety, with a few well-known and sometimes despised Native evangelists travelling through the villages of Skidegate, Kispiox, Port Simpson, Klemtu, Bella Bella, Rivers Inlet, Kitsegukla and Alert Bay preaching a brand of Christianity which stressed bodily healing and abstinence from liquor and tobacco.

My partner and I settled in Kitkatla island and began our youth work. The only remnants of a bygone and proud era were a few totem and burial poles. I asked the villagers why they were decaying and so poorly kept. They told me that they did not maintain them because they thought of themselves as a Christian village. The poles were pagan. The villagers received us warmly and had a party for us. We spent our first days scouring the village for recruits for our Vacation Bible School. We soon discovered that many of the six to fifteen year-olds had “accepted Jesus” each year that a summer worker had been in the village. They were simply too respectful to do otherwise!

A little skeptical of what we were doing, my buddy and I ended up spending most of our time playing basketball with the young men who were still in the village because of a fishing strike. We visited with old Reuben, who would sit with us, as was customary in native villages, in silence. We dropped in on various old-time Christians and read them their favourite passages from the Bible. We watched children swim in the freezing waters amongst rusty tin cans and old pieces of junk. We hiked around the island and watched native women dry seaweed, smoke salmon and skin seals. We were fortunate to visit the Kitkatla burial ground: quiet, stately and eerie with its huge moss-laden giant Fir trees reverently standing guard over graves, decorated with plastic flowers and coloured sea-shells.

I made friends with many native teenagers on Kitkatla and in the tough little cannery town of Port Edward. I can still remember Vernon. He would ask me questions about my home and whether I had suffered much. I did not know quite what to say and mumbled something about people having to suffer in different ways. Vernon had been “saved” in the little Mennonite Brethren Church in Port Edward. When I first met him outside the only coffee shop in town, he told me he was no longer a Christian. “How can that be, Vernon? Once Jesus is in your heart, he is always there.” He would remain silent for a long time. Then he told me that he had been in a mental hospital in Vancouver and that he hated his grandparents who treated him meanly. Usually a docile fellow, Vernon had gone berserk and killed his dog with an axe.

I never returned to the North West Coast after the summer of 1964. In the years that followed I changed. I worked with Cree, Sioux, Salteaux and Metis at Brandon University for four years from 1975-79, helping them learn the skills to make it in the university system. I realized, painfully, that I had viewed native people through my own white, male, middle-class Christian lens. My youthful evangelical faith and fervour had evaporated and I was learning to accept the rainbow of human and religious experience. Yet I also realized that Christianity had become an integral part of some native lives. The Pope’s visit to Canada in 1984 certainly highlighted that! The world was certainly not easily boxed and categorized. Who could say that a Roman Catholic or Baptist native was not an authentic person?

But, most important, I realized that cultures were not organic, integrated wholes that could be frozen in time—in museums, books or real life. It seemed to me that all peoples were constantly changing, defining and redefining their identity in response to changing conditions in local areas and the world. From my narrow vantage point in the 1960s I could not have predicted that many Canadian indigenous persons would recover (or rediscover) their own spirituality and cultural practices. The only inkling I had were shadowy rumours that the old forms of shamanism, spirit dancing and potlatching were reviving and percolating through the crust of society. Perhaps native spirituality, with its deep respect and reverence for the earth, had only gone underground during those years of Christian and government attempts to destroy all forms of indigenous culture. Native ways of seeing had been kept alive in the collective memory, either practised secretly or infused into Christian rituals and practices.

A surprising reversal in Canadian history has taken place. Today native people have become our teachers. As the ecological crisis within westernized industrialized societies deepens, native people are teaching us that nature is not an object to be dominated and trampled upon. The Christianity brought to native people during the “Christianize and civilize” era of white settler colonialism had become so secularized that it could no longer distinguish where industrial left off and Christianity began.

The sacred land is the basis for the identity of many native people, and explains the urgency of reconciliation and truth-telling, the healing of individuals and communities, the reclaiming of unceded territories and calling into question of pipelines. Native people are teaching us, too, about the tolerance, patience and strength that survives through time and bleak years. Whites are being forced to examine if they hold anything sacred.

Cultural traditions are deep and mysterious. Pure cultures do not exist. People, under pressure from changing conditions, shape and reshape their traditions in new circumstances. Natives are still here. They are not going away. Against significant odds, native people have kept some of their secrets alive. They are speaking to us now. Our world desperately needs to respect difference, and change its way of seeing the delicately balanced web of nature. Native people hold some of the clues to learning new self-understandings.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.