maya'xala: things i heard in the library, an occasional series # 40

In my ongoing efforts to make the Port Hardy Library a safer workplace, and a more comfortable space for customers, I was invited to a elders' luncheon at the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations. 

Addressing the elders, I tried to convey how we have worked hard to make our library a welcoming space to everyone in the community, no matter what their status or condition. But while I was concerned with the elders understanding their community is welcome at our library, the elders told me that our staff was too welcoming, too "soft," and we needed stricter boundaries. They expressed genuine concern for the safety of our staff.

I learned that people cannot access services on the reserve when they are intoxicated or otherwise under the influence. They are not allowed in the administrative offices or health care offices. There are many treatment options available, but there's a zero-tolerance policy on intoxicated people wandering into offices or meeting spaces. 

* * * *

This lovely luncheon experience led to a visit to the library by two local elders. 

They expressed similar concerns that we are too soft. They were concerned for our safety and the safety of all our customers -- as they put it, grandmas with their grandbabies. They advised us to stop people at the door, and if they're intoxicated, tell them to turn around and leave. 

The elders also advised us to pay no attention when intoxicated people accuse us of racism. When we ask an intoxicated and disruptive person to leave the library, we are called racists. The same person, when sober, knows full well that's not why they're being asked to leave. It's just something to say -- a way to get a rise out of us. I'm always reminding staff to let it roll right off them. The affirmation from the elders was extremely useful! 

The elders asked for our permission to pray for us. We held hands in a circle and bent our heads while the more senior person prayed. While this was happening, an intoxicated person interrupted, trying to ask a question. The elder in prayer held up her hand in front of his face and prayed harder. The man apologized and shrank away.

Now, I couldn't tell them that what works for them will not necessarily work for us. We cannot refuse admission to the library based on the appearance of intoxication or our judgement of someone's condition. I can't put staff in a position of assessing customers' fitness for entry. We can only ask customers to leave based on their behaviour. There's a difference. 

In addition, an elder can address community members in a way we cannot. If our staff spoke spoke that way, they would be escalating -- and putting themselves at risk. The person who brought me to the luncheon put it this way: The elders can put a person in their place, because no one's going to punch them. 

* * * *

During this visit, my staff and I received a beautiful affirmation. The elders knew that our library was a welcoming place for members of their Nation, knew that we have created a space of caring and respect. Their concern for our safety meant so much to us. 

The elders gave us a word: a Kwak'wala word to use in the library. Receiving a word is not a simple translation. It's a gift. The elders were saying that we are connected to their community. 

The word is maya'xala. Here is Pewi Alfred of the 'Namgis nation in Alert Bay demonstrating the pronunciation.

The Alfreds are a well-known Alert Bay family who are deeply involved in cultural preservation. I recently learned that someone in our library community is Pewi Alfred's granddaughter, something she revealed to me with great pride.

* * * *

On a personal note, at the luncheon, I tasted t'lina. T'lina (pronounced gleet-na) in oil harvested from eulachon. This oil has great cultural significance, which I have learned about at the U'mista Cultural Centre. The process of rendering oil from these tiny fish takes many weeks and is a painstaking, meticulous process. T'lina is also tremendously healthy, with many healing properties. 

A short film by the late Barb Cranmer, 'Namgis knowledge-keeper and filmmaker who passed away in 2019, is available to National Film Board of Canada subscribers, and on DVD from the U'mista Centre: The Rendering of Wealth. Even if you can't watch the movie, the blurb is worth reading. 

T'lina is the fishiest food I have ever tasted. We were eating a simple halibut soup -- big chunks of halibut, along with potatoes and other vegetables, in broth -- and the cooks came around with a pitcher and ladle, asking if we wanted oil in the soup. Several people laughingly waved them away. The cook asked me if I wanted to try it, and I would never say no. In addition to possibly being insulting, I always say yes to trying new things. Wow! Fishy!

Before the soup, we were served herring roe on pieces of kelp. This was tasty, although rubbery. It would have been great fried (called kazunoko in Japanese cuisine). One of the elders sitting nearby, when offered some, joked, "Get away with that, I don't eat rubber!" I ate a bit of everything, and the cooks insisted I take leftovers with me.

I am always so humbled by the graciousness of First Nations hosts. 

* * * *

This experience was also personally gratifying for me, as it affirmed my connections in the community, and the trust I have earned. 

After a week where we called 911 fifteen times in five days, including five times in one single day, I reached out to the manager of Foundry Port Hardy. They in turned reached out to many other people, including a nurse who works in mental health and addiction services. They in turn reached out to several more people, and invited me to the elders' luncheon. The nurse worked on the reserve for many years, and has deep connections in the community, and I attended as their guest. 

These connections took much longer to form that I thought they would. When I moved to Port Hardy, I imagined a transition period of six or eight months. It took three years

This town is plagued by a lack of continuity. Many professionals move here as a stepping stone in their career, and move on after a year or two. I think, whether consciously or no, people were waiting to see if I proved myself by remaining in the community. Finally, in my fifth year here, I feel I've passed the test.


Amy said...

This sounds like an amazing experience. I am so glad you have been able to gain the trust of this community.

laura k said...

Thank you, Amy.