the canoe family: reconciliation retreat

I'm in the middle of two amazing opportunities, one through my work, and one through my union. The work thing is complex -- and important.  

Decolonizing the library: walking in two worlds

Circle of Life, Trevor Hunt

I am part of a small team that is creating a framework of Reconciliation -- decolonizing our library system, and all the people who comprise it, from the Board and the executive management to the frontline workers and all the supporting departments. 

In 2019, BC became the first province to put the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) into law, with the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA). We are very fortunate that the new leadership of our library system (more about that in the future) cares deeply about this responsibility, and is making it a priority. 

The journey of decolonizing

All the institutions that make up our modern North American world are the products of colonialism. 

Every institution -- educational, cultural, financial, judicial -- is built on colonial foundations, and work with colonial practices. In Canada these practices were, for a long time, hidden under myths of peacekeeping and multiculturalism. Canada appeared to be a benign and peace-loving nation, especially when compared with its blood-stained, racist neighbour to the south.

Now Canadians know better (or at least they should). When the truth about the so-called Residential Schools (i.e. concentration camps) came to light, those myths were stripped away. The brutality that was revealed was wholly at odds with Canadians' image of their country. 

The profound and sustained response by vast numbers of Canadians gives me hope. Now it falls to us to understand how colonization has harmed Indigenous peoples, and how systems continue to harm all of us. 

I say "all of us" because (as I've written about in many different contexts) exclusion and inequality harms both sides, the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Never to the same extent, of course. But a divided world benefits only the ruling class, and even that, not very well. 

When we begin to see the our world through a decolonizing lens -- when we make the structures visible -- we can gradually begin to remake them. And, whenever possible, we can intentionally embed Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing into our systems.

This work will always be imperfect and always incomplete, but we cannot use that as an excuse for inaction. 

Our guides in this journey speak about “walking in two worlds". That describes the ultimate goal: to think, reflect, and incorporate Indigenous ways of being and knowing into our present systems.

That’s a lot of words, and if you don’t know what it means, you have a lot of company. Not so long ago, I didn’t know what it meant, either. Understanding has come to me gradually, over years, as I read, watch, listen, and explore. This week my understanding made a big leap forward.

Decolonizing our library

I have the amazing good fortune to be part of a team whose purpose is to guide the Vancouver Island Regional Library on this journey. Each person on the team lives and works in a different geographic region of the VIRL service area, which is associated with one or more Indigenous Nations, usually several Nations that make up a language group or family group. 

I should emphasize that hundreds of VIRL staff care deeply about Reconciliation. This team is just a fortunate few who are geographically diverse, passionate about this work, and were invited to participate.

VIRL has hired a consulting team to help guide the journey: Toro Marketing. Toro are two women with deep connections with several Indigenous communities, and a lot of experience in this work.

After a series of online meetings, it was decided that our team would meet in person to create the Reconciliation framework. When I confessed to another librarian on the team that I really had no idea what that meant – what we were actually going to do – I learned I was not the only one.

Going into this retreat, all we knew was: we are excited about this work; we believe in its importance; we are approaching it with openness, curiosity, and honesty. For me this means checking my cynicism and pessimism. I can acknowledge that sometimes I have those feelings, but I will consciously put them aside, and approach the work with optimism and hope.

The Wildwood retreat: day one

The retreat was held in an incredibly beautiful natural setting, in the Wildwood Ecoforest, outside the town of Ladysmith. We were guests of both Toro and members of the Stz’uminus and Snuneymuxw Coast Salish First Nations, including a hereditary chief.

On the first day, we sat on seats and benches around a fire, and mostly listened and observed. There was beautiful singing, and drumming, and stories – both individual stories of trauma and recovery, and discovering and claiming identity, and also sacred stories. Some of the people around the fire were related by blood and birth, others were people invited into the Nation -- adopted, so to speak.

While we listened, one young man was preparing salmon to be cooked in the traditional way on the fire. (My photos from another, similar salmon meal are here.)

Many of the stories were intensely moving. Many were fascinating and felt like a privileged glimpse into another world. 

The First Nations people among us all expressed thankfulness and gratitude towards us. It was a bit overwhelming. We all enjoy such privilege, and the original inhabitants of this land have lived through a genocide. Yet they are thanking us! I felt wholly undeserving of this; we all did. But it was clear that their thanks and respect were completely genuine. 

We enjoyed a lovely simple luncheon that some community members made, and we spent some time walking the beautiful land. 

Land-based learning. Life is a circle.

Indigenous ways of knowing and learning are always connected to the land. "The land" is what we non-Indigenous people call "nature". 

Indigenous beliefs teach that the land is alive – from the tops of the mountains to the bottom of the sea -- and that all life is interconnected. And if we can quiet our minds and approach the land with respect and openness, we will learn. Conversely, it is believed that many (or even most) of the world's problems derive for disconnection with the land, and from living wholly disconnected from the Earth.

(I’m saying this very poorly. My understanding of this grows all the time, but not to the extent that I can easily explain it.)

There are hundreds, thousands of Indigenous nations, each with its own language, traditions, culture, and histories. Yet there are some commonalities among all Indigenous cultures of the Americas, and throughout the world. One such commonality is a worldview of connectedness -- a respect for all beings (including things we may not regard as beings, such as rocks, water, air, and mountains), and the belief that all beings are connected with each other, and all are sacred. 

Indigenous belief systems see humans' place on the land (in nature) differently than western and Judeo-Christian culture. Living creatures are not divided into a hierarchy, with humans on top. Humans are not superior, and do not have “dominion over” other life. Rather, life is a circle, or a web. All are connected, all our related. This worldview is found in every known current and past Indigenous culture.

Brushing ceremony

Towards the end of the day, we participated in a Coast Salish brushing ceremony. 

Every Indigenous nation has some type of cleansing ritual (some of which have been appropriated into New Age and other spiritual practices). Many people are familiar with smudging, which may involve the ritual burning of sage or sweetgrass. 

Stz’uminus and Snuneymuxw people perform brushing, using the tree that is central to their lives -- the cedar.

People sang, drummed, and chanted, as each of us took a turn standing and having our bodies, head to toe, brushed with cedar fronds. It was very intense, and also very calming and relaxing, at the same time. You can see videos of some cedar brushing ceremonies here

This first day, we just listened. We did introduce ourselves and shared briefly where we live and work, and a bit about our motivations for this work. But mostly we listened.

The library people all stayed in a hotel in Nanaimo, and were shuttled back and forth by a local person with a transportation business -- Janie's Got a Bus. At the close of the day, we walked back through the woods, met our shuttle, and went to our hotel, exhausted.

The Wildwood retreat: day two

The following day we spent working in the lodge. 

The lodge is one of those gorgeous buildings that I think of as "rustic elegance," all hewn wood and stone, huge windows overlooking the forest and river, natural light pouring in.  

We sat in a circle -- the executive director, librarians, managers, and a library assistant -- and the consultants guided us through a process of creating a framework. 

Here is one of the tools we used. This was created by Laura Tait, an Indigenous educator, for use in schools. We are adapting it to the library system.

Many questions, some answers, and a very, very long timeline

There were many decisions to be made and points to be discussed. 

Where are we individually, and where is the organization as a whole? Do we assess those at the same time on two parallel courses, or do we assess each separately? How and when do we bring along all the other employees of the organization? How can we incorporate decolonization into every facet of the organization – into finance, purchasing, hiring practices, facilities maintenance? What would true decolonization of public services look like?

How do we support people who are just beginning their journey -- and how do we approach people who want no part in this? What resources do we need to continue our journeys? 

Many questions, much discussion. Some consensus, some open questions. 

One thing we keep coming back to is approaching this work itself from a decolonizing lens, a meta discussion if you will. In our library work -- in most work in the so-called western world -- there are agendas, checklists, deadlines. We check off a task and move on to the next. Decolonizing means putting all that aside. Reconciliation is not a checklist to be conquered. It is ongoing work, work that never really ends. This work is all process. All journey. Never finished. 

It helps me to think of decolonizing the way I think about being a writer, or being a librarian, or trying to be a better version of myself. That work is never complete. It is always becoming. And the work is not linear. It doesn't happen in clearly defined steps. It often develops in ways we cannot anticipate.

So when we look at that rubric, above, we are likely in many places on that grid at the same time. And we'll each move through the grid at different paces and in different ways. But one thing we know: this work is not optional. This will be mandatory work for every library employee.

In the lodge, we had another simple and abundant lunch, and continued in the afternoon, deciding our next steps. Another walk through the woods to the shuttle, then dinner and drinks at a local pub. Then back to our hotel rooms.

The Wildwood retreat: day three and final

The third and final day, our two guides and the elder came to the hotel. 

We shared breakfast and a benediction, and we listened to more beautiful stories. Again, the Indigenous elder thanked us, telling us that working with us has helped him be in touch with his best self, and expressed gratitude for our journeys. All three spoke of this work as being grounded in love.

We took turns expressing our thanks and gratitude in return. We were all very emotional.

Two notes of interest

One of our guides said, "You will hear a word, one that is likely to make you uncomfortable. It’s a word we keep out of our schools and libraries: prayer. Here, we use the word prayer because it’s the closest word we can find for a concept that has no English word. These prayers have nothing to do with religion. This is absolutely not a religion. This is a way of seeing and knowing about life and all living things."

Again, I cannot do this justice. All I can say is that I am a hardcore atheist, but I am comfortable acknowledging and accepting the worldview I am being shown. It actually fits very nicely with my own belief systems. 

Then there is the name of our group. I have been calling us the Reconciliation Team. I like the word team, and use it often in both work and union. But I was the only one who liked the word!

Our three guides said we are family. 

Later, at the pub, I said, "I'm going out on a limb here, but am I the only one who is not comfortable calling us family?" And I was! The only one!

Someone went into an explanation of a broader concept of family. Well, yeah. I'm no stranger to that. But this group is not family in any sense. We have much respect and admiration and affection for each other. But family? To me that feels forced.

Others said that as we do this work together, we will become family. I'm not even sure about that. But I won't belabor the point. 

On our last day, during the closing ceremonies, someone in our group thought of our name: the VIRL Canoe Family. All VIRL branches are on or near water. All coastal Indigenous people use canoes. We are on a journey. It's brilliant. 

Pronunciation guide: First Voices

One last note here. If you are interested in learning how to pronounce words of a specific Indigenous language, YouTube and the internet in general are terrible. Often someone (maybe a bot) is just reading the word phonetically. 

Some of the sounds are very difficult for English speakers to learn. Others are fairly straightforward. But sounding out the word phonetically will not help.

The best resource for correct pronunciations is the First Voices Language Archives. The site links to 75 different language websites. If you're interested in learning, a good place to start is with a greeting, or a word of thanks and appreciation. Often one word will be used for all three. One of the first things I learned at the Port Hardy Library was Gilakas'la.


With God's Help said...

Thank you for this really informative post. I think it's interesting that as an atheist you felt comfortable with "prayer."

laura k said...

I think it's interesting that as an atheist you felt comfortable with "prayer."

I do, too! They explained it more as an acknowledgement of all living things -- of the earth, the air, the water, and our place in this huge web of life -- honouring it all, with an awareness of how little we know, but how important our words and actions might be -- an attitude of humility and gratitude.

For some people that might involve giving thanks to a creator. For me it's more about being part of something much greater than myself, seeking to find meaning in my life.

The feedback on this post has been amazing -- although mostly on Facebook, so thanks for commenting here!