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About This Book
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Meet Sliammon Elder Elsie Paul and discover her stories, family history, and teachings – ʔəms tɑʔɑw – in a multimedia, online book that captures the wit and wisdom of her storytelling.
Raised by her grandparents on their ancestral territory on the Sunshine Coast, Elsie Paul of the Tla’amin Nation spent most of her childhood surrounded by the ways, teachings, and stories of her people. As her adult life unfolded against a backdrop of colonialism and racism, she drew strength and guidance from the teachings she had learned. In As I Remember It, she shares this traditional knowledge with a new generation in an engaging style and innovative format.
With this immersive online publication adapted from Written as I Remember It, readers can learn about the Sliammon language, listen to Elsie tell her stories, and watch short animations of legends and events. They can navigate by theme – Territory, Colonialism, Community, Wellness – explore the contents through interactive maps, browse the audio and visual galleries, or make use of the instructional materials designed for teachers and students.
This media-rich, multi-path book offers a rare glimpse into the life of a Coast Salish woman and the history and lifeways of her people. It stands as a model for collaborative research and digital storytelling. Accessible and engaging, it will be a welcome resource for anyone learning about the legacy of colonialism in Canada, the resilience of First Nations people, the possibilities of reconciliation, and the importance of sharing and listening.
2020 Finalist – Vancouver User Experience Awards (UX for Good)
“The publication of Elsie Paul’s life history in an expressive digital format invites engagement through sound, language, and visualizations. Elsie Paul brings great emotion, sensitivity, pain, and humour to the events and moments that have marked her life – it is an honour to engage with her story in this way. As I Remember It is an eloquent and powerful work that highlights the possibilities of transformational listening and immersive digital storytelling.”
—Susan Roy, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Waterloo
“Grounded in cultural criticism and acts of healing and resurgence, this book redefines digital communication and multimodal scholarship through the agency of Elsie Paul’s stories, the Sliammon language, and Sliammon teachings and knowledge.”
—Jentery Sayers, Associate Professor of English, University of Victoria
“As a digital book, As I Remember It leads by example. It shares and situates the teachings of Sliammon Elder Elsie Paul, about land, relationships, healing, and the impacts of – and resistances to – colonialism. In both its content and form, the text challenges colonial conceptions of knowledge and it asks us to think about how we engage with Indigenous knowledge and where meaning unfolds in our relationships with text and digital media. As I Remember It is an exceptional resource for a broad range of audiences.”
—David Gaertner, Assistant Professor, Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, University of British Columbia
“This multimedia book provides a rich glimpse into the oral teachings of the ɬaʔamɩn people… It is an excellent resource that will be invaluable to teachers for many years to come.”
—Gail Blaney, First Nations Coordinator, School District 47 (Powell River)
“As a teacher, I love how this digital book allows us to hear Elsie Paul tell stories in her own voice. The interactive maps are a very informative way to learn about the areas that surround us, and the Protocol at the very beginning is interesting and powerful, as we learn about the need to receive permission to interact with – rather than just take – content about cultural knowledge and heritage.”
—Roseann Dupuis, social studies and history teacher, Brooks Secondary School
About the Authors
ELSIE PAUL is an Elder of the ɬaʔamɩn people and a mother-tongue speaker of the Sliammon language. She is the recipient of the Canadian Historical Association’s Lifetime Achievement award and received an honorary doctorate degree from Vancouver Island University in 2010 in recognition of a lifetime of effort dedicated to supporting First Nations well-being.
DAVIS MCKENZIE of the Tla’amin Nation is Elsie Paul’s grandson. He holds a BA in sociology/anthropology from Simon Fraser University and an MA in communication management from McMaster University. He serves as executive director of communications and public affairs at the First Nations Health Authority.
PAIGE RAIBMON is a mother and scholar of settler descent. She lives as an uninvited guest on the unceded ancestral territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm people, where she was born and raised. She is professor of history at the University of British Columbia, co-editor of BC Studies, Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and the author of and co-author of several books and articles, including Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Duke 2004).
HARMONY JOHNSON is of ɬaʔamɩn (Tla’amin) ancestry and is Elsie Paul’s granddaughter. She holds a BA from Simon Fraser University and a master’s in health administration from the University of British Columbia. She has served in a number of policy and executive roles in BC First Nations organizations and is the Vice-President, Policy, Planning and Quality at the First Nations Health Authority.
A collaborative project such as this one depends on support and assistance from many people. The authors would like to thank everyone who lent their expertise to this collective effort.
Thank you to those who responded to the community survey and who provided advice on early iterations of the website, including Gail Blaney, Tyler Peters, Karina Peters, Sosan Blaney, Tanner Timothy, Kim Timothy, Randy (Hoss) Timothy Sr., Drew Blaney, Jasmin Marshman, Roseann Dupuis, April Dimond, Jane Brockington, Denise Little, Ryan Barfoot, Cathy Paul, Trish Hoehn, and Davida Koren.
Thank you to the following people for their contributions, assistance, and advice: Dr. Honoré Watanabe, Georgia Coombs, Nikita Johnston, Alex Sutcliffe, Phil Russell, Michelle Washington, Dave Shortt and Kelsey Sparrow at Lantern Films, Gerry Lawson, Liz Krieg, Dylan Burrows, Koosen Pielle, UBC Press staff, and the anonymous peer reviewers.
At McMaster University, thanks to Dave Scholz, Dr. Jessica Langer, Dr. Alexandre (Sacha) Sévigny. And at UBC, thanks to the Canadian and Indigenous History cluster in the Department of History.
The family would like to give special thanks to Paige Raibmon and Arlette Raaen. And Paige in turn expresses her enduring gratitude to Elsie, Harmony, Davis, and their extended family.
UBC Press acknowledges the generous financial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has made RavenSpace possible.
The authors thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Public History Initiative in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the Fieldwork Grant Program in the Department of History at UBC, and the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Grant at UBC for funding in support of this publication.
Digital Developmental Editor: Crystal Chan
Project Development Manager: Amber Ridington
Additional editorial services: Jillian Shoichet and Heather Ross
Indexer: Margaret de Boer
Proofreader: Heather Bury, Colborne Communications
Custom design: Vincent Design Inc.
Custom design for Curriculum Explorer: Erik Loyer and Craig Dietrich
This book is set in Aboriginal Serif, designed by Chris Harvey of Languagegeek to enable speakers of Indigenous languages throughout the world to use their language on computers and the Internet.
This book is built using a custom version of Scalar, a born-digital, open source, media-rich scholarly publishing platform designed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture.
Published by UBC Press
The University of British Columbia
Unceded Traditional Musqueam Territory
2029 West Mall, Vancouver, BC
V6T 1Z2 Canada
Photographs, videos, animations, audio, and interactive maps
Transformational Listening—By Paige Raibmon
The following is adapted and expanded from Paige Raibmon, “Introduction: Listening to Ɂəms tɑɁɑw,” in Written as I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder, by Elsie Paul, Paige Raibmon, and Harmony Johnson (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014), 3-62.
Learning Is a Process
Learning takes time. It can be hard to make the case for this deceptively simple claim. In our digital era we have grown accustomed to instantaneous response and quick payoff.
Learning is an ongoing, life-long process. This too seems a simple claim. Yet it also cuts against the grain of our times. Institutions grounded in the epistemological tradition of the European Enlightenment increasingly claim a monopoly on teaching and learning. In so doing, they perpetuate the illusion that learning must be parsed into distinct subjects – Social Studies, English, Math – and hierarchical time slots – primary, intermediate, high school, undergraduate, graduate – with successive stages of mastery achieved along the way towards a final destination of matriculation.
If it is difficult to make the case for my first two claims, it is even harder to make the case for unlearning, a process that is slower, more amorphous, and that we often fail to consider at all. Yet unlearning and learning go hand in hand. This is especially true when the topic in question bumps against deep-seated, hidden stereotypes and biases. We internalize the assumptions that we learn as children until they become as invisible as the air we breathe. They appear so natural as to be taken for granted. Left intact, they impede our best-intentioned efforts to understand histories, people, and stories different from our own. Such is the case with efforts to learn about Indigenous history within the settler state we call Canada.
I speak from my own experience. I am of settler descent. I live, work, and raise my daughters on the unceded, occupied territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm people. I offer some of my learning experiences here in the hope that doing so might inspire others to reflect upon their own processes of learning, unlearning, and listening as they approach this work. As I Remember It is the result of multiple collaborations, an ongoing process stretching back well over a decade, punctuated by the publication of the print book, Written as I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder, in 2014. My own involvement dates to 2009, when Elsie, her daughter Jeannie, and Jeannie’s daughter Harmony visited me in Vancouver and extended an invitation to work with them to write a book based on, as Elsie often puts it, “the history as I remember it.” I agreed without hesitation. I was honoured to be asked and eager to help.
Nearly as quickly as I accepted, I slipped the project into a neatly-defined mental slot called “life history,” an anthropological literary form I understood. I had made my first mistake, one it would take me a long while to see. To be clear, this mistake was far from fatal, and indeed was a good thing insofar as it fuelled my dedicated engagement with the project over a long period. I accepted so readily because I could make sense of the work to come in my own terms. But my own terms were not Elsie’s. She talked again and again about her desire to share Ɂəms tɑɁɑw (our teachings), as she had learned them from her grandparents and other Elders. Understanding the work as a life history project opened a door to exciting intellectual possibilities, and simultaneously slid shut another – one that led to a space unknown to me but no less exciting. Fortunately, my ongoing work with Harmony and Elsie nudged this door open as time went on. I heard again and again that “teachings” were somehow crucial to this book, even if I did not fully understand how. I came to think of them existing alongside the “history” that the book narrated. I realized my categories of understanding left me short, even as they retained their hold on me.
Teachings as History
History. Teachings. History and teachings? History or teachings? The relationship between these core elements of our project remained fuzzy to me for longer than I like to admit. The best thing I did was continue the work and the relationship with my co-authors through my periods of uncertainty. If I didn’t immediately understand why we excluded certain material, for example, I continued to watch and listen carefully as our working process unfolded. I did not stop the work and insist that my questions be answered to my satisfaction before we proceeded. In this way, I eventually came to see that Ɂəms tɑɁɑw, the teachings as she learned them from her grandparents, are ɬaʔamɩn history “as she remembers it.” For Elsie, “the teachings” and “the history” are inextricable; a book of teachings is a book of history. The logic and lessons of Ɂəms tɑɁɑw shape her selection of stories; she narrates events from her life history as vehicles for sharing the teachings. To understand teachings as history, rather than a category of timeless knowledge separate from history, reveals that Elsie holds a worldview that positions past, present, culture, and knowledge in quite different relation to one another than the disciplinary-bound view I learned in school. It reveals alternative metrics of historical significance and ethical judgment.
This is important, interesting, and worth the wait to learn. This is something I could learn only after I had unlearned something else. Still, I make no claim to have shed enough of my preconceptions about “history” – drilled into me through years of university training – to fully grasp this distinct configuration. Of course the truth is, I have more to learn.
Stories Are a Gift
Listening in a manner that allows us to not just gather new “facts” but glimpse alternate ways of being and knowing, to make visible our own assumptions and intellectual foundations, is a transformative experience of learning and unlearning. I have called it “transformational listening.” Transformational listening unfolds over time; it requires that we bring intellectual patience and cultural humility to all the learning situations in our lives, not just those that occur in school. Without these traits, we are likely to jump to quick conclusions that prematurely foreclose opportunities for transformational listening. This act of slowing down can be especially challenging for enthusiastic listeners who are eager to be settler allies. We may be most susceptible to the hazards of undue certainty when we least expect it, when we believe we have already opened our eyes, ears, and minds to stories by and about the dispossessed, disadvantaged, and marginalized.
This matters a lot because in recent decades, settler states have institutionalized – and thereby sanctioned – the important practice of listening to “other” voices in contexts geared towards promoting tolerance and lessening injustice. The processes of giving testimony and bearing witness are cornerstones of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s procedures in Canada, for example, as they were in South Africa. It has become a platitude that listening to a multiplicity of voices – particularly in the form of first-person testimony – fosters social justice, decolonization, reconciliation. But it is just not that simple.
Indigenous individuals who share their testimony – whether as formal evidence to a commission or court, or as personal narrative to a public audience – offers listeners an important gift. They offer an opportunity for transformational listening. Whether we, the audiences who bear witness, actually receive that gift depends very much on the particular way that we listen.
Resisting False Equivalency
First-person narratives often shrink the sense of distance between the narrator and the witness. Herein lies their appeal as well as their danger. The emotions that testimonial accounts evoke are part of their power. They draw us in to stories that we need to hear. At the same time, these emotions increase the gravitational pull of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” a force that draws us ever back into the orbit of the familiar. Unless we resist this pull, Indigenous stories and testimonies will ultimately always affirm rather than disrupt our existing beliefs and conceptions. As the anthropologist Julie Cruikshank noted nearly thirty years ago, “one obstacle hampering the analysis of autobiography is the very real human tendency to make implicit comparisons between the account heard or read and one’s own life”. Having tuned our ears to diverse keys, the challenge is to strain to continue listening for difference rather than to succumb to a comforting but disproportionate sense of commonality. This means, in part, resisting the urge to over-identify with a sympathetic narrator. However moving a particular residential school account might be, it cannot grant me knowledge of what it was like to be in the narrator’s shoes. To assume otherwise invokes a false equivalency that diminishes the particularities of the narrator’s experience.
In order to avoid this false equivalency and glimpse the distinct paradigm implicit in an account such as Elsie’s, we might listen with an openness to learning something new, a readiness to unlearn, and a wariness towards the sense of having “got it.” Listening/reading in this way is very much like the way that Elsie’s Elders taught her to listen to stories as a child. As she describes, she listened to stories over and over. Elders taught her to remain receptive to new meanings and lessons, regardless of the number of times she had heard a story. And they regularly asked her to explain what she learned from a particular telling. In this spirit, Elsie, Harmony, Davis and I invite you to take in not only the content of her words, but the method and intention, as well. This is not necessarily an easy task, particularly for those of us like myself who are steeped in print-based learning rather than the oral tradition. But it is a task very much worth undertaking.
Readiness to Unlearn
In order to move in this direction, we can look and listen for places where our own frame of reference seems to fail us. To take just one example, when Elsie talks about the territory that sustained her people for generations, she is doing something quite different than enumerating its rich “natural resources.” In her accounts of digging cedar roots, she does something quite different than describe an additional resource that the cedar tree produces alongside timber. She tells us about a living being with whom she and other ɬaʔamɩn people have a relationship of reciprocity, a being whom they honour with respect and gratitude through ceremony and careful practice. She tells us about the love with which weavers treat the “family” of roots, from the long “grandpa” ones down to the short “babies.” Sustaining this relationship sustains the mutual well-being of ɬaʔamɩn and cedar alike. This is very different than saying that the cedar tree is a natural resource with different uses for different peoples. This takes us beyond the category of “natural resource” altogether.
The Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it this way: “In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. It was a gift, not a commodity.” Using these categories – property, real estate, capital, natural resources – certainly helps some of us render familiar stories that otherwise appear strange. This is understandable and inevitable. It is also an impediment to transformational listening. These categories themselves need to be provincialized – rendered as the specific frameworks of European origin that they are.
Commodity versus gift: this is not just semantics. Kimmerer explains that the object itself is changed “by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity.” Commodity exchange marks the end of a relationship, whereas a gift exchange perpetuates it.
This is as true of knowledge as it is of cedar. If we situate acquisition – of knowledge, facts, degrees and diplomas – as learning’s end we treat story as a commodity, another “natural resource” to be mined and refined. Well-intentioned settlers might then believe they have struck “reconciliation.” But this is fool’s gold if ever there was any. Stories are not bundles of “facts” that settlers can trade like a commodity in exchange for absolution from the sins of their colonizing forebearers. If, however, we understand listening/learning to be a life-long process that extends far beyond the classrooms and that builds and sustains relationships, then we treat stories – and everything else that teaches us – as gifts. We embark with humility on sustained, mutual processes of learning and unlearning. We situate ourselves within a network of reciprocity. We accept that truth precedes reconciliation, and see that settler society’s terms of reference are impediments to this process. In short, we make ourselves available for transformational listening.
To take a simple but relevant example, many non-Indigenous people worry a great deal about the appropriate terminology to use when referring to Indigenous peoples and individuals. Their concern is well-founded; it is important to use language that reflects Indigenous peoples’ current preferences. But there is no single “right” answer to the question of which word(s) to use. Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Indian. The terminology has a political and legal history, and no consensus exists among Indigenous individuals or peoples. It could hardly be otherwise. I have used “Indigenous” in this essay, a choice that reflects current practice among many Indigenous activists and scholars working in university settings and international arenas. But the “right” choice in any given context will almost certainly require revision in another time and place. They key is to be open to this ongoing process of learning, and to be ready to be corrected without taking offence. Paying attention to the shifting meanings of and preferences for certain terms demonstrates respect for and a willingness to learn from Indigenous people. This is even more important than getting it “right.” This example encapsulates a larger point: where settler Canadians tend to think of reconciliation as a final endpoint (“just tell me what to call you already!”), Indigenous peoples more often understand it as the beginning of a new and ongoing relationship.
This sort of active, open-ended listening has potential to make visible the taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin the enduring structures of injustice that surround us. Absent this, our sympathetic listening becomes laden with certainty rather than humility. This certainty too quickly reassures us that we listen for the right reason, at the right time; that we are on the right side; that listening is reconciliation. Such certainty papers over the need to transform material, not merely rhetorical, conditions in any meaningful process of reconciliation or decolonization. Such certainty produces listening that reinforces rather than challenges the status quo of settler colonialism.
These stories contain transformational possibility. This possibility will be latent or fulfilled depending, first, on how we listen, and subsequently, on how we act. Elsie offers her stories as a gift. Like all gifts, responsibility for what we do with them rests with us.