As I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder

Coming of Age

And going back to adolescence and young boys and girls, what they must do to build up their strength. How to be strong and how to be a survivor. And all of those things were taught. And that’s what was pounded into young people: “You can’t do that because you’re at a critical time,” to a young boy. “Your voice is just changing, you’re becoming a man. So you don’t do these foolish things. That’s going to become a lifelong habit. Now is the time to be learning a man’s way of life. You’ve become a man and you’re gonna be a hunter, you’re gonna be this and that, you’re gonna be a provider.” And it was the same for a woman, a young girl. There are certain things you learned how to do that’s teaching you life skills and survival. So those things are very, very important. That you don’t lay around and sleep: “It’s getting daylight, it’s time to get up.” You go to bed when it gets dark and, you know, it’s “Nighttime is for sleeping and daytime is for working.”

Teachings for Young Men

Young men were, right from puberty, brought to the river for morning baths and brushin’ and cleansin’ themselves. Cleansin’ their minds – not just their body but their minds. To focus on what do you want in life. It’s like opening the doors. It’s like thinking about what you’re gonna do today. Not only today but your future. How are you going to be strong? How are you going to toughen yourself up, to be able to go out there and be a provider? Whereas if you’re laying back in your bed by a cozy fire, you’re never ever going to find your strength.

“To focus on what do you want in life. It’s like opening the doors. It’s like thinking about what you’re gonna do today. Not only today but your future.”

Well, the boys were – at that time, puberty and their voice changed, right away they were pulled aside pretty much and taught to do certain things, or going to the river and bathing in the river and changing your eating habit if they had bad eating habits. Give up certain foods. They were not allowed to eat the bone marrow of the deer because that’s greasy, right? And it’s really delicious if you boil the deer down and you break the bone and you can dig in there and get the marrow out. And it’s quite delicious. So the boys were not allowed to have that, because when they go hunting or climbing on cliffs or mountains, they’ll be slipping all the time, they’ll be falling. Yeah, so that was a no-no. You don’t have that. You will be unbalanced. You’re not going to be able to climb a steep hill without slipping and sliding.

So there was all those different things that, you know – taught to be with the men and going hunting with the men and men taking them in tow and making sure they’re watching, they’re learning how to hunt and fish and things like that. And bathing in the river – and brushing, cleansing themselves with cedar boughs or hemlock – qʷowʔɑy. That helps you to be – that’s for power, right? I think that’s pretty much what they used on the boys was that hemlock branches. It’s different from cedar. That’s more for men and for power and strength. Whereas the cedar is just pretty much for cleansing. It’s more spiritual, spiritual purposes. Yeah. Brushing off any negative or evil spirits around you, you use the cedar branches. But the hemlock was more to give you strength. And men use that. I think it’s a little rougher. It’s got kind of piny needles on it. And yeah.

And going for runs. They made you run. You’re at that time in your life where you become what you strive to be. Like running a great distance. And you’ll always be like that then. So in other words, it’s training time. Time to train and become strong in mind and in body. In mind ’cause you’re bathing in the river and brushing yourself with those boughs. And watching your diet and be guided, going out and seeing how it’s done by the older men. And you prayed to the Creator while you’re in the river to help you on your journey through the forest, while you’re out hunting. The same as when you went fishing. And they were told, you know, “You can’t be noisy. Don’t be talking. You know, the deer will know you’re coming.”

And there’s certain signs to watch for. ’Cause if your spirit was not all there, you were not healthy, there would always be some bird or animal or owl – always ahead of you. They’re walking or they’re going ahead of you. You’ll see them from this tree to the other tree and it’s like they’re warning the other animals to keep away so you can’t reach them. It’s almost like they’re protecting the animal life. And that tells you you’re not healthy. You’re not in a good place yourself. So you would have to go and really take care of yourself and focus on your own well-being. Because you had to be healthy and appreciate the hunting expedition, and be feeling good about that. ’Cause it wasn’t just you pick up your gun or your weapon and go out there without thought and preparation.

And teachin’ the boys how to look after themselves and fasting before they go on a hunt. “You don’t go out hunting with a full stomach,” they used to tell them, “’cause the Creator knows you’re not hungry.” So those were important teachin’s for the boys. And you don’t go around and you tell people, “Oh, I’m going hunting.” As you’re preparing to go, you just go away quietly. If you’re going by yourself or you’re going with another person, you don’t broadcast it. ’Cause right away the message is out there: you’re going hunting. The animal people know that you’re coming. So just keep quiet. Just do what you need to do and go. And it was not a good thing to be boastful. The boys were always told not to be boastful or braggin’ about their kill, or bringing the deer home or the salmon, whatever it may be. Different kinds of foods. You don’t boast or brag about that. You have to be humble, because you would give the salmon or whomever – whether it be salmon or deer or mountain goat or whatever. They had life. They’re giving up their life for you. So that’s nothing to brag about. You just need to be thankful for all of that. And the men were always, like, they would say, “Thank you, Creator,” once they caught a deer. “Thank you, Creator. Thank you for giving me this.” Or thank the deer family for sacrificing one of their own so that you may live. So it was not handled in a disrespectful way. Everything had to be really handled in a good way. And you didn’t just throw the other parts you’re not able to take home, like the guts of the deer. You buried it. You dug a hole and you buried the guts of the deer. And what you brought home, you used it all. You didn’t waste it. You shared it. You dried it – you preserved it that way for your winter use, or future use. So people did not waste.

Teachings for Young Women

And the girls also had their teaching, but it was a bit of a different teaching. It was more preparing the food and watchin’ how it’s prepared, and smoking salmon and smoking deer meat. Drying deer meat and drying clams and all of those things that you really had to watch carefully and learn how to do that. And storing food. And it was shameful to be lazy. If you’re lazy, then people will laugh at you and make fun of you, and if you’re not resourceful, then you’re labelled as being lazy. So everybody had to be busy. They had to be out there doing whatever was required for the day.

“And it was shameful to be lazy. If you’re lazy, then people will laugh at you and make fun of you, and if you’re not resourceful, then you’re labelled as being lazy.”

But with the girls, it was about being – “Oh, be quiet, you’re not a child no more. You’re a young girl, you’re a young lady. So don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t draw attention especially to the opposite sex. You are now a young woman.” You’re to be protected and be always with the ladies in the community, whether that’s your parents or other women. So, again, the same thing. You went with them when they went berry pickin’ or they went root diggin’, or sitting down with them and making the baskets and this grooming that was a common practice.

When a young girl got her first period, she’s now a young woman. Eyebrows were plucked. And other facial hairs were cleared and plucked away. Didn’t have tweezers, but they used ash – fine, fine ash from the fireplace. And they would just rub that around and then it’s easier to grab a hold of the hair and pluck it with your fingertips. So there was all that grooming. So you didn’t have facial hair, like any extra around your hairline. Especially over your ears or side of your face. There’s fuzz there, you rub some of that on, you pluck it and – I see I need to do that. [laughs]

“So puberty and that time in your life when you’re going through grief. You can put that to good use. So it’s a matter of self-discipline and good practice.”

And again we were taught to be getting up early. To be clean. To be always bathed and keep yourself clean. They were quite adamant about that. The mothers or whoever’s coaching you. ’Cause you don’t want to be smelly. You want to smell nice and clean and be clean. And again, your diet. You are restricted to eating certain things. You didn’t eat overly much. You’re just taught to eat small portions. So it’s a critical time for you. You could either become an obsessive eater, a big eater, or have a control on your eating. Good practice at that time in your life. It’s a changing – it’s puberty. You’re changing from that too. So there’s certain times in your life when it’s life-altering, it’s changing, and the same as when you lost someone and you’re grieving – and that’s a powerful time as well. And that’s another time for discipline. That you’ve lost someone close to you. So puberty and that time in your life when you’re going through grief. You can put that to good use. So it’s a matter of self-discipline and good practice.

Vision Quest

I used to hear about, “It’s time to go and” – we called it “qɛsɛθot.” It’s a vision quest. It was not just only to young men, but to older men as well if they’re needing to do a vision quest to alter their life somehow, or to look for their power, their spirit power. Then they would go off on their own. Or sometimes, something has happened in their life in the community that was frowned upon. Then you have to prove yourself. And you go off and go and be gone for as long as it takes for you to find your spirit power, and come back when you’re ready. So it’s like being sent to the corner as a little child, right? You stay there until you learn how to behave. Or come back and apologize, if you’ve offended someone.

“And you go off and go and be gone for as long as it takes for you to find your spirit power, and come back when you’re ready.”

They used to tell this story about this one man, and this happened in Theodosia area, in toqʷɑnən, where this man who was a relative of the Bob George family – that’s my grandmother’s side of the family. Bob George was her dad. And it was through that family. One of the guys in that family was doing that. He needed to do that, to go and find his vision. So he went on this vision quest around a lake and he was bathing every day in the lake. And he was doing the whole circle around the lake. Don’t know which lake it was. But it was in that area, in Theodosia area. And he stayed there and every day he’d do a bundle and get in the lake and brush himself. Leave it there – leave his bundle there. Leave another bundle. Every day he’d move on, until he’d complete that lake. Living off the land. And he would start getting these dreams, how it’s going to come to you, how your spirit power is going to come to you. So he started getting these dreams about, “You will find it in the water. Your power will come out of the water. Don’t be frightened when it comes to you. Don’t be afraid of it. You’ll touch it. And you’ll get your power transfer from that” – whatever is going to come out of the water.

“And he would start getting these dreams, how it’s going to come to you, how your spirit power is going to come to you.”

So he’d been doing this for quite some time and he’d almost completed his journey, his vision quest. And he’s bathing in the lake one day and all of a sudden something popped out in the lake. It was beyond his reach. He couldn’t touch it, but he was afraid to go deeper to touch it. He got scared. And it was huge. Water just swwwissh! – swished up like that. And this thing, it looked like it was a box of sort. And then he turned around, “How am I gonna reach that?” He was told in his dream, you’re gonna swim out and grab it when it comes. And he turned away and he reached for – looking for something to hook it to shore to him, and as he did that it – swwwissh! – went under again. So he lost it. He didn’t get it. So his vision quest was for nothing.

So that was always used as an example. That’s what happens when that time happens. Not to be afraid. It’s gonna come, it’s gonna be scary, but it’s going to be yours. That’s your power. That’s your spirit power. It’s gonna come to you. So there’s different ways of going about how they will get strong and how they will achieve what they went out to do, whether it’s just to come back and be a good provider and have that courage and that power in a good way. So that was really important teaching for the young men. The women didn’t do that. It was just the men, the boys, that did that – the boys and men. Wherever needed that to be done.

“It’s gonna come, it’s gonna be scary, but it’s going to be yours. That’s your power. That’s your spirit power. It’s gonna come to you.”

sohoθot. “sohoθot” is cleansing with, like, cedar boughs. qɛsɛθot. “qɛsɛθot” is – is the word for, um, how can I say it in English? qɛsɛθot. [pause] Lookin’ for a word. It’s like to aim for something. It is a vision quest, right? You want to – you go for it, and it’ll come to you. So you have to work for it. By bathing in the lake, and sacrificing. And, like, for an example if you are fasting, is “qʼɑʔɑθot,” so that’s sacrificing your meals, qʼɑʔɑθot. “qɛsɛθot” is your whole being, like you’re sacrificing something to achieve your goal. Yeah and I guess it’s, like, anything, you know, you’re qɛsɛθot. It’s a sacrifice.

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