The following is adapted and abridged 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.
For Elsie Paul, the multiple instances of silencing imposed upon Indigenous people by colonialism are a crucial context for the act of sharing ɬaʔamɩn history and teachings. Reflecting on the passing of her life-long friend, Sue Pielle, who devoted herself to teaching ɬaʔamɩn culture, legends, and language in the public schools, she said to her friend, journalist Janet May in 2006: “You know, she was from a generation that lived a part of that life and is able to bring it forward to the young people. ‘Cause a lot of people, like, my age, her age, have gone on. And the older people that we have today are not able to bring that forward. They have a lot of memories, even a generation older than I have a lot of those memories. But they were brought up in a time when it was not appropriate for us as a people, or it was not expected to share those kinds of things, to bring awareness of the way we are as a people, to talk about our history. Our history was being smothered. It was like, ‘Don’t talk about that!’ So a lot of the older people found it really difficult to share their memories, their history, to non-native people. So, that’s been a real hurdle for us as a people.”
As she continued, she equated language with history: the prohibition of Sliammon language simultaneously silenced people from recounting ɬaʔamɩn history. “‘Cause you’re told, ‘You forget about being Indian! You forget about your culture! Forget about the language!’ So we were forbidden. Our people were forbidden to speak the language. So a lot of the young people today don’t know the language at all. They’re struggling to learn it. It’s difficult. It’s a difficult language to learn. You have to have been speaking it from the time you were a child. That was your language. And when the families were separated, the children were all taken out of the homes and brought somewhere else for school. You didn’t see them for ten months out of a year. And they’re told when you’re there, ‘This is the language you’re now going to speak. You cannot use the language you’ve been growing up with.’ So they were restricted. So that generation grew up being taught that their language was not acceptable? You will only learn English. So, we have a lot of people in that generation now who lost their language, who were robbed of the language. And the culture! Because we came from a rich culture. We come from a rich culture.”
In this framing, history, language and culture are so deeply intertwined as to be inseparable. Consequently, the ramifications of language loss are immense: “And it makes such a difference when you’re telling stories and legends, if it’s told in the language. It’s got more depth, it’s got more meaning. And it’s much more interesting to the listener if they understand the language. But if you tell the story in English, it’s so different! ‘Cause a lot of it, when told in the language, is gestures, the tone of your voice, just the whole presentation is so interesting, it was made so interesting. Because you understood the language! So it captured your interest. But when it’s told in English, like when I tell a story in English, I struggle in the presentation. And, to find the right word to use in telling the story. So it’s quite a challenge!” [chuckles].
Elsie’s characteristic humility is apparent here; to my eyes and ears, the sense of struggle she describes is imperceptible. Yet for her, the experience of narrating in English entails a palpable sense of loss and difficulty. As she explained it, narrating ɬaʔamɩn history in English, the language of the colonizers, is nearly a contradiction in terms. Yet she has chosen to do just that in an instance of what literary scholar Sophie McCall terms “impossible necessity.”
Colonialism’s assault on Indigenous language is at the heart of why “a lot of the older people found it really difficult to share their memories, their history, to non-native people.” It is why, “that’s been a real hurdle for us as a people.” Yet Elsie undertook long ago to clear that hurdle. She began sharing ɬaʔamɩn history with audiences many years before she started this project. And she did so in English. She did not contemplate producing this book in Sliammon and for reasons of accessibility was initially reluctant even to include Sliammon-language selections.
Elsie’s over-riding concern with accessibility mirrors that of other Indigenous Elders – including Harry Robinson, Angela Sidney, Annie Ned, and Kitty Smith – all fluent speakers of their Indigenous languages who chose to narrate told-to histories in English. Each of these Elders came to their decision in the wake of the near annihilation of their mother tongue at the hands of residential schools and other colonial policies. They knew they would reach a much smaller audience if they presented their stories in a linguistic orthography with literal translations than if they were to, as Julie Cruikshank put it, “provide their own English translations.”
It is a tragedy that any Elder willing to share valuable knowledge must choose between reaching an audience and communicating in her mother tongue. And it is important to respect whatever decision the Elder reaches as a result of this difficult, even painful, cost-benefit analysis. To second-guess their decision reproduces the long-standing pattern in which settlers perennially discount Indigenous people’s capacity to know their own best interests. Archaic standards of purity would not be far behind, with their implication that “real” oral narratives can only be told in languages hardly anyone can understand and even fewer can read, an implication that would ensure the marginal status of these narratives in perpetuity. Elsie and these other narrators are all gifted storytellers in English. Just as the anthropologist Bruce Miller points out that contemporary Coast Salish people “are not simply lesser versions of their ancestors,” nor are stories told in English simply lesser versions of those told by earlier generations.
Elsie makes the considerable effort required to share the history and teachings in English because she believes doing so can help those working to heal some of colonialism’s damage. As she explained later in her conversation with Janet, the institutions of school, church, and government inculcated ɬaʔamɩn and other Indigenous peoples with profoundly negative self-images that continue to reverberate. “And there’s been a stigma placed on Indian people. You know, the ‘natives,’ like we were wild, we were running around naked. We had to be civilized. And all those negative kinds of messages. On the children. After they’ve been transformed or taught something totally different. How did the government have the power to do that, is beyond me. You know, in a short period of time, to change people’s thinking of how we think about ourselves as a people, to become ashamed of who we were, of who we are. You know. And that’s exactly how it was! You were all of a sudden ashamed to be Indian. It’s not good to be Indian. If you’re Indian you’re dirty, you’re lazy, you don’t know nothing, you’re dumb! And that went into the school system. It went to the churches. That’s how the government enforced that. When I used to work, I’ve seen correspondence going way back, how the Department of Indian Affairs viewed us as a people. ‘Those lazy good for nothing Indians. Those bums. Blah blah blah.’ And that just used to make me so angry. You know, it’s like somebody came with the ugly brush and painted us over. And we are all lazy. We’re all dependent on the system. Well, who made us dependent on the system? They did. You know? Oh yeah. But that was not good enough. Now they’re gonna take us and reshape us and remold us. So it’s quite a challenge because once you’ve gone so far down this path, where, from a child, maybe in my mother’s time, especially the older generation, have been brainwashed. That that’s not good to be Indian. ‘Now you are going to be this way.’ And taking away our beliefs, our culture, our spirituality, our respect for the Creator. We’ve been told, ‘What are you honouring the tree for? You’re stupid? What are you honouring the sun for? You’re stupid? What are you honouring that salmon for? That’s stupid!’ You know? All of those things were, like, cut off. Those kinds of beliefs that my ancestors grew up with, to be respectful to everything around you. And all of a sudden you’re told – your children are told – that’s a no-no. You know, that’s ridiculous. So you’re brainwashed not to be doing those things, not to think that way. Or that it’s a sin, it’s all these things, you know, ‘This is the way now you’re going to believe. You believe that if you’re this way, you’re going to go to hell for sure!’ They just totally rearranged our thinking, our lifestyle.”
Elsie then drew a direct connection between recovering from the impact of these degrading messages and taking pride in one’s history. Taking pains to point out that everyone has a right to know and treasure their own history, she said, “I know we can never go back and live our lifestyle we used to. But I think in order to take pride in our history as a people, which we all should! I don’t care if we’re First Nations people, we’re Chinese, we’re Japanese, we’re German, we’re whoever we are, we all need to take pride in our own history. I’m not saying we’re the only ones, as First Nations people that we should be proud of our history. We all should have that. To be who we are. To be proud of our ancestors. Of where they came from, our history, our rich history. We each bring something to this world of ours. And one should not come along and say, ‘No! You don’t count. Your ancestors don’t count.’ Just like those trees in the forest. You know, you’ve got all kinds of different trees and growth in whatever have you up there. The cedar tree’s no better than the other trees out there, or the alder tree is no better than any other tree. Every one of those serves a purpose. And you compare that to people. That’s what we are. We’re a mixed bag of people. But one should not overtake the other. There may be more bad weeds, I don’t know!” [laughs].
Elsie’s direct experience of these colonial attacks on her practice, belief, and history fed her desire to write a book. Coming full circle to the question of language, Elsie explained to Janet her belief that for those now living with the reality of the loss of Sliammon as a mother tongue, the history and teachings narrated in English can be carried forward as a kind of proxy. “But even if our children don’t speak the language fluently as my grandparents did, I think as long as they know the history, as long as they know that there was a rich history that we come from a rich history, this is the true history of our people, you know, it’s not what’s in a lot of books or whatever written document. This is the true history of who we are as a ɬaʔamɩn people. I think that’s what they need. It’s not to say we’re better than anyone else. It’s just that here is the true history. Because you know, there are books in the school about ɬaʔamɩn people or the coastal people. But it’s not really detailed. So, how do you condense the history, to bring out the things that need to be reported? Yeah. I think that there is a history. That there is something good, how people lived and how they lived with what they had. How they survived. The tools they had. The things they worked with. It’s the same, I would say, with other cultures. Like even the farmers in Alberta or Saskatchewan – how did they survive? There’s books about that. They had a hard life too. When they first lived there. How did they survive? You know? What kind of tools did they have? What kinds of food did they have? Where did they go to school? All those things. That’s their history. There are generations of them now, there. So, we also have a history.” The deceptively simple statement that ɬaʔamɩn people have a history constitutes Elsie’s refusal to accept the stigma cast by generations of colonizers. She makes the powerful assertion that ɬaʔamɩn people’s lives and stories are not worth less than those of settlers.