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.
Stories Are a Gift, 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 pay-off.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.