People & Culture
Kahkiihtwaam ee-pee-kiiweehtataahk: Bringing it back home again
The story of how a critically endangered Indigenous language can be saved
- 6310 words
- 26 minutes
People & Culture
Sundance Chief and a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Rueben George shares the personal account of one man's confrontation with colonization
Excerpted from It Stops Here: Standing Up for Our Lands, Our Waters, and Our People by Rueben George with Michael Simpson. Copyright ©2023 Rueben George and Michael Simpson. Published by Allen Lane Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
I’m from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. We are the People of the Inlet — specifically, səl̓ilw̓ət, or the Burrard Inlet, where Vancouver is today. The inlet is our mother, and our law, snəw̓eyəɬ, tells us that we have to protect our mother because she gives us nothing but goodness. One thing that a mother does is feed you, and prior to colonization, eighty-five percent of our traditional diet came from these waters. Our lands and waters were so abundant that you didn’t have to go anywhere to hunt or fish. Our ancestors ate deer, elk, all the different species of salmon, trout, oysters, crabs, octopus, whale, and seal. Our villages were between the shores of the inlet and the mountains, so the migratory path of the deer, elk, and other animals went right through the places we lived. The techniques we used to manage our food systems were second to none. Our ancestors had expansive gardens and orchards filled with many different vegetables and fruits. We had several types of potatoes and many different types of berries, strawberries, apples, pears, and cherries. We had clean, clear, and fresh water. We lived very rich and abundant lives. Before the arrival of European infectious diseases, there were around fifteen thousand Tsleil-Waututh people living along the shores of the Burrard Inlet, and our people were healthy. We had relatively few of the medical problems that we have today, and those that we did have were treated with traditional medicines and plants that grew right here. We had many village sites to ensure that we would never deplete our resources in any one place. We didn’t take more than what we needed, and we took care of what we had. We had a reciprocal relationship with the spirit of these lands and waters.
Being Tsleil-Waututh, we grew up out there on the water, and it was beautiful. When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, there was still salmon in every river and trout in every stream. We used to say that when the tide was out, the table was set. And it was true: there was an abundance of delicious foods, and when the tide was out it felt like the whole community would be harvesting together. There might have been fifty people from our nation out in the inlet at any one time, and back then we were only a couple hundred people. We would harvest various types of clams. There were so many Dungeness crabs that everyone got as many as they could eat. My cousins taught me how the rock crab eats the Dungeness crab and about the different kinds of cod, sole, and flounder. They taught me which birds nest out there in the inlet, like the ospreys, and all the different ducks and gulls. We used to cook right out on the beach as well. We’d make a fire, fill a pot with salt water from the inlet to cook our crab in, and then eat it right there. That’s how we lived. It was a beautiful paradise.
I grew up really poor, so it was a wonderful feeling to go down to the inlet knowing that we would come back with a delicious meal. In the summer, when the log booms were parked in front of Maplewood Mudflats, we’d paddle out there to fish. At night, it sparkled with reflected moonlight, and the bubbles lit up like stars as you moved your paddle through the water. Sometimes the water glimmered with bioluminescence, and other times the northern lights danced across the sky overhead. It was pure magic. Sometimes there would be dozens of us out there fishing on the log booms at once. We’d catch a whole bunch of fun things, like mud sharks, sole, flounder, eel, cod, and bullheads. The mud sharks would travel in packs, and when they came through, you’d pull up your lines so they didn’t get tangled up. There was an abundance of food in the forests as well. We ate huckleberries, blueberries, strawberries, and the young shoots of the salmonberries and blackberries when they first popped out of the ground in the spring. They were all so tasty. I’m only one generation removed from my traditional diet, but just imagine how abundant it would have been for our ancestors.
Growing up Tsleil-Waututh was like an adventure. At low tide you could walk out about three hundred yards, or maybe further, to the lighthouse and see all sorts of beautiful marine life. You could see big tidepools filled with cod and other big fish, or you might see an eel in there. When the tide was out, the Dungeness crab would burrow themselves under the mud to avoid being burned by the sun, so we would look for the outline of their shells and pick them right up. You had to be careful when you were far out because the tide could come in really fast, and you didn’t want to get stuck out there. When the tide came in, you could still see the bottom of the inlet even if you were a hundred yards out because the water was only about eight to ten feet deep. The water was so clear that I would go out with my snorkel and a potato sack filled with leftover bits of fish. Sometimes we would go out with a boat, and you could attach the potato sack to the anchor and drop it right to the bottom. Then we would chill out in the beautiful sunshine, getting nice and warm; after about a half hour, we would look down and see Dungeness crab trying to get at the bits of fish in that sack. We would dive down and grab the crab. It was so much fun fishing that way.
Uncle Bob, my grandpa, my mom, and all my aunties and uncles always taught us that we are Tsleil-Waututh. Even though it was hard, even though there was alcohol and drug addiction as a result of the intergenerational traumas of colonization, we still learned what it meant to be Tsleil-Waututh. They made sure that those fundamental teachings were with us. That was at a time when nearly all our people had already left the Church and our ceremonies hadn’t come back yet, but our teachings were still there. My mom and aunties and uncles passed those teachings on, and even if we weren’t praying or meditating on them, they were still spiritual teachings. We also sang a lot of songs, which was another way the Elders ensured that we held on to our teachings. We spent a lot of time out on the land and water, which fed our spirit. When we were out in the little bits of forest that we still had left, or out on the water harvesting the food that we had, we got a little taste of what it is to be Tsleil-Waututh. We knew that we were doing what our ancestors had always done, and that reminded us of who we were. Tsleil-Waututh means the people of that water right there, and our Elders made sure we knew that and lived it. Sometimes we’d all be out there on the water at once, and it was fun to feel connected as a community fed by the abundance of our First Mother.
Living on the land was our spiritual practice. Those trees were our cathedrals, and the inlet our holy waters. Diving down into the inlet made your spirit feel clean. Even though we weren’t doing our traditional ceremonies back when I was growing up, when we swam in our waters they cleansed our spirit. When we walked through the forest, we would get brushed off by cedar branches, just as people use cedar to brush themselves off in smudge ceremony today. I was taught that when walking along a forest trail, you should stick to one side on your way up the trail and the other side when you come back down— that way you’re not picking up the energy that the tree has already brushed off you. So, our First Mother was taking care of us and feeding our spirit even when we didn’t have the spiritual practices that we do now in our Coast Salish ceremonies and Sweat Lodge. Our First Mother is giving all of that to us; the very least we can do is give back to her by being Tsleil-Waututh.
These were the teachings that came up when we held a community meeting to vote on whether to support the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion – a project which would lead to a sevenfold increase in oil tanker traffic through our waters. At that meeting, people told these stories about the importance of the inlet to our people and our culture. They said that they wanted their kids and grandkids to experience what every Tsleil-Waututh generation since our First Mother had experienced. Once everyone finished speaking, my mom stood up and said, “Okay, everyone, it’s time to vote. All of you get your butts out of your seat and warrior up!” One after another, people stood up and voted no to the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. We had one hundred percent consensus among the community members who were present, and that’s really quite significant. If you took a sample of Canadian society, dangled millions of dollars in front of them, and told them that they could have that money if they let you build a pipeline through their home, how many do you think would accept the offer and how many would say no? Even if you took the most powerful and committed environmentalist and offered that money to hundreds of their family members and relatives, it’s hard to imagine that every single one of them would turn down that money. But that’s what the Tsleil-Waututh people did. That’s what we did because the water is our First Mother. The fossil fuel industries are causing damage to our mother in violation of our law, and our law told us what we had to do. That’s what we did because the lands are like a family member to us, and we wouldn’t ever sacrifice a family member for money. There’s no price that you can put on the reciprocal relationship of love that we have with our lands and waters. That’s who we are, and we wouldn’t sacrifice who we are at any cost.
Sure, the money would have been nice, and it could have helped us a lot, but we do what we do because money can’t help us more than clean water and clean air can. The elements of fire, earth, water, and air that we use in ceremony are the same exact things that these dysfunctional companies are ruining. Money can’t help us as much as the Tsleil-Waututh lands and waters have been helping us for thousands of years, and that’s the truth. We’re protecting what we love because it is part of us, and we are part of it. We are the People of the Inlet, and that’s why each and every one of us voted thumbs-down to the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.
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