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
How Hetxw'ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) weaves together Gitxsan ways of knowing into his series of children's books
Black wings wheel in a scarlet sky. A raven guides a pack of wolves through a snow-carpeted forest. A mother guides her young through an interconnected world. These are but a few scenes from The Raven Mother, the latest in Mothers of Xsan, Hetxw’ms Gyetxw’s award-winning series of childrens books, which transports readers to northwestern British Columbia and introduces them to Gitxsan ways of knowing.
Canadian Geographic sat down with the Gitxsan writer and academic for a fascinating conversation about ravens, educating young people about ecosystem interconnectivity and the importance of integrating Indigenous knowledges (plural!).
For my people, ravens are very much revered. They are immortalized in our stories. And the way that we look at the species in our ecosystem is we tend to see them as equals. We see them as being similar to us. And of course we have different capabilities such as memory and different types of memory. For the most part, we understood them to be highly intelligent beings. We watched the behaviour that they had within the ecosystem itself, we watched their hoarding nature. That’s where the story about the raven, the trickster, comes from; it’s not just some sort of mythology. Inherently their hoarding nature helped create our world. You know, they forget probably 70 per cent of what they bury around their range. They’ll bury a carcass that they didn’t finish or they’ll bury nuts and seeds, and berries with seeds, to hide them and keep them for later. But a lot of times they disappear. For thousands of years, we watched them planting. We also watched them speaking our own language — they would learn the odd word here and there. And a lot of people don’t understand that ravens can actually articulate things a lot better than parrots can; they can actually speak pretty well. And in some cases, they’ll understand it. Ravens can recognize very particular people as well, and grow accustomed to very specific people. So there’s a lot of these things that played into the immortalization of the raven within our society and the reverence that we had for them.
There’s a lot of things that came out of our ways of knowing — and that’s what I wanted to do with these books. The Raven Mother in particular was fun for me because I love ravens myself and [illustrator] Natasha Donovan is just a phenomenal artist. I’m very happy that I get to work with her — and she really brings my stories to life, working along with my formline art. It’s amazing to see everything having kind of come together.
Our pedagogy is primarily based on hands-on learning on the land itself. We had to go to public school and then we have our own education system, too. So growing up, I had to live two lives, two completely different lives. So when I was writing The Raven Mother, I just envisioned what I saw when I was a kid. The wondrous things that I would notice after I was taught by my aunts and uncles and my grandparents and my parents — the things that they would teach me about the land and the wonders that I would notice after they would teach me. So watching how ravens played — on hot summer days I would be hiking around their territory, and you can find these different areas where you’d see little thermal updrafts. People think it’s just big birds like eagles that’ll use those to float up and get a higher perspective. But any bird that can catch those thermal updrafts like to play around in there. Ravens don’t often soar, but if they can catch something like that, they’ll play with it. They’ll have fun.
I wanted people to see our words as equal. I wanted people to know that our words are no less important. But also, in that same respect, when I talk about really highlighting the moons themselves, we use the lunar calendar for knowing the cycles. The world would change every time there was a new moon. People look at there being only four seasons, but there are many cycles, and each of those cycles happens every moon. There’s Lasa ‘yanja that has to do with the budding trees and flowers. And there’s Wihlaxs, the bears waiting or bear walking moon where people know that the bears are getting up at that period of time. And then there’s Lasa maa’y moon, when we go to pick the berries. And there’s Lasa lik’i’nxsw, the grizzly bear moon. That’s when it’s the grizzlies’ time because the salmon are running, the sockeye that we love — the grizzlies get their first prime choice and then we get to fish along with them. And then there’s the Lasa ‘wiigwineekxw — that’s when we say the cold has no mercy. So you’re getting used to the cold — Lasa gwineekxw. Lasa ‘wiigwineekxw is bigger, the wii means bigger for us. So Lasa gwineekxw is in November, then Lasa ‘wiigwineekxw will be in December, when it has no mercy — it’s the time when you have to survive. That survival for us was a time where we spend in our long houses and we’d have great ceremonies and feasts and share songs and dance and tell these stories. Each of these moons represents that very distinct moment in time.
Ravens don’t fly in large murders like crows do; they stick to smaller little pockets. There might be four or five that will stick together, and sometimes there’s even just the lone one, you know, the big grumpy one would just kind of hang out. But the way that they would interact with one another allowed them to have more of an advantage in the world. So they’re just the same as us. Even though we can do things on our own, it’s more advantageous to us to have family units to survive in this world, to live a little happier life. The same remains true for them: they could do things on their own. But you see, the ones that had their little groupings, they tend to get to the food faster because there’s defense in numbers. A group of ravens could easily scare away a fox or sometimes even a coyote; a lot of times if their foods are large enough they can go right in there with other animals.
My grandpa, he was a trapper and everyone in our families had jobs out in the woods. He told me that a lot of times there were relationships that would happen between the different species, the different animals. One of the things I first learned from my grandpa was about the ravens and the wolves traveling together. He always would say that they are the eyes for the wolves from the treetops; even though wolves can hear and smell a great deal far away, there’s just a certain advantage in having a companion like the raven. It’s not like they’re going to be buddy buddies hugging each other, but they do understand what the benefits are — especially over a long winter when it’s harder to get food. Yes, wolves are hunters, but a lot of people don’t understand hunters have a low success rate. I mean, there’s a reason for that: that’s just how nature is balanced. If they were successful with every hunt you wouldn’t see any balance at all. So, having a little help from one another, the ravens reap the benefit from getting their meat busted up, which they can’t do with their little beaks; the wolves can easily power through all of that and they just get what they need out of that. There’s a lot of interspecies connectivity we know through all of the experience that we had being out there.
There’s a lot of things that people just don’t know because they aren’t on the land and they watch… nature documentaries are getting a lot better now. I always kind of thought it was strange because I grew up watching all of these Disney nature documentaries, which we all now know were a farce … nothing in there was reality. When I really learned from [my father and grandfather] and I started getting old enough to be on the land, I started to see what actually was happening. And it’s not to knock the studies that are being done out there right now by biologists and environmentalists and ecologists. It’s very vital, important study to have. But also there’s a lot that they missed because they don’t connect to the Indigenous people. Part of that is really having a deep connection to the land and being out there constantly. And there’s a lot of things that people miss. Like, trappers will understand that squirrels and rabbits: they eat meat. In the winter months, they will eat the meat that’s out there, they will take the meat from the traps that are meant for the other animals. You know, I’ve seen deers eating birds and… anything you can imagine, you see it out in the wild.
So many people are very disconnected in a way that they don’t know what nature actually is. And I hope that through the books that I have here, it helps introduce that idea to young people. These are things that I grew up learning, but you don’t see kids learning about them. You don’t see adults learning about a lot of it. And they are so disconnected in this little bubble in urban society that they actually forget what makes all the things that actually keep them alive. All of those things come from the ecosystem which are made up of all these species. So I’m hoping that people look at this and know that they are part of this. And one little thing that becomes out of balance with the rest of it changes everything, which eventually leads to a whole climactic change. This is like a very basic introduction for young people to this idea of interconnectivity.
When you limit the discussion and you leave [young people] the hard lesson of learning when it happens, then you no longer have the tools or capability of dealing with those emotions as they are happening in real life, in real time. So you have a larger catastrophe that creates immense trauma on a young mind.
Where I learned a lot about death was hunting — you’re taking a life to live. Those lessons you learned as a very young child, you learn in the realm of respect. When we take a life for food, you have a deep understanding that you have to pay your respects and you have to give back as much as you can. For us, it was monitoring populations of species within our territory. It was understanding that there are certain times where you can’t hunt at all, or there were certain areas you couldn’t hunt anymore, or certain times when you couldn’t fish. Our people couldn’t fathom the low numbers of salmon that exist now, and that’s because of commercial fishing. If my great grandfather was alive to see where the salmon are now, he would say that our people are done. And that’s what we’re doing to the world we’re living in now.
But, you know, we have seen the resiliency of the world over thousands of years. We’ve lived through multiple glacial maximums in our territory. We’ve watched the world change over thousands of years, tens of thousands of years. And that’s kind of where I hope to leave a bit of hope for people learning about things very young. It may not be directly tied to them — they’re not emotionally tied to the animals — but they also are in some respects learning about death. And hopefully that leads to discussions with their families, and allowing them to have tools to cope with life once it happens.
Western perspectives have always pushed our ways of knowing into mythology. And then in turn, those of us who had gone to residential schools and come back have also viewed our own knowledge systems as just mythologies. But the truth is, we had a very, very deep understanding of the ecosystems and how they worked.
As an example, when we talk about our origin story of being born through a hole in the sky, being children of the clouds in the wind: that wasn’t the literal belief; that was Western society saying it was a literal belief. Western society based everything initially off of Eurocentric religious perspectives. But for us, that just represented the idea that we had, that we thought we came from the stars, which is true. When you look at the four basic elements that make up a star, that’s the four basic elements that make up human beings. So that’s the connection that we have, is the species being special. So the understanding that we had in the universe technically wasn’t wrong.
The way that I am talking about Indigenous knowledges (I typically call it “knowledges” plural because there are different ways of knowing) doesn’t take away from solid research. And in that same respect, Indigenous knowledges are peer review-able. They’re peer reviewed — in our societies we didn’t just come up with ideas and everyone would follow this person.That’s the Eurocentric perspective of what Indigenous people are. For example, the Chiefs didn’t make decisions for everyone in my society. The Chiefs were the face of decision makers who were a group of matriarchs, Elders, educated people who would all make decisions. And then the Chief would enact those decisions to the larger House group. And there wasn’t one Chief that ruled a Nation. There were multiple House groups — we broke down our whole Nation into 62 different House groups and each of those House groups lived in their own part of the territory. These processes were very key in how you would make decisions. So when we would have an idea related to knowing the world, we would bring that to a feast and all the different invited Nations and House groups would get together and they would confer on this idea and they would discuss this idea and by the end of winter they had come to the conclusion of what they wanted to decide for whatever that idea was. That’s how we make decisions. Sometimes, it would take longer than that. And that’s the same way research works. I think the plural perspective is more important to research than anything else because you have different perspectives. You’re going to have a wider range of potential solutions for anything.
And we are very open to change. The term “traditional knowledge” — that is another Eurocentric word that was used to place us in a very specific period of time so that we no longer had power in our knowledge. That is very purposeful. That’s something that I want to destroy: the idea that we did not evolve. You can’t exist in a complex society for tens of thousands of years in one location without having a very innate ability to adapt both with your knowledge and in your societies. So this is just a new way for us. I’m trying to break through all the stifling of the institutionalized barriers that we have to deal with so that our people can better showcase our ways of knowing to the world in a good way.
Images permission: Excerpted from The Raven Mother by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw Brett D. Huson and illustrated by Natasha Donovan. Copyright 2022. Reproduced with permission from HighWater Press.
People & Culture
The story of how a critically endangered Indigenous language can be saved
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