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Nuu-chah-nulth mom calls for policy to help cultivate First Nations culture

‘I was fortunate that my mom always shared her stories of residential school’
Petrina Dezall works hard to weave her Nuu-chah-nulth culture into modern systems of society. She crafted this medicine basket in the traditional potlatch form – filled with only needed items for trading and caring for family. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)

This is part four in a special series prepared by Black Press Media. You can find more of the series and other articles on truth and reconciliation online here.

This article contains descriptions of abuse that may be triggering. Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line.

Carefully peeling plastic wrap from a large square parcel, Petrina Dezall reveals a cedar medicine basket recently returned to her Greater Victoria home after spending spring and summer in Port Alberni.

Divided into squares, the basket is woven of cedar strips collected by Dezall and her family. Each pocket contains a treatment or trading item – just enough to suit the family’s needs, in keeping with her Nuu-chah-nulth culture.

As she lifts the protective glass from the top, a comforting scent wafts out. Dezall points out different herbs and items collected or traded with family.

She’s proud of the seaweeds collected and prepared alongside her children – heartwarming and crucial moments, drawing a thread from the past to the future.

The medicine basket and its components are part of her contribution to an exhibit celebrating the legacy of late Tseshaht First Nation artist George Clutesi. Remembered as an artist, scholar, educator, activist and actor, Clutesi was also an Alberni Indian Residential School survivor. The exhibit opened in March and ran through early September featuring more than 51 original and reproduction works by Clutesi, as well as new art by Nuu-chah-nulth artists.

Dezall was among the artists using his inspiration to continue and grow Nuu-chah-nulth art practises. It’s also a symbol of her commitment to making Nuu-chah-nulth culture a priority in today’s societal structure.

“It’s been, I think for everybody of my generation … really taking the initiative with all elders just to find my role and responsibility amongst our family and doing that. It’s not convenient in a world that spins pretty fast,” she says.

Dezall feels her responsibility keenly, growing up with a mom who simply told the truth – at all times – including childhood ones. Louise Amos attended Christie Roman Catholic school on Meares Island.

“I was fortunate that my mom always shared her stories of residential school … she shared the stories with me my whole life. It was never something that was not discussed.”

The knowledge left Dezall prepared when Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced ground penetrating radar showed more than 200 graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The spring 2021 discovery and following apologies reopened memories for survivors, pushing many to revisit long-repressed pasts. Despite the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada – which clearly outlined beatings, abuse and unattended deaths in residential schools, the 2021 announcement was a revelation for many.

But not for Dezall.

Many community members had long written to Ottawa telling of children buried – and where.

“It was always the history, it was not acknowledged history.”

Pope Francis’ apology for the Catholic church’s role in the residential school system last summer in Alberta was a day Dezall’s mom prayed for.

Sadly, she was killed by a drunk driver two decades before that recognition. The extended family quickly discovered it left a void as she was also a knowledge keeper.

“Her work efforts were realized by just the simple truth,” Dezall says. “And from the truth, there can be healing.”

Dezall discovered that deep in her soul the teachings of her mom lingered, particularly in plant medicines.

“That was knowledge I always had and when I chose to go into herbal medicine through the Western herbalism approach through Wild Rose College it was like a coming home within myself. It was so available to me. The ancestral knowledge was just there. It was in my cells,” Dezall says. “When you feel those pathways open and feel it, not coming easy, but a pathway flowing and I hadn’t felt that in a long time.”

A lingering, intergenerational effect of residential school includes Dezall growing up isolated from her Nuu-chah-nulth roots. Stories of survivors reveal they often didn’t know where they came from – just that it was far away.

So while many moms are thrilled to have their kids back in school, it’s just not in her, at the core, to celebrate the legal obligation to send children away. The similarities to residential schools are too strong, with First Nations children lumped together.

While she works to instil Nuu-chah-nulth culture in her children, there’s little room for it in policy; blanket curriculum teaches children the ways of the Indigenous Peoples in a particular area, she notes.

Across the country, there are more than 70 Indigenous languages and more than 600 First Nations, according to the 2021 Statistics Canada census.

There are more than 9,000 Nuu-chah-nulth people from 14 First Nations in a territory that spans the coast from Brooks Peninsula in the north to Nitinat Lake in the south.

Dezall is happy her son is learning another culture – WSANEC or Coast Salish – but laments there’s no accommodation for him to learn his Nuu-chah-nulth culture. It triggers similar feelings of erasure attempted by residential schools.

“It doesn’t bring my son inclusion … I still feel that piece of residential school, that my son is being lumped into a box.”

The path to reconciliation includes workplaces and school districts finding a way for children in particular to participate in First Nations education in their community – without academic repercussions.

In the absence of that commitment, Dezall works with her family, particularly closely with her grandpa Tim Paul, demonstrating Nuu-chah-nulth culture for her kids and their cousins.

“Grandpa does such a great job of making sure they’re with him learning,” she says. “The lessons that have been instilled in them are just about sharing, gifting and making sure others are OK around them.”

Dezall sees success in day-to-day moments.

When the boys watch sports and someone gets hurt, they’ll remark on the player’s need for comfrey – a plant used for wounds and to reduce inflammation.

“I love that they know what medicine to go to when you’re not feeling well, whether they’re ill, injured or other … they know what medicine they need.”

Or when one son, recently smitten by the sea, caught his first fish of the season and immediately wanted to bring it to grandpa in Port Alberni.

“For me, what I understood in that moment was he has this, it’s ingrained in him now,” she says. “Yes, it was in the freezer for two weeks, but it got done, and it came from the teachings.”

READ MORE: Stories about truth and reconciliation

Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

Longtime journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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