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B.C. women working to keep Indigenous traditions and roles alive

On International Women’s Day, Maamiqsu are guiding the path to the revival of sacred ways

Alexandra Mehl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter HA-SHILTH-SA

Marjorie White of Huu-ay-aht on Vancouver Island’s West Coast, was given her traditional name, Nanaahimyis, at a potlatch she hosted for her family in 2010.

At the 2010 potlatch, White’s brother said that it was time for her to take the traditional name, Nanaahimyis — a Tseshaht name that had belonged to her great-grandmother and had been passed down in her family maternally for generations and given to the eldest daughter.

“To carry that name is an honor and I carry it with pride,” said White. “I carry it with dignity because of where it comes from.”

At the very same potlatch, roughly 80 family members were named.

“I had called my siblings together and told them that we had to name all of our children, that some of them still had their younger names and that they had to change their names,” said White.

“My grandmother always told me that when I got married and had children that I had to make sure that I did the right thing,” she added. “She emphasized the importance of making sure that my girls had their Indian name.”

The first potlatch White hosted was in the 1960s when she named her daughters. Later she hosted one to name her grandchildren, and most recently the aforementioned family potlatch in 2010.

“Living away from home and not knowing your family and relatives, it was really important for me to make sure that my daughters and my grandchildren knew where they come from and who they are,” said White.

Strengthening inter-tribal bonds

“Culturally speaking, the matriarch was essentially in charge of nurturing and strengthening the family bonds … connecting to ceremony, connecting to home, the environment,” said Wishkey, a story-teller from Huu-ay-aht, based near Bamfield, west of Port Alberni.

“The matriarch has always been that reminder of where we come from, teaching where she comes from, where her mother comes from, kind of making those inter-tribal relations and strengthening those bonds.”

Wishkey said that within Huu-ay-aht, and by extension Nuu-chah-nulth culture, there are a number of different important roles and responsibilities, the most prominent being the Tyee, and the Maamiqsu, referred to as eldest daughter and matriarch.

“They taught their ability to give us some knowledge about life skills and our responsibilities looking after family, looking after our homes, looking after all that is around us and they always made sure that there is safety and guidance,” said White.

White explains that at a young age the matriarchs begin to teach and share what their responsibility is to their children. Her mother and grandmother taught White respect, kindness, and to be a role model when she was young.

White has gone to hold many achievements, including participating as one of the founders of the first friendship centres in the province, being the first Indigenous person to be citizenship Court Judge and the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to the Vancouver Police Commission.

Most recently she received the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award from Indspire, which honours Indigenous people across Canada who are inspiring progress in their communities.

Since the 2010 potlatch, more children have been born into White’s family. She intends to discuss with her siblings the naming of those children as soon as possible.

“To me it was a responsibility that I took to show… how I value my culture, even though I have been away from home for so long,” said White.

The natural strengths of women

Nora Martin, Chamaatookwis, of Tla-o-qui-aht (near Tofino) explains that each family has different teachings, and the women had different lessons, though there are many commonalities within the nations and tribes.

Martin remembers when she would visit her grandmother in Hesquiaht or Opitsaht when she was young, the girls would stay with the grandmother and the aunties while the boys would go out with the uncles.

“My aunts would stay home with us and our grandmothers and then they would teach us things,” explains Martin, “cooking and harvesting and different teachings about raising a family or being a member of the community.”

Martin and her siblings were brought up with different roles.

“My brothers are carvers, my sister’s a regalia maker, and I took care of the monetary part of it,” she said. “We all had different roles depending on what they decided you were going to be.”

For Martin, what she learned from her father and family is now being passed on to the next generation. Martin is teaching her niece the responsibilities that she had held with family finances.

“The matriarch is a very important role because essentially it harnesses the natural strengths of women, which is the nurturing and caring and compassionate side of our people,” said Wishkey.

Wishkey explains that matriarchs traditionally assumed the roles such as midwife, medicine woman, caretaker, and healer. Modern medicine has displaced some of these traditional roles, he explains, especially with childbirth.

“One of the main roles of a matriarch is to really take care of everyone, and especially for the women, and childbirth,” said Wishkey.

Historically, Maamiqsu, would hold a planting ceremony, he explained. The placenta would get planted along with a tree or berry bush that would grow from the ground, which would connect that child to the earth. This is a way that Wishkey believes that traditional practices can be brought into modern day childbirth.

Martin adds that they would bury items with the afterbirth that would follow suit with the child’s foreseen roles and occupations.

“There’s still a number of traditions that we can do, no matter where we are in the world, that can connect our children to Mother Nature,” explained Wishkey.

Mother Nature, said Wishkey, is the original giver of life. Ceremonies involving childbirth are often situated in connecting the new child and family to mother nature, he continued.

The cycle of life with teachings

White said that though some practices are carried on, with the adaptation to modern shifts in society and the loss of Nuu-chah-nulth language, it has become more difficult to connect to those practices. Some difficulties are due to the busy-ness of education, technology, and social media, and there not being the same amount of time to pass on knowledge.

“All of the things that I mentioned were passed on to us in our language, and it was easier for our parents and our grandparents in those days to sit down and talk to us about life,” said White. “I think that’s been a real… disadvantage for us, but I’m hoping that with the revival of our potlatch system and revival of our language that this will again be more accessible.”

White explains that she hopes one day to see teachings passed down to youth as they were before: speaking in Nuu-chah-nulth and returning to home territory to learn culture and traditions.

Wishkey said that he honors the women and matriarchs in his life by respecting their teachings.

“We kind of had one unwritten rule in Nuu-chah-nulth, which would be ḥaaḥuupst̓ał, which is the cycle of life with teachings, and it implies that everything learned is meant to be taught,” said Wishkey.

“That was a really important role… of matriarchs, is teaching not only fundamentals, but also where you come from and taking care of yourself and nurturing and health,” continued Wishkey. “There’s a lot of things that women and mothers naturally do, but it’s a very sacred role in the culture of Nuu-chah-nulth.”

“I believe that our traditions, and our culture is so strong that it helps to ground us in our lives,” said White. “Bad habits have been developed over the years, and it is because we haven’t had that same kind of teaching that we had years ago.”

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