When I went to high school I left behind everything that reminded me of my torment, including my culture. I made it through easily enough as a white girl and afterwards I went to University to become an accountant. It took me a year to realize I didn’t want that path and in fact I had no idea what I wanted.Lisez l’histoire de Lucy Hemphill
Port Hardy, BC
It wasn’t hard for me to choose an historical event to write about. The relocation of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw is a story that breaks your heart and brings hope at the same time. Hearing what my people went through and seeing how far we’ve come makes me immensely proud. It makes me want to be a better person and it makes me want to help facilitate change in any way I can. In my way I help by being kind and respectful. I listen to what people have to say and lift them up in any way I can. I listen to what the elders tell me, because I know they have knowledge of a dying way of life, and it’s extremely important for us young people to learn from them. I try to be a good role model in my community. I was fortunate to have a strong grandmother, a strong mother and strong aunts. As a result I am strong.
The scars of the relocation and residential school trauma run deep in my community, there is still alcohol and drug abuse. Still many people carry the shame of those years, but slowly the wounds are being healed. I wanted to share this story because I am extremely thankful to be Gwa’sala-‘Nakwxda’xw. I am extremely proud to belong to a community with so much strength and perseverance.
I gaze out at Hardy Bay from my kitchen window. Gulls float and whirl on the wind like a hundred crazy kites. The ocean is dark and rain pelts the windows. The northwesterly pushes and pulls at the house, making it sway like the trees it was built from – sacred wood, the same my ancestors used to build their homes. The same they used for their clothing, dishes, tools weapons and boats, and in the potlatch to tame the hamatsa and protect against evil spirits. My father spent seven years dreaming, building and shaping this house. People who view his cedar masterpiece assume he is a builder by trade, or perhaps a westcoast carver. In truth he is a painter, and though Métis, the blood of carvers does not run in his veins.
My parents met in Campbell River. My father was a motorcycle-riding hippie from the Prairies. The instant he met my mother he knew she would be his life-partner. It was more difficult to convince my mom, though. She’d grown up in the wilds on a float house and knew the meaning of the word “freedom.” It was through my grandmother that my father finally won over my mom. He’d go to their house and spend time with Grandma, listening to her stories of a pioneer life lived on the ocean and off the land, sharing his own stories of the prairies. Grandma could see he was a good man and convinced my mom to give him a try. After their marriage they moved to the big city of Vancouver so my mom could study Canadian History and First Nations Studies. She became pregnant with my sister in her fourth year so they moved back to Campbell River, spending the next years trying to get back to her land and culture. One day they travelled 230 kilometers north to a potlatch at Tsulquate Reserve. My mother met her cousins from her grandfather’s side for the first time and they treated her with a love and kindness that she hadn’t experienced before. She saw that people in Tsulquate were very poor but still happy. She decided to move to Port Hardy and soon her whole extended family followed.
I grew up in Tsulquate, spending my days building forts, playing in tide pools on the beach, or berry picking in the woods. We owned an old gillnetter that took us to the places my mom had lived as a child. Summers were spent in our “Homelands” – a stretch of BC’s coastline that includes Smith Inlet, Seymour Inlet and Blunden Harbour. My great-grandmother, Lucy, for whom I am named, was ’Nakwaxda’xw. She grew up in the village of Ba’as at Blunden Harbour. It’s a peaceful place full of life and beauty, surrounded by the tall cedars that were the pillars of our culture. The ocean is full of sustenance, the beach, laden with white shells, gives evidence of a people who never starved. Bushes are bright with the red and gold of nature’s bounty. Ba’as has the power to change you and Grandma taught that these places are a part of me. Many a day was spent crabbing, canoeing, berry picking, and jigging for halibut in our little rowboat with my cousins, sister, or parents. For me it was a haven and I would cry whenever we left it. As I got older I became aware of an undercurrent of sadness. Though the people there had an ancient recipe for success and happiness, they were torn from it like an unripe berry from its life-giving stem.
My childhood home was full of love and happiness. Outside of my family life, though, I suffered. I went to the school on the res. My parents had made that decision because they wanted me to learn our culture and language, but I was the only child there with green eyes and fair skin. I would go home crying to my grandmother after being bruised with words or fists. She would hold me in her arms and tell me her own stories of being bullied for being a “half-breed.” She said I was blessed to have come from two different worlds and to find strength in knowing who I am, and where I come from. For a while I found that strength. When faced with the hurtful words “white girl” and “you don’t belong here” I would reply, “I know who I am… Max’mu’widzumga, is my native name, do you know yours?” Often they would turn away in shame, because they didn’t know or remember their name. There would be a temporary break in the taunting, but I didn’t feel better for having hurt them.
When I went to high school I left behind everything that reminded me of my torment, including my culture. I made it through easily enough as a white girl and afterwards I went to University to become an accountant. It took me a year to realize I didn’t want that path and in fact I had no idea what I wanted. So I decided to travel; first to Australia, then New Zealand, and recently South Africa. For the first time in my life I could be who I wanted. Being stripped of all the preconceived notions of who I was allowed me to find who I really was. In every country I felt akin to the indigenous cultures. First the Aborigines of Australia, then the Maoris of New Zealand, then the Zulu of South Africa. Everywhere I went the effects of colonization were evident. I was shocked by the racism towards Aborigines and the resentment towards Maori. I felt pride for how the Maori had saved their language and how their culture was an integral part of New Zealand culture. I could relate to the indigenous of the world more than the non-indigenous and that helped me realize that I had the same values my grandmother and ancestors had known. I want to live a simple life, full of family and love and as close to the land as possible. That realization brought me back to Tsulquate four years after leaving. I came back with no resentment, an open heart, an open mind and a desire for change. It was then that I learned the details of the relocation my people had suffered. It’s a sorrowful story but a hopeful one. I will share it with you.
The Gwa’sala and ’Nakwaxda’xw are now one nation but that wasn’t always so. The Gwa’sala people lived in Smith Inlet. The ’Nakwaxda’xw people lived in nearby Seymour Inlet and Blunden Harbour. They had many dealings in trade and marriage, but were indeed separate. They lived off the abundance provided by land and sea and had a rich culture of song and ceremony. By the mid 1800s colonization reached them. Disease and whiskey decimated their populations. Canneries and logging companies sprang up in their territories and the plundering of their resources coupled with oppressive government policies eroded aboriginal rights. By 1964, under the Federal Reserve System, their traditional territory of 1,046,524 hectares was reduced to a reserve land base of 794.1 hectares.
Into the early twentieth century the Gwa’sala and ’Nakwaxda’xw continued to live in their villages at Takush andBa’as, living off the resources provided by nature, and working seasonally for wages. They continued their social and spiritual practices including the potlatch, even though it was banned from 1884 to 1951. They survived disease and the loss of their lands but were to endure greater hardship as three generations of Gwa’sala and’Nakwaxda’xw children were forced to attend residential schools. Separated from their families and forced to speak English and worship a strange religion children were made to feel ashamed of who they were and many were abused physically, sexually and emotionally. The resulting loss of cultural identity shattered the natural transmission of traditional values to future generations.
In 1964, the government decided the two nations should be relocated to a small reserve near Port Hardy on Northern Vancouver Island. The people were told they would be given good houses, medical care, and jobs if they moved, but if they stayed they would not receive any services at all. For ten years they received these promises and threats. Finally the people gave in, but then the government said they couldn’t keep all their promises and that only some of the people should move initially. The people wouldn’t leave any of their family members behind so in 1964, after the fishing season was over, almost all the people moved to Tsulquate. They arrived to just three unfinished houses with no running water and nowhere to moor their boats. Many tried to go back home but their villages had been burnt down. The pain of losing their homes and all that they valued, coupled with the trauma of residential school abuse and the shame forced upon them for being native, they turned to alcohol. For years they floated in a haze of despair and alcoholism, and many didn’t survive. Six years later the government realized it had handled the move badly. Alan Fry, a government worker, wrote a book about the village – “How a People Die.” At that time there were only 200 Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw left and Fry believed they would not survive.
It’s a sad story, but knowing it brings peace. It allows me to understand why I was treated the way I was as a child. It allows me to understand why alcoholism and drug abuse are so rampant here. I realized that most of the youth and many adults here had never seen the Homelands and therefore have a distorted sense of identity. I am proud of how far we have come since the relocation. We now have a population of 900. We build our own houses; have our own health center, elementary school, high school and community hall and are in the process of getting a traditional Big House. Many have graduated from high school and gone to university. Our Band school teaches the children their culture and language. We have boats that bring the people back to the homelands. This year I started a community garden on the reserve with the help of the Elders. The time I spent with them led to close relationships. Their stories inspire me and their perseverance gives me strength. Their love and kindness moves me. They lived in the Homelands and now they teach the youth so they know where they come from. Those who hurt me as child are now friends. I’m not called “white girl,” I’m not told I don’t belong. The community is healing and we are one.
As I watch the gulls and the storm I feel peace. Where I am going is a mystery, but I know who I am and where I come from. Where I go I don’t go alone, I have my family and my people.