Hɛhɛwšɩn, The Way Forward
By Alex Sutcliffe
This article originally appeared in Tla’amin’s Nehl Motl Newspaper and is reprinted here with permission.
The Hɛhɛwšɩn reconciliation canoe project wrapped up with a huge celebration in Tla’amin. I say ended, but really, it’s just the beginning.
The grandfather tree was transformed into a beautiful eight-metre canoe by skilled canoe builder Joe Martin from Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, and his team of carvers: Alvin Wilson, Sherman Pallen, Ivan Rosypskye, Phil Russell, Mathew Louie, Dakota Gustafson and John Dominic. The canoe was given its first taste of the ocean in a special ceremony held on Willingdon Beach on Saturday, Nov. 18. Joe performed the blessing of the canoe alongside his family who came down to take part, with more than 500 people who came out to witness this special event. The canoe was then placed into the waters where the carvers paddled it out for its maiden voyage before returning to the beach.
The original plan was to paddle the canoe from Willingdon into Tla’amin with a Tla’amin canoe escorting, but due to the unpredictable weather and gusty winds it was decided to err on the side of caution and the canoe was driven into Tla’amin instead. From the waterfront, children from both communities climbed into the canoe and the canoe was then escorted up to the Salish Center before being carried (children and all!) inside, where it was blanketed. The gym was packed full of people who came out to welcome the canoe into the community and take part in the presentation ceremony.
I was asked to be a witness on this day, alongside Scott Galligos, Devin Pielle and Shelley Chaney. I was very honored to bear witness to these important ceremonies. I have watched the project from the beginning. I feel I am in an interesting position in that I represent both communities. I grew up in the non-Indigenous world, but my wife and children are Tla’amin citizens and I live here now too, this is home and I see everyone as part of my extended family. I am grateful to be where I am and I will do my best to represent both communities to the best of my ability.
Growing up in Australia, I never really understood the kinds of issues Indigenous people have had to deal with. It wasn’t until I came here that I began to really learn. I understand a lot more now, and I continue to learn.
From what I saw on the day of the ceremonies, there was a huge turn out from both communities. This tells me we are moving in the right direction. There is a significant number of people from the non-indigenous community that are understanding these issues, that want to come together and many that also want to learn to see the world through Indigenous teachings. In my experience, the world is not what we see on TV. All the doom and gloom, conflict and separation that you see on the news is one tiny fraction of our world that seems to have a magnifying glass placed on it to keep people in fear. In reality most people are decent, caring and loving. We can see this with our eyes just by looking around us. We know from the teachings that we are all connected, and it is also common sense. We are all related to each other, we all have a mother and a father, brothers, sisters, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, people that we love, and they all have people they love and it expands outward, on and on across the whole planet. There is no separation, we literally are all one people.
Most people have an intuitive understanding of people-to-people connections. But teachings from the Indigenous world take it even farther and after living in this community for the last five years—I’ve been coming and going for another 10 years before that—I am starting to understand the relationship with the land, the deeper connection to the land. This is something that is hard to put into words and is more like a feeling in your soul. Once you feel that, you start to see the world through different eyes. When you understand that everything is alive, everything has a spirit or is part of one spirit, and you can feel it, then you start to really understand how everything is connected. Once you have that understanding, it changes you. You move into your heart. The heart understands that all life is connected and when you begin to create and shape your reality from here, the heart would never create anything that could be harmful to life.
Reconciliation has a number of layers to it (people to people/nation to nation, people to nature, and individual with Creator) and it seems like these are areas for everyone to be doing the inner work to heal those things in our lives that are no longer serving us. By Tla’amin opening the doors to the non-Indigenous community, you are creating other pathways for bringing people together, and facilitating healing on so many levels. By sharing Tla’amin culture and Tla’amin teachings you are also helping the world see through different eyes, which ultimately leads to the heart based understanding I spoke about above. This will change the world.
I’d like to acknowledge everyone who has been working behind the scenes to make all of this a reality, John Louie and Cyndi Pallen for their guidance and contribution throughout the whole process, and Phil Russell who was the brainchild of this project. I know firsthand that the main concern that Phil had was preserving the integrity of this project throughout the entire process and he worked tirelessly to make sure that happened, I saw it and I truly respect him and the amount of effort he put into this project. I’d also like to thank the entire Hɛhɛwšɩn committee and all the volunteers who helped along the way, there have been so many people…I also want to acknowledge Joe and all the carvers (old hats and youth!) for their commitment to this project, they were there, day in day out, transforming the grandfather into something amazing, and sharing their culture and teachings with everyone who came to visit. I should also mention the canoe has a sibling made from the same grandfather, a smaller canoe that is yet to be completed by the youth so stay tuned for that. I’d also like to acknowledge the drummers and singers and everyone working in the language—the cultural revitalization happening here is inspiring to watch and it is so much more, it is the rebuilding and remembering of the Nations identity which is so important. I also want to acknowledge the entire Tla’amin Nation, I’ve seen how this community has grown and changed over the last 15 years, it’s been an amazing journey to see and be part of and I really hope everyone is proud of who they are and where they come from. I see how the nation is moving forward collectively, and now I also saw—through these ceremonies—everyone coming together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and I know deep down we will all move forward together and create a unified world filled with amazing opportunities and experiences for all of our children, and their children, and their children’s children. In the end, they are all that really matters.