Urban gatherings bring the songs of home

On a damp evening in mid-December, within a densely packed east-Vancouver neighbourhood, the Ukranian Cultural Centre is filled with songs from coastal communities along the western side of Vancouver Island. The 89-year-old venue was one of five used in December for Nuu-chah-nulh-aht living in cities away from their nations’ hahoulthee.

George Watts lends his voice to the singing, as two-year-old Lorrenzo mimics his father, banging a drum at George’s ankles.

“I do a lot of singing and drumming myself to teach my kids all of my family songs,” said George, who is a member of the Tseshaht First Nation.

Seeking work and educational opportunities, George moved to the Lower Mainland half a year ago with his partner, Kelsey Martin, Lorrenzo and their other son, one-year-old Hunter. It’s been an adjustment for the young family, as George and Kelsey grew up in Port Alberni.

“I miss all of the cultural aspects of life. Singing and drumming, socializing with other Nuu-chah-nulth family members,” admits George, who has participated in other First Nations gatherings since moving to Surrey. “I’ve made attempts to go to some singing and drumming groups, but they’re for the most part pretty quiet, not much attendance. I think the awareness of it needs to be raised and people need to know that it’s there.”

For Connie Charleson, the evening’s singing, drumming and dancing feel like home.

“It lifts my spirits,” said Charleson, who moved from Port Alberni to the Vancouver area 18 years ago to study fashion design at Quantlin University. 

“The city is so busy, sometimes you forget to just take time for yourself, especially spiritually,” she added. “It’s a challenge to be active in the culture, but I still do.”

Despite the strong connections that are often present in Nuu-chah-nulth families, many members venture far from home. The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s lists just 3,340 of the 10,000 status members residing on reserve. Approximately 27 per cent live in Port Alberni, while Nanaimo, Campbell River and the City of Victoria draw nine, three and eight per cent of Nuu-chah-nulth-aht, according to the Ha-Shilth-Sa’s records, which provides subscriptions to the members of most Nuu-chah-nulth nations. Another five per cent of Nuu-chah-nulth live within in the cities of Vancouver and North Vancouver, with hundreds more residing in other surrounding municipalities that comprise the Lower Mainland.

“Most of us live away from home,” said Vina Robinson, manager of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s Teechuktl Mental Health department. “If we all decided to move home right now, there would be nowhere for us to live.”

To help sustain connections with those who live in larger cities, Teechuktl holds urban gathering each December in Nanaimo, Campbell River, Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria. Besides a hot meal and plenty of Nuu-chah-nulth singing and dancing, the NTC and other service providers disperse helpful information, status cards are updated, and Teechuktl staff provide brushing as well as other cultural support for those who need it.

The urban gatherings started in the mid-1990s at a time when the Nuu-chah-nulth Treaty Table held meetings in various locations.

“They would also bring it to the different urban settings so the membership could sit in, listen and be a part of those meetings and discussions,” explained NTC Executive Director Florence Wylie. “They also at this time of the year would put on a nice Christmas dinner, a gathering for the members. I seem to remember going to one of them in Nanaimo and one of the elders was dressed up as Santa Claus. He gave out candy bags to everybody.”   

In 1999 Robinson was brought in as an outreach coordinator with the Healing Project, an initiative that travelled with the treaty table to provide support for Nuu-chah-nulth members. The urban gatherings stopped in 2005 when funding ceased for the Healing Project, but the annual events for big-city dwellers returned in 2008 with the introduction of the Quu’asa program, which is run by the Teeckuktl department that Robinson now manages.

“This time of the year is really difficult for a lot of our people,” she said.

“When you’re living in the city, it can be even tougher,” added Wylie. “The cost of living is so tough, people are living away from their families, away from the culture.”

Despite these challenges, Nuu-chah-nulth-aht are venturing to larger cities for the options they offer.

“Some leave the community because they are pursuing health supports, education, the children are pursuing sports, different housing, employment,” noted Wylie.

“They went to residential school and they never ever went back home,” added Robinson. “A lot of them would go down to Seattle berry picking and they just ended up staying there.”

It was more opportunity in work and education that brought George Watts’ family to the Vancouver area. Kelsey Martin and George work in the surveying industry.

“We are locators and we go to construction sites before they begin their construction,” George explained. “We let them know where all of the electric and water piping is underground.”

Vancouver’s vibrancy helped the young family adjust to the change in environment from Port Alberni.

“The city life is much more exciting for us,” added George. “We like to do a lot of sightseeing. The kids like to go for rides on the (Sky)train and they like to go on the ferry that goes across the way from Vancouver to North Van.”