Nuu-chah-nulth women reflect on their role through generations | Ha-Shilth-Sa Newspaper

Nuu-chah-nulth women reflect on their role through generations

Vancouver Island, BC

Nuu-chah-nulth women are powerful, strong, and not afraid to take up the space meant for them. This is how Mariah Charleson (łučinƛcuta), a Hesquiaht member who was recently elected the nation’s chief councillor, describes the women of Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.

When young girls see the generation before them filled with strong-natured Nuu-chah-nulth women who are proud to speak their language, sing their songs, and dance their dances, they intrinsically want to follow suit, she said.

“It's an amazing time that we're living in, because our women are beginning to take up these spaces that we know belong to us,” said Charleson.

Charleson shared that when she was growing up, she didn’t see women being elected as chief councillor for her nation and speaking at large gatherings.

“[That] didn't mean that women didn't hold important spaces, but I think historically, we had seen men taking up those type of leadership positions,” she said.

“I want young girls to understand that they have the qualities already, the way that they were born, and they have the qualities to be leaders in whatever aspect of their life that they’re living,” said Charleson.

But leadership roles didn’t always take the shape of chiefs, shared Charleson. The roles that they held as knowledge keepers and medicine women made them leaders as well.

“One thing that was commonly said was that it was the women who had the strong minds, and the women who remembered,” said C. Ann Robinson of Tseshaht, who was given the name t’ick̓aa ‘aqsuł, meaning thunder coming from the mouth. “The women were shown [and] taught what was needed to keep the families moving forward.”

It was the women’s role to remember history, teachings, songs and dances, she shared.

“The women were the root or the anchor of the communities and the families,” said Robinson. “The women were the ones who cared for the families, who raised the children, who took the time to teach with love what was needed.”

As mothers, aunties, grandmothers, cousins and sisters, women took on certain responsibilities in their family and throughout the community, said Robinson. She shared that when a couple were to be married, the women would sit with the groom to talk with him about how to be a good husband and father, and how to look after his family.

“[It was] always done in a way that was respectful and meant to teach and help them grow into a good life,” said Robinson.

“The women were absolutely the caregivers of the children, the teachers, [and] they're the ones that when the fish came in, they're the ones that processed the fish,” said Angie Miller, nee Tatoosh, of Hupačasath.

Miller’s traditional name, given to her by her parents at a potlatch, is ƛuuyaayapšiƛ, which means person who takes care of people or does good things.

Miller recalls that her mother and grandmothers were the caregivers of the home, cooking and providing food for the family.

“I think that in my heart, I think I still want to do things the same way that my mother [and] grandmother did,” said Miller. “And that’s what I do everyday.”

Among many of the teachings that Miller was passed down from her mother and grandmother was to always make sure there’s food in the house for everyone and never to let anyone leave hungry.

“I think that was what we did as people a long time ago,” said Miller, adding that it was the chief’s responsibility to ensure that visitors from another community were all taken care of and fed.

Miller recalls her childhood when her mother would take her to fish days, alongside her mothers and grandmothers in the community. They woke up at 5 a.m. and would spend the day fishing and barbequing the fish over a fire.

“Somebody had brought potato, somebody brought homemade bread, and they would feed all of us up there,” said Miller, noting that the children watched, played, and once fishing was completed, they would go swimming.

Robinson feels fortunate for being raised with close ties to the elders in her community. Often when she was young, Robinson would visit the elders to hear about “all parts of our communities, [and] all parts of our teachings and our values.”

The elders did not often speak of the impacts of the residential school system, shared Robinson. But she recalls one day when a group of elders were gathered at their chief's house they spoke about when their children were taken to the schools.

“The next day, after the kids were taken, every house on the reserve was crying; all the homes, they couldn't stop crying for days, some for weeks,” she shared with Ha-Shilth-Sa. “You could just feel it in the room, you could just feel that moment, that deep sorrow.”

The persistence and determination of continuing to teach and share with the next generation, despite the difficulties and limited time families had together, is what carried knowledge through generations, said Miller.

“Lots of the people I know held on to the teachings,” she said. “Even now, I see our families out there that are doing potlatches and doing practices.”

When Miller was growing up potlatches were beginning to resurge after years of prohibition through the Indian Act. Today, Miller sees Nuu-chah-nulth children learning songs and dances, and notes the pride she sees them carry.

“Somehow or another, I think their persistence is what kept it going,” said Miller.

Something that Miller hopes to see carried through generations is the coming of age ceremony, which recognizes young girls becoming women.

“That wasn't happening for quite a few years, but it's coming back,” she said, noting its important to understand what the ceremony is about. “This is a young lady now who has gone through puberty, now you have to recognize that she’s a woman, she's the bearer of our children, and she needs to be treated with respect.”

The first traditional ceremonial event that Miller recalls ever attending was for her auntie’s coming of age ceremony, she shared.

“Despite Canada's persistent mandate to assimilate all of our people, many of our women continue to speak the language, continue to sing our songs and continue to do many of the things that our ancestors have done for thousands of years,” said Charleson.

As a result of colonization, Robinson observes that many of the basic teachings in her community have shifted.

“We've lost a lot of our basic teachings, not just around women, in all parts of the community,” she said. “We are so colonized that our core teachings and our core values are changed.”

“When I look back through my growing up years and sitting with [the elders], they lived what they said. They didn't just say it, it was a part of life, it was a part of who we are as a people back in that day,” Robinson shared. “What they said, they lived, they walked, they meant it, they modeled it.”

What Robinson learned from her elders was not ever hers, but for her grandchildren and their grandchildren.

“That's the essence of the teachings, is it rolls forward from generation to generation,” said Robinson. “That's why it's so important to keep it alive. They used to say, ‘Breathe the life into it, breathe life [and] let it live, when it lives, it'll carry forward’.”

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