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Elderspeak

[ 0 ] July 11, 2010 |

Thoughts and Impressions Expressed by elders of the Cowichan Tribes, Duncan, B.C.

Gus and Mary Ellen Joe

Photos: Jenn George and Dale Letourneau


It wasn’t until 1960, when Gus’s parents approached Father Rossiter and said, “Gus and Mary Ellen should get married,” that we were married in a little chapel, a rectory in the basement of St. Anne’s. We had Christine then, our third child. We’ve been married for fifty years but we have been together for fifty-four years.

We have five sons, four daughters, two stepsons and two stepdaughters. We have fifty grandchildren and fifty-one great-grandchildren. We had a dance group and we used to dance all over. Our biggest event every year was the Victoria parade, where we went for four miles. We were first called the Stone Church Dancers.

We still have a trophy in Victoria. We took first place, but we had to leave before they presented the trophies so we never did get to pick it up. We performed together until the kids grew up and went out on their own. We have been asked to start up again but it’s too much work. We had to fundraise to travel and feed the dancers and drummers.

When we were young we didn’t have lights like we have now. We used candles or kerosene. There was no relief or allowance. Everyone was down the beach, digging clams to make money. Ladies knitted sweaters. Young people were trained. Nobody was allowed to walk around doing nothing like you see in Duncan now. It’s way different now. Young people seem to be free. They take that dirty smoke, they take that alcohol, they take that new smoke, marijuana. That smoke doesn’t belong to Native people. Our Elders were really strict a long time ago. Young people did not receive an Indian name if they did something crazy or bad. When they were given a name, they also received other sacred things like a mask and a rattler.

When we had our first child my father said, “You better get married. If you don’t, I’m going to go see the priest myself.” When you shack up, you break up. You can see that today.

It’s hard for a lot of our Elders to teach our young ones. When you see the Elders bring in the picture of someone who passed on, you see young people talking, smoking, eating or texting. They have no respect.

The Elders used to always caution everyone, “Be careful or something is going to happen.” Some of our Cowichan relatives experienced that. I watched one of my cousins. He was carrying a coffin and he was laughing. The next day he was touched. He couldn’t even move; he couldn’t even talk because of what he was doing inside the cemetery.

We used to knit sweaters to feed our family just like other Cowichans. Our neighbours, the Jimmy family, used to see the big van owned by the buyer and they would say, “It’s showtime!” When they made money selling sweaters, they would walk uptown and go to the movie.

On Sundays the Elders used to walk across the river just to go to church. My grandmother never missed church. She was popular. Everyone respected her. A lot of the Elders just used to walk. Sometimes they would be delivered in a wagon. Quite a few of the relatives had horses, wagons, buggies. All the roads here were just gravel. There was no highway. Hardly anyone had a car in the 1940s. My father had a car because he was a longshoreman.

It was around 1950 when the highway was finally opened. We danced. That was the last time we danced. We danced when they put up a totem pole next to the highway, near where the TD bank is today. That was the last time the Tzinquaw Dancers danced over there. I made the songs and dances we use: the snake dance, bear dance, owl dance. The most popular is the chicken dance.

Gus and I met on the highway. I used to walk home from working at Queen Margaret’s School every day. Pretty soon Gus noticed and when I would walk home, he would walk the other way.

My cousin Watson Jimmy and I were walking uptown
and he said to me, “Gus, go walk her home.” “I don’t know her,” I said. “G’on,” he said, pushing me.

Photo: Jenn George

Philomena Pagaduan

I worked with the Elders four or five years ago when they were developing the Hul’qumi’num’ dictionary. Our language is on the verge of extinction. It’s so sad because in my mind language and culture go hand in hand. What is one without the other?

At the time, 3.5 percent of the 4,000 members were speakers. The French language was having no problem getting into the schools.

We learned every language has a musical quality. We used this by developing songs and dances. We thought people could learn better through song or dance. It has been very successful because we are attracting young ones and even adults.

We had to change the font for Hul’qumi’num’ because we could not write some of our sounds with the English alphabet. Some people want us to write phonetically but it is impossible. There is no way to write a guttural sound in English.

I am also looking at how to use technology. The kids are always texting. Maybe we should be using texting to teach the language.

My father went to the Indian residential school. They kept him there all year, and he got back home when he was thirteen. I grew up not speaking our language because of this.

I have been fortunate in cooking with Elders who still know how to prepare traditional food, like ducks, crabs, chitons, fish and moose meat. Your frame of mind has to be good to cook in the longhouse. You cannot be angry because it will affect the end result.

Photo: Jenn George

Evelyn George

When I was seven I used to go down to Cowichan Bay with my gramma Madeline. She woke me up early and we walked down to the Bay. She always made a bed for me in the boat so I could go back to sleep.

She paddled the canoe way down to the narrows across from Salt Spring Island. It was an all-day boat ride there and back. Some days we dug clams, and she dug a hole in the gravel on the beach to steam them. After an hour and a half or so, we shucked them. Then we walked up the hill to the cedar trees and she browned the clams over a fire. We got home around nine, then she worked in her garden.

The funny thing about my grampa was he always lay in bed. He never did help her.

My mother and Granny used to knit sweaters. Granny sold them to white people she knew. When I was ten I wanted to learn how to knit a sweater. The wool kept breaking. I cried. My mother used to encourage me and say, “You have to do it. You can do it.” I knitted all my life, until someone started making our style of sweaters with a cheaper kind of material.

We can’t cook in a pit on the beach anymore. Everything is contaminated or is gone. There used to be lots of sea urchins but divers have cleaned them out. They taste good, and I haven’t had any for about ten years.

Photo: Dale Letourneau

Jenny Martin

I was stolen and imprisoned in the residential school when I was only eight or nine. My mother set up a plate for me. She set up the table with all my favourite foods: potato hash without onions, fried bread, baked bread and fish soup. When we finished eating she told me to always remember who I am, and that I was going away. This is my most treasured thought in this whole thing.

When my brother died I came home and I was determined not to go back. When I returned home I didn’t know how to behave because there was nobody there to tell me how to behave. I got into a relationship. I was pregnant and my mother wanted me to live with the man. We had a relationship and we had three daughters together.

I drank a lot during this period. I was filled with rage and I was filled with anger and I was filled with sadness. I would go to the bar and find the biggest guy in there and pick an argument with him.

I gave up my son for adoption. He was born with three holes in his heart. He wasn’t gaining weight so I brought him to the hospital. He was at a solarium in Victoria for one year. About six months after he got there, the social worker came to my house. He said, “I can’t let your son come back to live in this house.” The house was clean and tidy. He coerced me into giving my son up for adoption.

I talked with my mother, doctor and priest. I decided to give him up because the doctor said he had a fifty-fifty chance of living. I had just buried a child and I did not want to bury another one.

I know my son now. In 1989 a social worker told me my son was looking for me. It made me laugh and cry at the same time. It was around that time that I was determined I was going to quit drinking. He came to visit but I didn’t really want him to. I thought if he was going to visit and just leave again, I didn’t want any part of it. He came to visit and stayed with me. At first we didn’t get along very well. He was always asking me for money and I didn’t have any to give him.

To help me get sober I took a Life Skills course. It helped me with my self-esteem and helped me problem solve. I have been sober twenty years. I went back to school and took a child and youth care program. I did everything in my power to change who I am.

I have a BA in First Nations arts. I went on to take counselling. I didn’t quite complete my Master’s program because of health problems. I am happy with my life right now.

I am a First Nations woman. I am a Cowichan Tribes woman. My Elder said to me, “Respect yourself and others will respect you.” This is my rock.

Cowichan Tribes Territory, Cowichan Bay. Photo: Dale Letourneau.

Category: Elderspeak

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