A couple of years ago, my friend Pauline LeBel and I were discussing ways to increase learning about indigenous peoples amongst our neighbours on Bowen Island where we live. We live squarely in the traditional territories of the Squamish Nation, and in thinking about how as settlers we should all orient ourselves to our indigenous hosts, the phrase “knowing our place” came up. Pauline employed it as the title for a series of readings and events that she has curated for a number of years now on Bowen Island. I use it as a kind of heuristic to answer the question of what is the role of settlers in supporting the struggles and aspirations of the First Nations within whose territories we live and work.
When I first arrived in Vancouver in 1994 I was working for the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres. I attended a meeting at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre at which Leonard George, then chief of Tsleil-Waututh, opened with his father’s well known prayer song. He introduced the song as “the Coast Salish National Anthem” and told the story of how his father, Chief Dan George, has gifted the song to the Chiefs of the various Salish-speaking Nations around the Salish Sea, where we live. It made a huge impact on me, and I instantly understood what it meant to be living here. A few years later, when I asked if it was a song I could sing for others, to help them understand in whose country we are really standing, his eyes lit up and he said “of course!”
Leonard was an incredible singer and anyone who heard him sing this song before his voice changed due to cancer will attest to how it made the hairs on your arms stand up and sent a shiver through the spine. It is an incredible song, and in Leonard’s hands, it was a profound spiritual experience. Here he is singing it to open the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver in 1996:
From time to time, I get to sing this song for others and it is almost always the case that they have never heard it, no matter how long they have lived in these territories. On Friday I was asked to come to Rivendell Retreat Centre (where I am on the board) to sing it for a group of refugee families that were having a Thanksgiving weekend retreat. There were six families from Eritrea and two from Syria and they had all been in Canada for less than two years.
About two thirds of the group were children, mostly elementary school and younger. When I pulled out my drum to sing the song, several of the Eritrean kids cam running over and started singing what sounded like this song. When I played a verse of the song and asked if that was what they were singing they said yes. Apparently they had been taught the song in school and they all knew it.
So yesterday was the first time I ever sang Chief Dan George’s prayer song – the Coast Salish National Anthem – for Vancouver area residents accompanied by people that knew it off by heart: eight refugee kids from Eritrea who sang with great gusto and enthusiasm and pride. They knew where they were and they knew why we were singing that song.