Western red cedar – xápayay – near Sch’ilhus, Stanley Park, Vancouver. Photo by virgomerry
Part three of the Mi tel’nexw Leadership series continued last week with teachings from Ta7talíya on Squamish ways of knowing based on the cedar tree.
Cedar trees, like salmon, are iconic on the west coast of Canada. Just those two images together would immediately make you think of this place, Skwxwú7mesh Temíxw. These two living things link the land and the sea, and they are inextricably linked in nature too, as the nitrogen that salmon bring to the forest make possible the massive growth of xápayay, the red cedar, which in turn provides shade and clean water in the salmon streams so that the cycle can continue. The two care for each other and exhibit the same relations as those of a traditional family
For Ta7talíya, her story of knowing began there, with her birth into a Squamish family that was surrounded by love, family, and food, gifts of the birthright that confirmed and formed her identity as stélmexw, an indigenous person. Later when she went to school and then interacted with the colonial systems of education and foster care, she took on identities that were not hers, but instead the racialized identities of indigeneity that are propagated and imposed by white supremacy. These two experiences formed the deep basis of Ta7talíya’s teaching last week: that we have goodness inside us which we can find when we connect, and that we take on stuff which is unhelpful and dispiriting. Working with both requires ceremony.
In Squamish culture, there is a need to brush off what is unhelpful or what is harmful. The practice involves using cedar boughs to brush negativity from oneself. Cedar boughs are also hung over doorways traditionally to brush off any negativity that enters a home. Skwetsimeltxw returned during this session to talk about this practice, calling it “hand sanitizer for the soul!”
Ta7talíya’s work in the world is confronting white supremacy and teaching decolonizing practices for the liberation of all people. This involves confronting the reality of white supremacy, giving people tools and then leaving them to “mi tel’nexw” – figure it out.
She says that appreciating – and not appropriating – Squamish teachings and ways of knowing that are openly shared is one way to do this. Here are a few insights I took from her teachings.
The fundamental struggle is between a relational worldview and a separating worldview. Using the cedar to teach this is brilliant. Cedar is the Squamish tree of life and provides material for people to use in every part of it’s being. Needles and boughs for medicine and healing and spiritual care; wood for building homes, canoes, bowls and tools; bark and roots for rope and clothing. To have a relationship with cedar is to be in relationship with the source of things that provide for our needs. Ta7talíya contrasts this with capitalism for example, where only the thin thread of currency connects us to those who harvested, refined and made the things most of us use in our daily lives. We are put out of relationship for the sake of convenience, and when humans are separated from one another, brutality becomes possible.
This is the land of transformation. When Ta7talíya was telling her own life stories at one point she said “I have a story of transformation…” and a shiver went through my spine. Squamish oral history tells of the important era of Xaays, the Transformer Brothers, who travelled through the land fixing things in their shape and imbuing the land with teachings. Almost every significant physical feature of this landscape has a transformation story. From my home, I can see places where the deer were created, where herons first appeared, where the sun was captured and placed into a regular rhythm, where the first human experienced compassion and became mortal, and where epic battles were fought between thunderbirds and two-headed sea serpents that left their marks on rock faces and mountainsides. Once, while walking with Squamish Nation Councillors Syetáxtn and Khelsílem we were laughing as they half-jokingly said that someone needed to make a “Lord of the Rings” style history of this land, because the place is literally full of these kinds of stories, everywhere you turn.
Transformation is the goal of spiritual life. Living here, one needs to brush off what stops one from seeing what is truly here, the land made up of stories or covered in layer upon layer of love and prayer practiced by countless generations who have walked and paddled these places. Brushing off what gets in the way of this knowing opens one to the possibility of transformation, to feel deeply the move towards a transformation that formed this land, and continues to form it and the histories that lay upon it. Hearing Ta7talíya place her own story of transformation into the context of all that has gone on in Squamish history was a powerful reminder of this fact.
You have to figure it out. No one will give you the answers. Squamish ways of knowing begin with the nexwníwin – traditional teachings – and a question that you hold. All is gifted to you to use, like the way the cedar gifts itself, but it is up to you to mi tel’nexw – figure it out. As Ta7talíya said “Squamish leadership is facilitation” meaning that it gives space for all voices to be heard and for things to be tried. It allows for failure in relationship while stopping people from failing AT relationship. In the traditional setting, you are held by the family, by village, by teachings, by ancestors and by the land, and you always have those to return to.
I am truly blessed to live here and truly blessed to have people like Ta7talíya in my life as friends and teachers and colleagues and mentors. It is not enough to merely brush off and put down the lenses of white supremacy to be able to live well here. One must also steadily figure out how to live in relationship with what is actually here, hidden in plain view, obscured only by an unwillingness to see. That is true of the land, it is true of history and it is true with people. The practice of brushing off helps us to put down what separates so we can pick up what connects and figure it out.