Xwexwesélken is the Squamish name for the mountain goat, a creature that lives on the high rocky cliffs of the coast mountains, picking its way across perilous and sheer vertical surfaces in search of food and protection. Mountain goat wool is a prized material in Squamish culture, used to weave blankets with immense spiritual and social significance.
In the last session of the Mi Tel’nexw leadership course, Chepxímiya Siyám (Chief Janice George) used the mountain goat as her metaphor for teaching about Squamish ways of doing. As a master weaver who has brought the weaving practice back to life in many Coast Salish communities, she wove her personal story with the deeper cultural story of Squamish ways of life, as goat wool is woven through weft and warp into a beautiful, powerful blanket. I heard two critical teachings in her presentation: doing things well comes down to being anchored in story and treating all work as ceremony.
Chepxímiya started her teaching with her own personal history of how she grew in the cultural knowledge, raised by her grandmother after her family died in a car accident, and working as an archeology researcher. Several times she talked about how “the culture saved my life.”
Chepxímiya was raised in the Squamish tradition of women’s leadership, leadership that is characterized by gentleness and deep knowledge of the rhythms and seasons of land, family, medicines, and food, so that the people may be cared for. In a culture where men were often sent to war, the women are knowledge keepers. A man might be killed in battle and all his knowledge dies with him. Women hold the deep knowledge of ceremony while men lead the work.
“To lead,” she said, “we have to believe in our ancestors, their teachings, and ourselves.” Who I am and what I am doing is deeply connected to my family, to our stories, and to my aspirations for my children and their children. This is the bigger context for any action, but it is so easy to make things short-term and succumb to immediate needs that don’t take the bigger picture into account. If one is disconnected from family, community, land, and history, then one is lacking the perspective needed to lead well.
One of Chepxímiya’s profound early learnings about this came in her research work when she discovered that the National Museum in Ottawa had two skeletons in its possession that were taken from Xway Xway, the village site in Stanley Park in Vancouver that is located near to where the totem poles stand today. In the early part of the 20th century, it was cleared and the residents relocated across the water to Xwmeltch’stn. In 1879 and again in 1928, two skeletons were disinterred and taken to the museum. Chepxímiya was a key part of the effort to bring these ancestors home in 2006. When the skeletons arrived in Vancouver, they were driven to the Park and brought to Xway Xway for one more visit before being taken away and buried in the cemetery. It was a profound moment, connecting ancestors, land, history, and ceremony.
This moment led Chepxímiya to learn more about her leadership and to accept her responsibility as a Siyám. She was invited to take a name and refused to do so until everyone in her family agreed that it was a good action, and there was no jealousy or conflict. The name she was given is from Senákw, the village on the south shore of False Creek that was the subject of nearly a century of litigation with the federal government and decades of discussions between Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh. Chepxím was one of the last people to live at Senákw before the villagers were moved against their will. In taking her name, Chepxímiya consulted Elders and leaders from Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh, and all were invited to witness in her naming ceremony. As Cheif Leonard George told her at the time “that’s a gutsy move you’re making” but when the final litigation was all settled and the Squamish regained the village site, the final court decision was released on her birthday.
As Chepxímiya says, when you walk softly and receive signs, you become susceptible to spirit. This is why ceremony as a model of “doing” is so profound.
Lessons from Squamish ceremony
The way in which Squamish ceremonies are conducted contains many lessons for leadership. Chepxímiya shared these lessons generously, and these are my reflections on her teachings.
Family, land, and teachings are all connected to action. Squamish ceremonies are conducted under strict protocols. These protocols include an intense period of preparation where one personally invites people to come, prepares to seat, feed, and gift every person who comes. There are people in the community who manage the feasts and conduct the ceremony with detailed knowledge of every person’s name, who their family is, which community they come from, how they are related to the family hosting the feast and where they are in their spiritual development. For a feast with hundreds of attendees, this is an immense amount of knowledge to carry, and making a mistake – such as pronouncing a name wrong, running out of food or seating a person in the wrong place – can be costly to the standing and status of the host family. Knowing the context is critical, to the finest detail, and finding the people who can lead in a respectful and generous way is essential to keeping the work relational.
(It is one of my great failings that I have a hard time remembering people’s names and faces, and I personally understand how hurtful it is to get this wrong. I spend a lot of time trying to remember and also humbly apologizing for my inability to connect faces and names.)
“The more you give away the richer you are.” Squamish culture is a reciprocal gift giving culture, and in giving away possessions, names, and power, one humbles oneself and open oneself to be able to receive from others. Those who hold on to their possessions and hoard them are unable to receive gifts from others. In my own spiritual practice, emptying is a key practice, to become open to receiving. To receive, first, you must give and that is a powerful leadership lesson.
Prepare seriously for important work. When leaders are appointed to lead in ceremony, they are blanketed with a mountain goat wool blanket to protect their heart and given a headband made of cedar to focus their mind so they can act purely, kindly, and with the purpose of the work in mind. Witnesses are appointed for any kind of important work and are given the job of reporting the story of what happened in as much detail as possible. In my own facilitation practice, these are the practices of hosting and harvesting. Preparation for hard work is essential, and perhaps this is an obvious teaching, but in a rushed world, when we can zoom from one meeting to another, it is critical to create time to prepare ourselves well to host and harvest important moments.
“The weaver’s job is to create a pure space for your people to stand on.” I have left the most profound teaching for last, as this speaks so powerfully to the work I have done for years trying to understand the role of space and containers in my facilitation and strategic leadership practice. The blankets that Chepxímiya weaves are both for the protection of the heart, but also to lay down on the floor of the longhouse so that people may stand on them as they are appointed to their witnessing roles or given their new names. The blanket creates a pure space, a container that is open to potential and clear of anything that holds back the person in fulfilling their duties, It is both a physical purity and a spiritual purity that is represented. The image of the leader as a facilitator and as a weaver is powerful; creating a lifegiving context for action; providing the conditions of material and relational capacity for a person to live out their purpose for their family and community and territory; to trust a person to act while keeping them connected to all that is important. This is really the gift of these teachings.
Mi tel’nexw is a powerful leadership journey. As a person who lives within Skwxwu7mesh Temix, this journey has given me some deep insight into what is HERE, into the traditions that are soaked into the land in which I live. It helps me better understand Squamish practice and tradition and gives me lenses for reflection on my own leadership the concepts that I teach others. You too can go on this journey, and the next course starts on November 3.
I lift my hands up to Skwetsímeltxw, Lloyd, Ta7táliya, Chepxímiya and Ta7táliya-men for this offering, for their generosity and their beautiful work. Chen kw’enmantumi!
I have really appreciated your writings about this leadership journey. I am in the US, on the east coast in Maine. The native people here are Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet. Their territories extend across the US-Canadian border. As I understand their practices, in less depth than your experience here, they share some basic views and values, tho not with potlatch. A book I have loved for years is CEREMONY IS LIFE ITSELF by a Wampanoag elder who has been active in cross cultural work for decades. One of the things I remember is that he says that life is either holding ceremonies or preparing for them. (My paraphrase and I hope I do him justice. And I can say his name but can’t write it!) We have so much to learn on so many levels from these people who have been so marginalized and disregarded when not brutalized and robbed.
This journey you describe is a powerful offering. I’m tempted, tho thinking I should focus my energies on connecting more intentionally with my east coast native neighbors. Thank you again.
Thank you dear Chris. Grateful for these posts
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