What cultural lessons, languages, or traditions were part of your childhood years?
In my earliest years, I had no concept of special “cultures.” As with most young children, I was pretty much “color-blind,” and I suppose that after my earliest years on Haida Gwaii, where there was a majority First Nations population which was simply part of my every-day life, I thereafter lived in a fairly homogeneous white middle-class society. My mom has told a tale of when I was small, perhaps 3 or 4 years old, and I noticed a black man, who was a minister and wore a clerical collar. I apparently inquired of my mom why black people had to wear their shirts on backward! But other than that, I do not remember noticing cultural differences until I was about 11 or 12 years old.
At that time, new neighbors, the Porcos, moved in across the street, and their 2 daughters, Lydia and Luisa, quickly became my fast friends. Their parents had immigrated from Italy perhaps 15 years before, and had lived in the small mining community of Natale-Michel in south-eastern British Columbia, which was noted for its large number of Italian immigrants. While the girls had learned English at school, their parents still spoke mainly Italian, and their social life centered around the Catholic Church and the local Italian-Canadian Club. At home, the family spoke Italian, and Mrs. Porco made the most wonderful spaghetti and other traditional Italian foods, while Mr. Porco grew grapes in the backyard to make homemade wine, and even bought live chickens which he beheaded with an axe on a woodblock in their driveway, much to our amazement! Suddenly I realized that not everybody spoke English and ate standard meat, potatoes, and vegetable meals. And I was jealous, especially after I was invited to some of their wedding celebrations, which went on for a week, and included great food, great parties, and absolutely wonderful folk dances!
When I started high school, in grade 8, I began to study French, and I was excited to learn a new language, because I was beginning to think that I had a very dull life, and that I had no interesting culture or traditions. In grade 9 our French teacher was from Quebec, and while he only stayed in BC for a year, I began to realize that our nation had a mixture of rich cultures and history, which were more than just stories in a textbook; they were real people living real lives all around me. Also, our very small community was suddenly growing very quickly, and I was making friends with students of Japanese, East Indian, Chinese and other racial backgrounds. Oddly enough, they seemed to me to be more like myself than my friends who belonged to large European-Canadian community groups. Perhaps because they were still very much a tiny minority in our town, they did not wish to stand out culturally – or perhaps it was because they had experienced a lot of prejudice (something which I really did not realize at that time even existed, at least in my quiet little world); for example, the parents of most of the local Japanese families had experienced life in “internment camps” during World War II, a great wrong that would not be faced up to by Canadian society for still many more years.
Very odd indeed, as I look back, was the fact that within a 20 minute drive of our home, just across Okanagan Lake Bridge, was a fairly sizable First Nations reservation. We would notice these people when we drove through on the highway, in the small community of Westbank which was nearest the reserve, and even as we drove through the reserve to get to lakeside summer cabins of our friends who had leased this prime land from the Indian agent. Yet I do not remember ever actually meeting a single one of these people in all my years of public school; in fact, the first time I got to know a First Nations person (other than when I was a very small child in Masset), was when I met a very handsome young man of Cree descent at the beach the summer after I graduated from high school! While he was just passing through, and we only hung out together for a couple weeks, my interest was definitely piqued. Still, it would be another half dozen years before I would get my first teaching job back in Masset, and meet one Lionel Hill… and the rest, as they say, is history!
Even after being married several years to my Haida husband, and giving birth to our five children, I often felt sad, even ashamed, that I personally had no interesting language or traditions of my own. I was talking about this one time to a Haida-language teacher in our school at Masset, John Kelly, and he was amazed. He told me that of course I had a culture – even if it was such a main-stream culture that I didn’t recognize it as such – and that I should be proud of my background and my history. Although I found that hard to believe, I thought a lot about what he said, and over the years since then, I have done more research into my background, listened to the stories of our family, and today, even as I write this, am recording those stories, that cultural background. When my children were young, I made sure they learned their Haida (and Coast Salish on their grandmother’s side) language, traditions, and cultural ways… and while they should be, and indeed are, very proud of that side of their history, and consider themselves to be primarily First Nations, today I also encourage them to explore the other half of their cultural background, and be proud of it, too!
And for myself, I have also worked to enrich my own life culturally, by taking opportunities to be involved in and learn about the cultures, languages and traditions of people I meet. Over the years, I have learned quite a bit of French, Inuvialuktun and other northern Canadian native languages, and Haida, as well as a little smattering of Japanese and other languages. I have, in the years with my Haida husband, learned much of the cultural and traditions of his people, and have been involved in their celebrations and life events, as well as learning to gather and cook their foods – even going out to personally gather and prepare delicacies such as devilfish (octopus)! It’s been a great adventure, this cultural journey, one that has truly enriched my life; I recommend it to everyone!
Written: Jun 01, 2008