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‘Welcome home, dear ancestor’: after nearly a century, a stolen totem pole returns to the Nisg̱a’a Nation

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Almost 100 years after it was stolen from Nisg̱a’a lands, the Wilps Ni’isjoohl memorial pole was welcomed home in late September. Children and youth laid a protective line of cedar boughs at a ceremony celebrating its homecoming. Photo by Marty Clemens

This story is a collaboration between IndigiNews and The Narwhal.

Under a protective blanket of low clouds, the Wilps Ni’isjoohl memorial pole returned to Nisg̱a’a territory almost a century after it was stolen in 1929. Imbued with the spirits of ancestors and carved with the crests of names that live on today, the pst’aan (pole) is more than an object — it is an ancestor. Its return to Nisg̱a’a lands was observed with comparable ceremony and protocol for bringing home a loved one who passed.

In Lax̱g̱alts’ap, a few kilometres from where it once stood in the village of Ank’idaa on the banks of K͟’alii Aksim Lisims (Nass River), the clouds drifted away and the ancestor breathed Nisg̱a’a air and felt the warmth of the late September sun. An eagle flew slowly across the valley and ravens watched from the surrounding forest as family from Wilps (House) Ni’isjoohl of the G͟anada (raven/frog) clan gathered to celebrate with other citizens of the Nisg̱a’a Nation and guests.

Four Nisg̱a’a villages sit along K’alii Aksim Lisims (Nass River). The Wilps Ni’isjoohl memorial pole was originally raised in Ank’idaa, a few kilometres from Laxg̱alts’ap. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

Nisg̱a’a Matriarch Joanna Moody was around 25 years old in 1860 when she commissioned the pole to honour her relative who died defending Nisg̱a’a lands. 

“She undertook her leadership at one of the worst times of genocide that we’ve experienced as Nisg̱a’a peoples,” Sigidimnak’ Nox̱s Ts’aawit (Amy Parent) said of her ancestral grandmother. “She also had to undertake her leadership during a time of great grief as she was called upon to erect this memorial pole to honour Ts’waawit, our family member.”

It took around a year for the carver, Oyay, and his assistant, Gwanes, to complete the pole, during which time Joanna Moody housed and fed both, a sign of her wealth and power — derived from the richness of the land and the river that annually brought saak (oolichan) and salmon up from the coast to villages along its banks. Carved from a giant red cedar that Oyay chose from its towering peers in what’s sometimes now called the Nass Valley, the pole depicts several figures, including a raven associated with the G͟anada clan. The hat of the pole is encircled with four rings, commemorating the number of feasts held by the former house chief.  

Finally home, the ancestor breathed Nisg̱a’a air and felt the warmth of the sun, as Nisg̱a’a Nation citizens and guests gathered to celebrate its return. Photos by Marty Clemens

An educator who works in Nisg̱a’a language and cultural revitalization, Nox̱s Ts’aawit is a descendant of Moody, who lived to 115. She said holding four feasts, particularly during that time period, signified the great wealth of the wilps (house.) At every feast, the chief and family give gifts to everyone seated in the feast hall, honouring their role as witnesses. This is true today. 

The pole’s creation was rooted in grief and kwhlix͟hoosa’anskw (respect). But respect was not what it received when it collided with colonization.  

In 1929, Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau took the pole from the Nisg̱a’a village of Ank’idaa and shipped it to the National Museum of Scotland.

Museum records indicate that Barbeau was commissioned by the institution to purchase the pole for $600. Though these colonial documents show a sale by a Matriarch from the House of Ni’isjoohl, that signature is believed to have been falsified since it contradicts the family’s oral history, according to the Nisg̱a’a. 

The family says the pole was stolen by Barbeau with the permission of the Government of Canada during the summertime, when people in the village were away for an annual fishing, hunting and food harvesting season.

“This pst’aan left Ank’idaa and it left under a terrible situation because it was removed without the consent of our community, without the consent of the family,” Apdii Laxha, Andrew Robinson, said. He helped bring the pole home in his role as the former chief administrative officer of the Nisg̱a’a Village of Lax͟galts’ap. “It encountered horrendous weather and … storms where some of the poles that were wrapped up with it were lost.” 

Trafficking totem poles during this era was often done without consent, something that is highlighted in field notes from Barbeau and others involved with taking totem poles — which colonial officials described as “specimens.”

The Laxg̱alts’ap Cultural Dancers commemorated the return of the ancestor with songs and dances. Photos by Marty Clemens

Barbeau had a special affinity for the Nass Valley and for Nisg̱a’a in particular, viewing the carvers from the nation as “on the whole the best in the country,” according to his writings. Though he recognized the significance of the Wilps Ni’isjoohl memorial pole to Nisg̱a’a, having spent time studying their protocols, that didn’t stop him from removing it. 

Barbeau’s entire career took place during the Potlatch Ban, a federal law first enacted in 1885 that made potlatching and raising totem poles illegal for 67 years. Barbeau was known for “preserving” the existing northwest coast totem poles during this time — then seen by colonizers as a dying artform — by taking them from Indigenous village sites and distributing them to museums. 

“Nearly all the Nass River poles by now have been purchased and removed by the author for various institutions in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and France,” he boasts in the first of his two-volume book Totem Poles, published in 1950.

“The art of totem-pole carving,” he once declared, “now wholly belongs to the past.”

Transporting the towering poles from the remote Nass Valley to museums was no simple task, and often involved cutting them in pieces where they could more easily be floated downriver and later be moved by ship and rail.

When it came to the Wilps Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, the Scottish museum received the pole “in one piece, except for the upper extremity, and certain projecting portions, which have been carved separately and fitted on,” according to a 1931 note from a curator.

It’s now believed by museum staff that the pole was coated with a protective paint so it could be floated down K’alii Aksim Lisims and transported to Edinburgh, where it arrived at the museum in 1930 and remained until its return this September.

Members of the four Nisg̱a’a pdeek (tribes/clans) — G̱anada (Raven/Frog), Laxgibuu (Wolf/Bear), Gisk’aast (Killer Whale/Owl) and Laxsgiik (Eagle/Beaver) — gathered to observe ceremony. Photos by Marty Clemens

The National Museum of Scotland stands in the centre of Edinburgh — a landmark among the many ornate buildings in the city. Nearby looms the historic Edinburgh Castle, housing royal jewels that were recently presented to King Charles III following his coronation.

Prior to returning the pole, the museum’s staff set about readying the space in order for a group from Nisga’a to gather and follow protocol to prepare the pole for its journey home.

Exhibited alongside the pole were various other Indigenous belongings; the museum has an extensive collection from North America, Australia, the Arctic and beyond. But on an August day shortly before the Nisg̱a’a group’s arrival, many of their cases were wrapped in plastic or boarded up for protection, in preparation for the totem pole’s imminent departure.

It was a bright summer day, and bagpipers played outside of the museum, their sound singing out as tourists crowded the streets for the popular annual Fringe Festival. But inside, it was quiet and calm as John Giblin — who oversees the museum’s department of global arts, cultures and design — looked up at the totem pole.

Adjacent to the main hall, the 11-metre pst’aan towered over the gallery as a stunning centrepiece. 

The totem pole in the National Museum of Scotland. Photo by Neil Hanna

Giblin, a courteous man in a well-fitted suit, explained it’s the first totem pole to ever be returned to a First Nation from a United Kingdom museum, calling it an “incredibly significant” moment for both Nisg̱a’a and the National Museum of Scotland.

This return could set a precedent for more returns of cultural items from the United Kingdom and Europe, where other totem poles and many more stolen Indigenous belongings ended up. 

A totem pole typically weighs one tonne, and Giblin explained that moving such a large and aged item in one piece is “quite a feat in terms of the logistics.”

“It’s been on display in the museum since 1930,” he said. “The museum’s kind of been built around it in many respects, in different ways. It’s not that easy to actually move the pole out through the museum.”

Giblin said that the museum contracted a company to build scaffolding around the pole and a cradle beneath, “so there is no weight or pressure going on the actual surface of the pole.” Then, it will be gently lowered horizontally and rolled on a trolley through the museum’s underground gallery and outside. The last leg of the journey is by air; the Canadian military organized its flight home.

Saying goodbye to the pole and bringing it to the next phase of its life in Nisg̱a’a homelands, Giblin said, feels right.

“It’s been beneficial for many, many generations of Scottish public and international visitors that have come to see it and learn, but its place now is back home in the Nass Valley,” he said.

“[With] many, many generations of the Nisg̱a’a community who have been separated from it for such a long time.”

When an earlier Nisg̱a’a delegation first asked for the pole’s return in the early 1990s, they were told it was too fragile to be moved. Yet, as Nox͟s Ts’aawit found out, it was later moved to accommodate renovations at the museum.

“That made me very angry,” she said.

“It’s our ancestor, our great-great grandmother,” Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stevens) said. “We had to get her back on her home soil.”

“It’s our ancestor, our great-great grandmother,” Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl said, explaining why it was so important for the pole to return to Nisg̱a’a soil. Photo by Marty Clemens

Nox͟s Ts’aawit said all Nisg̱a’a have been impacted by the Indian Act, as she stood with generations of Matriarchs beside her for strength. “It’s a process that we’re still working on healing through. That’s why today is so important.” Photo by Marty Clemens

In 2022, Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl, Nox̱s Ts’aawit and other Nisg̱a’a leaders went back to Scotland to tell the museum directors they wanted the pole returned. 

“We went in with much uncertainty, but with even more determination,” Nox̱s Ts’aawit said. “And I truly believe that we went in with one of the biggest strengths that we have as Nisg̱a’a people. We went in with our hearts and our minds working as one in unity together.”

The Scottish museum, Giblin said, has been putting a larger focus on reconciling the institution’s colonial legacies in recent years — which has included updating displays and labels to address historical biases and updating research behind the scenes. In some cases, those discussions result in returning items in the collection to their original owners.

When the museum eventually agreed to give the pole back to Nisg̱a’a in December 2022, they still had to figure out how to get it safely home.

Andrew Robinson was part of the 2022 delegation. While in Scotland, the group travelled to the University of St. Andrews where Noxs Ts’aawit gave a lecture. On their way back to Edinburgh, Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl said they needed to stop and pause for a moment on Nisg̱a’a lands. 

“We stopped at McDonald’s,” Robinson said, laughing. “We’re Nisg̱a’a, it’s part of our territory.”

While they were inside, the building started shaking. 

“We heard this big rumble and we were sitting there going, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ We’ve seen these big fighter jets taking off from St Andrews Air Force base and Earl looks at Amy and goes, ‘Wonder if those are Canadian? Maybe we could get the totem pole on that and they could just fly it home,’ ” he said.

“That’s exactly what happened.”

After supporters in Ottawa reached out to the federal government, the Canadian military agreed it would support the rematriation and worked with the Nisg̱a’a delegation to make arrangements.

Members of the Canadian military who helped facilitate the transport of the pole joined the crowd in celebrating the return of the ancestor. Photo by Marty Clemens

Less than a year later, the Nisg̱a’a delegation visited Edinburgh again, this time to bring the ancestor home. On August 28, a closed ceremony was carried out to put the pst’aan to sleep in preparation for its journey out of the institution and into the belly of a military plane.

To see the pole off, the Nisg̱a’a leaders gathered with officials from the museum and the Scottish government, and also requested that a group of Scottish children be present to share their culture — reminding them to hold the story for future generations.

“We felt it was important to emphasize to the Scottish people we were interacting with … our shared history of colonization,” Nox̱s Ts’aawit said. “We understand that we have some common experiences with the British and what it means to try to free ourselves from these colonial shackles.”

Scottish people have also historically experienced dispossession at the hands of the English — such as the infamous Stone of Scone, an ancient sandstone artifact that was stolen during the English invasion of Scotland in 1296. The British government returned the stone to Scotland in 1996.

Nox̱s Ts’aawit explained that although these shared histories created a path forward, it wasn’t an easy process, and included some misunderstandings and cultural clashes along the way. However, the two parties have managed to meet in the middle and set a new precedent.

In February, Giblin and the museum’s head of collections Chanté St Clair Inglis travelled to Nisg̱a’a territory to directly experience the culture. Nox̱s Ts’aawit humorously recalled Inglis driving a big Ford pickup truck “on the wrong side of the road” and Giblin participating in a totem pole raising ceremony “in the freezing cold” without proper snow gear.

The pole was returned to the village of Lax̱g̱alts’ap, a few kilometres from where it was originally raised in Ank’idaa. Photo by Marty Clemens

Around 260 years ago, a volcanic eruption from Wil Ksi-Baxhl Mihl created the Laxmihl (lava beds), destroying two Nisg̱a’a villages and killing more than 2,000 people. The vast lava beds serve as a memorial to those who lost their lives. Photo by Marty Clemens

Bringing Giblin and Inglis to Nisg̱a’a territory bridged a divide in a way that couldn’t be done without a connection to the land and the stewards of that land.

“They saw where we came from, they felt the relationships, they saw our culture and that we weren’t just a totem pole or something behind a piece of glass,” Nox͟s Ts’aawit said. “They saw hundreds of us, thousands of us dancing, and they saw all these different aspects of who we are. And then people started talking to them. And they understood how much it meant to us.” 

“There’s always going to be a clash, when we’re engaging with settler colonial institutions and their worldviews,” she added.

To challenge those worldviews and push back against colonial and patriarchal ideas, she said they consciously chose to use the word rematriation. It also just made more sense — Nisg̱a’a society is matrilineal.

After the pole arrived in the town of Terrace, it was driven in a family procession through a winding valley onto Nisg̱a’a lands and to the village of Lax̱g̱altsʼap. The pole was held in a protective box but opened to the air and sun during the public arrival ceremony on Sept. 29. The pole was raised inside the Nisg̱a’a Museum in early October and is available for the public to view until the end of the month.

At the ceremony, two kids jogged after their dad as he walked to get something from their truck.

“You’re a wolf — why are we frogs?” one of the kids asked.

“You follow your mother’s clan, that’s why,” their dad replied.

“The more that we learned about the story and about our ancestral grandmother and her strength and everything that she did in her time, it seemed ill-fitting to call it repatriation,” Nox̱s Ts’aawit explained. “Recognizing that we are a matrilineal society, it’s important for us to return to that and also to look at the complexity of what that means now in a modern era, after the residues of the Indian Act.”

She said reclaiming this identity is part of a healing process. 

“It requires all of us — our men, our women, our Two Spirit — working together to create balance by honouring each other’s roles and responsibilities and supporting our children.”

At a feast held by Wilps Ni’isjoohl following the ceremony, Sim’oogit Duuk’ also highlighted the importance of language. 

“Artifacts belong to extinct civilizations,” he said. “We are not extinct.”

Completed in the mid-1800s by Nisg̱a’a carver, Oyay, and his assistant, Gwanes, the pole depicts several figures, crests and names that live today. Photos by Marty Clemens

Eva Clayton, president of Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government who holds the name Noxs Wil Luu-g̱aamiks Hloks, called the moment historic. 

“It brings a lot of emotions to our nation, emotions that are filled with happiness, filled with grief, filled with tears,” she said. “We’re so very happy to have our ancestor home. We are on a journey together to show the world what reconciliation in action looks like.”

The pole was returned with an understanding that once it was back on Nisg̱a’a lands, the family would make decisions for its future.

Theresa Schrober, director of the Nisg̱a’a Museum, said this is an important distinction, explaining the museum has over 300 cultural belongings that have been returned by settler institutions — but those returns were conditional. 

“The nation was required to construct a … facility to house those belongings,” she said, standing under a pole that was returned from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria after the Nisg̱a’a Museum was built in 2011. “That is very much a reach into the future: ‘we’ll return but we’re not letting go.’ It’s shrouded in a colonial way of thinking about how those belongings need to be conserved, treated, the kind of space they need to be in.”

She said the only condition Scotland included in the final negotiations was the pole had to go to a “like institution.” 

“Should the family have made other choices, the museum would have facilitated those other choices,” she said. “That is really critical because I think it’s a learning moment for other institutions, about respecting that the people whose belongings they have should be making the decisions about those belongings’ care and futures, and that they should not be infiltrated with the belief systems of the people that were inappropriately housing them for all that time.”

The rematriation of the Wilps Ni’isjoohl pole from a European institution was preceded by the return of the Xenaksiala/Haisla Gʼpsgolox pole from Sweden in 2006. That, too, had conditions attached initially. 

The pole was to be returned only if the nation could house it in a climate-controlled building — something that didn’t exist, nor did the funding to build one. After the family of Gʼpsgolox offered to carve a replica pole for the Stockholm museum, the Swedish negotiators eventually conceded the original. After spending six years in Kitimaat Village, the pole was taken back to the Xenaksiala village of Misk’usa, where it was first raised and where it is slowly returning to the land.  

Nox̱s Ts’aawit said when news of the ancestor’s return was announced on the Wilps Ni’isjoohl Facebook page, house members began sharing emotional responses. “They started posting pictures of their family members who [had] passed away and talking about how their mom had been a Matriarch or their father had had a specific role in our house, and how they never had the chance to know that this was going to happen, they never got to see the pole. There’s a lot of grief, but also pride, in terms of thinking about our family members and how proud they would be to know that we’ve done this.” Photo by Marty Clemens

Finally home, the Wilps Ni’isjoohl memorial pole was draped with cedar boughs, welcomed and honoured by its kin. The family decided the pole would live at the Hli Goothl Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a (Heart of Nisg̱a’a House Crests, also known as the Nisg̱a’a Museum) where it will stand in soil gathered from Ank’idaa.  

Sim’oogit Luudisdoos walked slowly forward to stand next to the pst’aan as he shared a song and said a prayer.   

“We’re gathered here on such a special occasion to bring healing to our people,” he said, his clear voice wavering with emotion. “This is one of our ancestors that has been brought home and all our ancestors are here today.”

“Great spirits, grandmothers, grandfathers: so grateful for bringing us together in a good way with a good open heart and open mind. Guide us well.”

The day after the ceremony and feast celebrating the pole’s return, community members gathered on a street outside a house in Laxgalts’ap to honour a family member who had passed away. When someone dies, the house holds a settlement feast and, roughly one year later, the headstone that was created for them is taken to the graveyard and a stone moving feast is held.  

To accommodate the return of the ancestor, stone movings and feasts had been postponed. Now, with many of the same Simgigat (Chiefs) and Sigidimhaanaḵ’ (Matriarchs) who spoke at the ceremony standing in the cold outside the house, proper protocol was observed. One by one, each Sim’oogit walked up to the headstone and spoke softly in the Nisg̱a’a language as kids, aunties and uncles, cousins and friends listened.

Later, standing in a temporary tent set up to protect the pole before it’s raised in the museum, Nox̱s Ts’aawit spoke about the deep connections between the ancestor and the Nisg̱a’a today. 

“Many of the crests on here represent particular names in our house,” she said, gently resting her hand on the pole. “Those names are tied to pieces of land that are within what we call our ango’oskw, our house territory. In each generation, these names are passed down so the names never die, the people do and the people get replaced. We are living descendants of these names that are carved in this pole.”

For the Nisg̱a’a, she said, bringing the ancestor home is the first part of a long journey.

“In the spiritual realm, I don’t know what that’s going to mean,” Nox̱s Ts’aawit said. “I think it’s going to mean a gift in terms of our healing. I think there will be a transformation. But I don’t know what that’s going to feel like until we go through it.”

Until then, she’s relieved the pole made it safely home.

“Welcome home, dear ancestor. It’s been a journey.”

During the reporting of this story, The Narwhal’s Matt Simmons and photographer, Marty Clemens, made a mistake that resulted in a breach of protocol. Protocol specifies no one but family members of Wilps (House) Ni’isjoohl is allowed to touch the ancestor. While taking photos of the ancestor from above, the ladder Marty was standing on gave out and he fell, touching the pole. We are working with Nox̱s Ts’aawit and Wilps Ni’isjoohl to make things right. For transparency and teaching, we wrote about what happened and why it’s important for journalists to decolonize their work.

The post ‘Welcome home, dear ancestor’: after nearly a century, a stolen totem pole returns to the Nisg̱a’a Nation appeared first on IndigiNews.

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Through film, Kayah George explores the nuanced responsibility of being səlilwətaɬ

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Kayah George. Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

Waves crash upon a shoreline as a screen fades from black to the silhouette of a person walking across the protected Maplewood Mudflats within the unceded territory of the səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation.

The light of blue hour is in full effect, hovering above the Parkland Refinery in the distance as a voice begins to speak, “My name is Halth-Leah. I carry my grandmother’s name, and she carries it from her grandmother. That goes 13 generations back. I’m from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, which  translates to ‘People of the Inlet.’ We didn’t see this place the way the world does now.”

That silhouette and voice belong to Kayah George, a filmmaker and matriarch-in-training who is also from the Tulalip Nation in “Washington State.” It’s a scene from her poetic hybrid-documentary film, Our Grandmother the Inlet, co-directed with Jaime Leigh Gianopoulos, an emerging director, editor, and producer.

‘Asked to save a world that has taken everything

George has travelled globally for more than half of her life to speak on Indigenous and environmental issues. Recently, she has been moving away from the world of panels and protests toward filmmaking.

On a rainy day in November, George is sitting on the couch in the apartment that she recently moved into. The 25-year-old is in the process of “making the space mine,” she says — a longboard rests against the wall by the front door, a vinyl player with records in the left corner of the room, and her desk, nestled in front of the window, points toward the mountain range of səl̓ilw̓ət with a detailed (and full) calendar and positive post-it notes and affirmations hanging on the window beside it.

Coming from a long line of activists, George has been thrust into the spotlight since childhood, speaking out against resource extraction in her territory. Campaigning against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX), which will significantly increase oil tanker traffic through the inlet, is one example of George’s activism work. Chemicals leaking into the Burrard Inlet threaten the Tsleil-Waututh Nations’ lands. 

At 12-years-old, a very shy George had her first speaking engagement, a poetry reading where she and her dad, Rueben George, both spoke together. From there, these speaking engagements were nearly every few months, and reflecting back on that now, she feels like she was overburdened from a young age — with many environmental organizations jumping at the chance to feature the strong-spoken young activist. Now that she’s older, she’s taking back the reins on how and when she uses her voice.

“Environmental activism is going to be a part of my work no matter what,” George shares.

“I care about the Earth no matter what, whether it affects me or not. I care about it inherently.”

George believes that filmmaking has the power to inspire action and create change, even more so than activism. 

“The frontline can be a healing place to stand up for things, but it can also be a bit jarring. It can wear on you. I feel that a creative and cultural outlet is super necessary for keeping a good balance internally. That was the point of making a film, using all the words I was saying and repeating every time I went up and spoke somewhere. I just put it in a film so I don’t always have to be out there,” shares George.

“I found a lot of healing in making a film and expressing myself, having that outlet and showing things I couldn’t put into words — feelings or thinking. Some of the themes depicted in the film show how I felt inside, and having them out took that pain out of me.”

Narrowing her view on filmmaking is what drives George, which is evident with the recent release of Our Grandmother the Inlet.

The nine-minute film explores her and her grandmother Ta7a, daughter of the late Chief Dan George, as they reflect on their relationship with water, culture and land.

Following the opening, the film transitions to a short scene of George skateboarding down an East Vancouver street with an appearance from Joe Buffalo before their paths diverge, and George is left to reflect on what it has been like to grow up facing the demons of colonization and questioning why she was “asked to save a world that has taken everything from me, everything from my people.”

In one part of the film, George and her grandmother harvest softshell clams from səl̓ilw̓ət, the name of the Burrard Inlet in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, waters which were once abundant with whales, herring, salmon and shellfish consistently and sustainably harvested by the Tsleil-Waututh people before colonization.

Seven hundred contaminants were identified in səl̓ilw̓ət between 1971 and 2016, a Tsleil-Waututh report found.

Because of all the urbanization and industrialization, countless marine terminals and oil refineries punctuate the shoreline of the inlet, which can be seen in montage clips throughout the film.

As the film continues, George highlights the historical importance of the inlet alongside its current struggles and her wish to protect it as it has protected her and her ancestors.

Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

A dream from the ancestors

George, whose first name means “wolf” in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, recalls a moment when she was sitting at the dining table in her Auntie Char’s kitchen in the Tsleil-Waututh Nation when it all came together. She had taken a step back to focus on her emotional and spiritual selves and was plotting her next steps.

“I was like an arrow being pulled back, thinking, where do I point my bow?” she noted.

That’s when it hit her, and she heard a voice from her ancestor say, “Follow your dream.”

She allowed herself to let go of what she thought might be the most realistic path and instead asked herself what she wanted to do next, noting that it was always filmmaking that most captured her attention.

“I wanted to act, and I had another dream: I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree. So I decided to do those things,” she shared.

As a child, George said she would watch films on a projector set up by her father, Reuben, Sundance Chief and member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Reuben, who recently released his memoir and national bestseller, It Stops Here: Standing Up for Our Lands, Our Waters, and Our People, had also wanted to be a filmmaker when he grew up.

She has no regrets about changing course, considering she recalled being raised hearing stories about her great-grandfather, Chief Dan George, who has been referred to as “the most famous Indian in the world,” she shares while laughing.

She continues with a story her grandma told her about going to the Oscars with him. While there, Jack Nicholson approached her and asked, “Who might you be?”

“Amy George,” she answered.

“The chief’s daughter?” he questioned.

That story still sits with the younger George as a driving narrative of how her path would unfold.

Her stepfather, Myron Dewey, from the Walker River Paiute Tribe, was also a guiding force in her life. He was a filmmaker, journalist, professor at Duke and activist who helped bring attention to what was happening at Standing Rock.

She recalled when he said, “We need to put storytelling back into our people’s hands. People can’t keep telling our stories.”

Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

‘Be careful about what you pray for’

A self-described “shy” kid, George credits her “spunkiness” and ADHD as a big part of what drives her. “I feel like I have a lot of ideas,” she said.

“You expect yourself to work at the same capacity as people who don’t have ADHD, and you’re hard on yourself when you have to overcome something. That’s why we tend to overdo it,” she shared.

“I’ll schedule 20 things and be like, ‘Oh, I have a free hour, I can go to the gym, I can go grocery shopping. I can do it all.’ But it’s like, no, you can’t. The biggest message is to be kind to yourself. Today, that was something that was really sitting with me, so I wrote on a bunch of sticky notes and put them all over. I realized something needs to give because I can’t do it all.”

The reality behind the success of high achievers with ADHD is often unexpected. Though some find healthy coping mechanisms to manage some of their ADHD traits, many are often time-consuming and draining, working twice as hard as those without ADHD, which can lead to burnout and isolation. 

Before the pandemic, George was enrolled at Simon Fraser University to study her language when she realized she needed a break. She moved to San Pancho, Mexico, for two and a half months to learn Spanish — her other grandmother’s language —  work on her film and surf. 

She then began studying linguistics and psychology while working as an environmental research intern with Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping.

George is still keeping busy. Recently, she’s taken a semester off school to focus on travelling to film festivals and acting. In July, she will begin filming an educational short Docu-series on orca whales and matriarchy funded by National Geographic. Currently, she is working on her next script.

“Right now, I’m living out my dream and happy about that. I prayed for all these things. The only thing is they all came true at the same time, which is hard. So be careful what you pray for,” she says. 

I tell her this reminds me of something Dane-zaa, nêhiyaw, and mixed European author and activist Helen Knott said at her book launch in October. 

“Be careful about what you pray for. If you’re praying for strength, you’re going to be given hard times to build up that strength, so I’m mindful of how I pray,” Knott shared. 

George laughs and pulls her copy of Knott’s memoir, Becoming a Matriarch, out of the box beside her, sharing how much she wants to read it. 

“I’m being all the things I wanted to be as a kid. It’s so healing to be able to express myself like this.” 

Kayah and Ta7a George. Still from “Our Grandmother the Inlet.”

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Police discrimination probe builds on Indigenous families’ calls for justice

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People hold up signs during a rally calling for justice for Jared Lowndes in 2022. Photo by Philip McLachlan

“British Columbia’s” human rights commissioner has launched an inquiry into police discrimination when it comes to use of force.

The province-wide investigation was announced in late January in response to public concerns about disproportionate violence from officers against racialized people and people with mental health issues. 

While systemic racism in policing is a known issue, there is still a lack of comprehensive data about these impacts which is what Kasari Govender’s office hopes to uncover. 

“This inquiry aims to better understand who is at the receiving end of use of force by police, whether any disproportionate impact revealed amounts to systemic discrimination and what can be done to address any equity issues that emerge,’” Govender said in a news release.

Govender said she hopes this investigation will enable communities to have greater involvement in the province’s approach to policing and ownership over their information.

Investigation will ‘narrow scope’ of past work

According to Govender, the inquiry builds on previous work done by her office. In particular, a 2021 report which found racial disparities in the province’s policing system. 

The “Equity is Safer: Human Rights Considerations for Policing in British Columbia” report analyzed data from the “Vancouver” and “Nelson” police departments and the “Surrey,” “Duncan” and “Prince George” RCMP.

It found that Indigenous people are overrepresented in arrests, chargeable incidents and mental health-related incidents. Indigenous women are also overrepresented in arrests compared to white women or women from all other racial backgrounds.

The data also found a great deal of police activity involves people experiencing mental health issues, with Indigenous, Black, Arab and West Asian people significantly overrepresented in these types of police interactions in many jurisdictions. 

While the 2021 report focused on five police jurisdictions in “B.C.,” the inquiry will use data on police interactions across the province. Policing bodies are legally obligated to provide this data to the government, according to Govender, which she said will also help her office “produce some results and move towards recommendations.” 

The 29 recommendations made in the 2021 report include asking the provincial government to provide funding to enable Indigenous peoples to be partners in Police Act reform, that the “B.C.” government should make significant investments in civilian-led mental health and substance use services, and establish a robust and well-funded Indigenous civilian police oversight body. 

Govender said these recommendations would be revisited, and new recommendations would be made through collecting, storing and using data per the Grandmother’s Perspective, which centres on relationships with affected communities grounded in the concept of data sovereignty.

“The recommendations in that last report were aimed at the legislative committee tasked with looking into reforming the Police Act … so they were quite far ranging — we made recommendations about school liaison officers, about de-tasking the police, how to overcome bias and stereotyping [in police checks],” Govender said. 

“This inquiry is going to be much more narrow in scope in the sense that we’re only looking at the use of force data rather than a broader range of information, and we’ll be making recommendations about how to address any disproportionate impacts we see there.”

Inquiry follows calls for justice

The inquiry into the police use of force by Govender’s office follows concerns raised by Indigenous families who are living with violence perpetrated by police forces across the country, along with efforts by policing bodies to improve accountability for their actions. 

An example of this is Chantel Moore’s family and friends, who have participated in an inquiry into her death at the hands of a “New Brunswick” police officer and travelled across the country to share their community’s experience with the police. 

Moore, a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, was fatally shot by Const. Jeremy Son, who had been dispatched to check on her wellbeing in June 2020. 

Since then, Moore’s mother Martha Martin has been seeking police reform through greater accountability and transparency in investigations against police behaviour. 

Martin said the inquest into her daughter’s killing relied heavily on testimonies and evidence presented by the Edmundston Police Force. She noted that investigative bodies lack Indigenous representation.

“The second something happens, the police set the narrative,” Martin said. 

“I found the inquiry was such a one-sided story because it was the police officers and the paramedics — the [inquest] didn’t bring any other person to come and say what they had seen.” 

For Martin, the lack of Indigenous representation in the investigation process leads to limited transparency by the police and a lack of accountability for officer behaviour. 

“It’s an ongoing problem that goes across the country where Indigenous people and the BIPOC community have been feeling like they’ve been a target,” Martin said. 

“The transparency part is always one-sided because it’s an officer’s word against [ours].” 

The road to data sovereignty

Meanwhile, on Jan. 9, the RCMP announced the launch of its own initiative to respond to concerns about racism and discrimination by its frontline officers.

Created following two years of consultations, the Race-Based Data Collection Initiative will involve researching race-base data in order to understand the extent of systemic racism within the force.

The data will be based on “officer perception,” wherein the officers will observe and determine the identity of the people they interact with,” according to Mai Phan, the RCMP’s acting director of its anti-racism unit. 

“Officer perception is an important metric to identify whether perceived race and perceived Indigenous identity influence outcomes for different groups of people,” Phan said during a virtual media briefing in January.

“We will be using that data to analyze our impacts and outcomes for community groups in the pilot locations.”

The initiative will begin in three communities — “Whitehorse” in the “Yukon,” “Fort McMurray” in “Alberta,” and “Thompson” in “Manitoba.” Two additional pilot sites — one in “British Columbia” and one in “Nova Scotia” — are set to follow later this year.

Phan said piloting the initiative will allow the RCMP to test processes and make improvements and adjustments before an anticipated future national rollout.

Hard data is critical for understanding interactions between police forces and Indigenous and racialized people, according to Govender. Yet she said it is not always accessible, as is the case in B.C., which has no public body tasked with providing comprehensive, publicly accessible data on the police’s interactions with racialized people.

Govender said she hopes to fill this gap by analyzing data currently available to the provincial government. For the inquiry, her office has submitted an information request to the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which receives annual reports on the use of force from police departments across the province. 

Her office will review this data to determine whether it shows any disproportionate impacts on racialized persons or persons with mental health issues.  

She will also meet with community organizations during the inquiry to ensure they have a say in deciding how the data about their lives will be used to create positive change.

This goes hand-in-hand with the Grandmother Perspective, released in 2020, which “answers and echoes the calls to collect disaggregated data to advance human rights.” 

The Grandmother Perspective asks that instead of monitoring citizens, we collect and use disaggregated data to emphasize care for communities through “informing law, policy and an institutional practice that is in service of — and developed in collaboration with — those who are systemically discriminated against,” writes Govender in the report. 

“We cannot act on what we do not know. This is a call for knowledge. We cannot make change without first building the foundations of a respectful relationship. This is a call to work alongside community in meaningful partnership. This is the time for commitments to address systemic racism and oppression across British Columbia and to move from words to real change.” 

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At the All Native Basketball Tournament, the AMR team faces ups and downs

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Players from the All My Relations Basketball team enter the locker room after warming up for their first plays in a high-stakes game against Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh) as the basketball court is reflected behind them. Photo by Paige Taylor White

This is the second story in a three-part series about the All My Relations basketball team and their journey to the All Native tournament in “Prince Rupert.” You can read the first story here.

In between the third and fourth quarters of their second game in the All Native Basketball Tournament, the All My Relations (AMR) team was doing sit ups. 

Communication has long been a focus, and coach Adelia Paul wasn’t happy about how many screens the team didn’t call during the match against the Gitxaała Lady Warriors of Kitkatla. She called for 10 sits ups per player. 

AMR won the game on Monday with 69 baskets to their opponents’ 22 points. They also won their first game against the Old Massett Raiders by a comfortable margin a day earlier. 

The sit ups weren’t about winning, it was about execution and doing the dirty work. It was about holding one another accountable — skills that would each become more crucial as the tournament in “Prince Rupert” progressed through the week.

Though the East Van club team started the tournament on a high with the two wins under their belt, the journey to their latest game this weekend would prove to test them in almost every aspect. 

The AMR team does sit ups in between the third and fourth quarters during their second game of the tournament against Kitkatla. Photo by Paige Taylor White

The AMR team huddles at their bench during their game against Kitkatla. Photo by Paige Taylor White

“Alright you have 10 seconds to say what some of our wins were from today’s game,” Paul said after the team’s win against Kitkatla.

Players shouted out replies: drawing fouls, intensity, pressure, confidence, encouraging each other, hustle and determination. 

After this quick celebration of what the team did well, the conversation changed focus to where the team could improve. 

The team had an off day on Tuesday spent resting and scouting games. On Wednesday, the match up was against the Hesquiaht Descendants, which would prove to test and challenge the team. 

AMR player Tamia Edgar from Hesquiaht and Ditidaht Nations warms up in the locker room. Photo by Paige Taylor White

AMR players and cousins Shauntelle Dick-Charleson and Tamia Edgar are both from the Hesquiaht Nation. Edgar is from the Hesquiaht and Ditidaht Nations, and Dick-Charlesson is from the Hesquiaht and Songhees Nations. 

They have relations to almost every player on the opposing team — made up of their aunties, nieces and cousins. In the end, AMR lost.

“It came down to grit, that’s what it was,” said Dick-Charleson in an emotional discussion after the game. 

“They wanted it more, they were hungry for that ball. I say it every practice, hunger. We need that hunger. I don’t know what switched.” 

AMR player Shauntelle Dick-Charleson from Hesquiaht and Songhees Nations is one of the players on the team to compete against family members from her nation’s team. Photo by Paige Taylor White

A final score of 55-50 meant the only way to continue in the tournament was taking what’s referred to as the “backdoor route” and entering the losing bracket. 

“We didn’t do all that training for nothing,” Dick-Charleson said. 

“We put in the work. We put in that work and we lost … I just wish that we came out and showed up to that game”. 

Once you lose a game at All Native, it means playing more games and a much longer road to the finals. If the team had won against Hesquiaht, they would have only needed one more win to qualify — now, they needed four.

But it’s been done in the past. In 2022, AMR won the tournament, in what is so far their first and only time, by going the backdoor route.

Later on Wednesday, the team met at the gym to watch the game between the Gitxsan Mystics (Hazelton) and Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). AMR would play the winner of this game the following morning, in the team’s first must-win game of the tournament. 

After a three-pointer with four seconds left in the game, the Gitmidiik Thunder made a comeback to send the game to overtime and win.

At AMR’s pre-game meeting, the team discussed accountability for one another, adjustments that needed to be made, and deciding the best way to get everyone to come together for the team’s common goal. 

“I don’t feel mad, upset, jealous, I could’ve done this, I couldn’t have done that. I don’t feel any of that, I feel proud of my teammates,” said Marnie Scow when it was her turn to speak in the circle.

“We really have to leave our egos at the door. It’s not about us individually.”

AMR player Marnie Scow fixes her hair in the locker room mirror before hitting the court. Photo by Paige Taylor White

At the next morning’s game, the AMR team brought a different energy. Somewhere between calm and confident, light yet focused — the team found ways to be more connected before the game.

Playing against Gitmidiik was a back and forth effort all game long for AMR. Up by a point at half time, and then down 43-40 going into the fourth quarter, it was an all or nothing scenario.

The All My Relations Basketball warms up for their first game against Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). After losing the day before to the Hesquiaht Descendants, the AMR team has to go the “backdoor route” to the finals playing additional games to try and earn their spot in the finals. Photo by Paige Taylor White

Shenise Sigsworth works her way to the hoop while AMR takes on the Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). Photo by Paige Taylor White

AMR player Laura Lewis draws a foul while AMR takes on the Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). Photo by Paige Taylor White

In the last quarter, Laura Lewis was on the court when Gitmidiik took possession of the ball and moved it down to AMR’s net. 

Playing defence, Lewis and others lept for the ball at the same time as several other players. With Lewis putting all her energy and focus into protecting the net, the collision brought her to the ground. In a fall that looked at first looked like it was okay — Lewis didn’t return to her feet and was still on the ground. 

Looks from the AMR bench and the crowd showed the heartbreak of the situation. Without needing to look at Lewis herself, she could be heard across the court in audible distress during the already emotionally charged game. She was escorted off the court, leaving her teammates without the player’s leadership but with new motivation to win on Lewis’s behalf.

AMR player Laura Lewis gets help from family member and teammate Brenna Doolan after spraining her knee against the Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh). The team depends on Lewis as a leader and vocal player on and off the court. Photo by Paige Taylor White

With only a few minutes left in the final quarter of a close game, AMR’s youngest player Amber Wells was able to steal the ball and score to put her team back in front on the scoreboard.

As the clock wound down, AMR held on to the win with a nail-biting final score of 61-60. 

Amber Wells shares and emotional win with teammates after beating Gitmidiik Thunder (New Aiyansh) in a back and forth game. Photo by Paige Taylor White

When the teams untangle themselves, a woman with purple hair breaks into centre court saying continuously “I am so proud of you.” Aggie Wells is the grandmother of AMR player Amber Wells — and congratulates her with a hug. Photo by Paige Taylor White

The win against Gitmidiik took AMR to another game on Thursday at 8 p.m., this time against Haisla Nation.

As the team warmed up in the locker room that evening, someone yelled out as Drake’s infamous song “Started From the Bottom” began to play. AMR lost to Haisla last year in a game that knocked them out of the tournament.

The All My Relations Basketball team warms up in the locker room ahead of their game against Haisla Nation. Photo by Paige Taylor White

Coach Paul, who is from Haisla Nation, learned from the coaches on that team. She addressed the AMR team ahead of the game by saying “at this point it comes down to who wants it,” while adding it will take everyone on the team for them to win.

As AMR hit the court, it became clear who most of the crowd was rooting for — with Haisla Nation being a beloved hometown team close to the host town of “Prince Rupert.”

With AMR’s black jerseys emphasizing their villain status, the sounds of whistles, boos, and comments like “clean your glasses ref” echoed through the gym. Up 23-20 at the half, AMR continued the forward momentum and pressure. Despite the cheers for the Haisla team, AMR harnessed the power of being disliked to keep a steady and calm handle on the local team.

Coach Adelia Paul and player Brenna Doolan huddle with the rest of the AMR team wihile taking a minute to strategize during their game against Haisla Nation where coach Paul is from. Photo by Paige Taylor White

The AMR team runs to coach Adelia Paul after they win against her her home nation’s team, Haisla, which knocked AMR out of the tournament last year. Photo by Paige Taylor White

In a final score of 51-43, the AMR team beat Haisla for their second win while taking the “backdoor route” and earning a chance to play for at least one more game against the Laxgalts’ap Aces (Greenville), which is set to take place Friday morning.

The tournament is set to conclude on Sunday, Feb. 18.

AMR player Joleen Mitton walks off the court after the team’s win against Haisla Nation. This win allows the team to play the next morning against Laxgalts’ap Aces and continue their run in the “backdoor route” of the tournament. Photo by Paige Taylor White

Reporting for this story was made possible in part through funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC, a philanthropic organization working to advance sustainable, equitable, and socially just land use across the province.

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