Xwelíqwiya – The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch

XweliqwiyaIn a recent conversation, Gillian Calder commented on how helpful she has found the IFLS blog (thanks Sonia Lawrence at Osgoode!), and particularly those posts titled “What we are doing/reading/thinking”.   These posts point/link to interesting texts (without worrying about doing the full out suggestion of how those texts might be used).  The posts do serve to get the creative juices running.  Gillian suggested that folks might consider doing something similar with #ReconciliationSyllabus.

In that spirit, I thought I would share some thoughts on a wonderful new book on my bookshelf: Xwelíqwiya – The Life of a Stó:lō Matriarch.  While I haven’t fully sorted out full teaching materials using the book, I am convinced that it is a powerful resource for those thinking about TRC work in the law school.

The book is about the life of Rena Point Bolton.  Rena Point Bolton is, amongst other things, the mother of Steven Point, British Columbia’s first Indigneous Lieutenant Governor.  Rena is a force of nature herself.

The word “Xwelíqwiya”  in the title is her name in Halq’eméylem , the language of the Stó:lō people.

As the books explains, Stó:lō is the Halq’eméylem word for “river”, and the Stó:lō are the river people. In this case, the lower Fraser River.  In the summer, making the trip from Victoria to the Shuswap, the drive through Abbotsford, Harrison Hot Springs and Chiliwack is in fact a drive through Stó:lō territory (or, Stó:lō tém:éxw).

4159W9VRBHL._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_
Another great resource!

As is all too often the case, the first challenge for me was the limits of my own limited language fluency.  That is, the title.  I was just not sure how to pronounce Rena Point Bolton’s name in Halq’eméylem!  Richard Daly, the other co-author, gives a good approximation of how to do it, while acknowledging the challenges for English speakers, since nearly half of the sounds in the Halq’eméylem language don’t exist in English.  But the book invites the reader to nonetheless plunge in and try.

As an aside, Halq’eméylem has 8 different sounds for what in English is the letter “K”! (click here for a link to an interesting article on the expressive qualities of the language, and here for a link to the First Voices, website, where you can listen to and learn words in the language).  I found myself heading to my bookshelf to flip through my copy (well… the copy I lifted from my mom’s bookshelf?) of the award-winning Stó:lō-Coast Salish Historical Atlas.   It’s another great related resource to check out (click here for a link to a “good reads” review of the book).

But, back to Xwelíqwiya.  I have been practicing saying her name outloud, trying to put the sound of her language into my mouth.   I am still processing the book, but have found myself bringing it up in conversation on a daily basis since completing it.   There is so much in there that is interesting.  For today, here are a few comments.

Firstly, I have been increasingly looking for biographies and life histories of women.   There are some out there, but not nearly enough.  And there are CERTAINLY not enough books out there that engage with the lives of Indigenous women.  This book does that, situating Rena’s life in the flow of both Stó:lō history, and colonial history.  It does so in a way that engages with questions of land, language, lineage, class, marriage, child-raising, economy, culture, politics, and change.  Law is never far from the surface.

What was so remarkable was the way that the book was able to follow this one woman’s life over a period of 90 years in a way that personalized questions of history and politics.  Her story is told in a way that let me both have a sense of proximity to her “voice”, and simultaneoulsy contained the kind of “distance” necessary for a measured appreciation of the depth of her actions, her contributions, and her own learnings.

Second point?  This book left me reflecting on the power of its  two-voiced authorship.  This book was written collaboratively with social anthropologist Richard Daly.  At the beginning of the book, there is a discussion of the practice of joint-authorship used here.  They situate this decision against the background of Salish practices of legal governance: in the context of potlatchs and other important governance work, families will hire a Speaker — that is, someone who will speak publically on behalf of the family (rather than having the family themselves do the speaking).  They make visible that Richard Daly’s role in the project was theorized in this way — his role was very much like that of a Speaker.  There is much to be talked about in terms of the way the authorship of this book is thus an example of Salish practices of legal governance, enacted in a contemporary context, with a non-Stó:lō writer being asked to play a part in what is very much the operationalization of a Stó:lō way of living.

This book is largely written with future Stó:lō readers in mind (Rena says this explicitly), but it is also written in a way that invites the non-Stó:lō reader to join, to listen, and to begin to feel the different rhythms of Stó:lō  life, and to appreciate the power of culture, and of women’s place (historically and in contemporary society) in maintaining, promoting and developing social and legal life.  There is a section at the beginning that talks about the different conventions of reading for Stó:lō and settler readers, and what each can know about the other in order to have a productive conversation.  That was really helpful!

The book itself contains so much nuance and complexity about questions of identity, and of pragmatics, and of strategy.  It helped me get a better appreciation of the many ways that we are all actors in history, and of the many pathways that women have walked, and how sometimes those paths circle back to beginnings.  It also explicitly took up questions of silence — of how Indigenous people (and Indigenous women in particular) have experienced both silence and silencing, and of the politics of silence at different moments in time.  It asks us to understand the different meanings of silence, and to ask when the time might come to change some of our strategies.  Really powerful.

Lots to be said about this book, which I think is another of those must-have books.  It is certainly a true gift to those who are seeking to take up the challenge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for all Canadians to increase their cultural knowledge. Indeed, six of the Calls to Action place this goal at the centre of calls to “professionals”.  We see acknowledgement of the need for cultural competency in the six calls aimed at:

CallsToActionPDF

  • 23 – Health Care Professionals
  • 24 – Medical and Nursing Schools
  • 27 – Law Societies
  • 28 – Law Schools
  • 57 – Public Servants
  • 92 – The Corporate Sector

I came away from the book having had a taste of what it is to live within a Stó:lō life-world, and the beginnings of an appreciation for the rich history that is written on the land that I live on.  I also have an appreciation for the gift of story, and for this book’s invitation to understand the power and possibility of beginning to live in right-relation.  I love this book, and will be returning to it!  Take a look, and see what you think.   Or, maybe write us a post about something you are looking at these days?   Sharing what we are reading is one way to help us think about the project of decolonizing, and of diversifying the reading lists (particularly the required reading) in our courses.

 

 

 

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Author: Rebecca Johnson

I teach Law at the University of Victoria.

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