Ahjechwut, My name is Siemthlut (Michelle Washington). I come from Sliammon First Nation but my grandparents also have Klahoose, Sechelt, Sto’lo and Maori ancestry. I am the Language Exhibition Manager for the upcoming exhibition Our Living Languages, First Nations Voices in BC. This is a multi-sensory installation where cultural, educational, interactive, welcoming experiences come together from the perspective of the people who live and breathe them. This three-year exhibition is a partnership project between the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) and the Royal BC Museum.
A critically important role in First Nations language that has been passed down through generations is the Speaker. The Speaker’s role in a community is a position of honour that you must earn and maintain over the course of a lifetime. In First Nations teachings, Speakers were mentored from an early age how best to communicate important messages to represent their family, their community and sometimes even the larger Nation in public forums. The ability to listen, understand and maintain integrity in delivering messages respectfully is key to being a voice for your people.
It is a great honour to be asked by families and communities to speak on their behalf. You are expected to know the ways of the old people that have been passed down. You have to be well respected, trustworthy and knowledgeable about the teachings, the people and the land you come from. A Speaker must be articulate and have the ability to project their voice to large rooms of people and for many different types of gatherings from celebratory to sad. Tone, demeanor, gestures and projection are all part of the things you are taught and are critical to the message.
Over the years, there has been a separation of Speaker roles from those who do spiritual speaking, to those who do business or advocacy speaking and those who do different types of ceremonial speaking and art forms like story-telling. First Nations have undergone so many social changes that Speakers in some communities vary from urban professionals to people who still live off the land in isolated areas. Modern etiquette requires a precarious balance of often opposing goals and philosophies that place new demands on speakers to navigate the difference between cultural, legal, ethical and political correctness.
Protocol is one word that has become overused and poorly translated to suit specific agendas. It is defined as a “ritual procedure in etiquette.” The literal meaning to our people is a social responsibility to each other to conduct business respectfully, honestly and openly for people to witness and remember. This is one example in which translations become weak and meaning is lost unless you have people who have lived the culture describe it and the context behind it.
Speakers must have humility and the understanding that being “corrected” (sometimes publically) is part of age-old teachings integral to the task. Speakers are part of our rich cultural teachings and the wealth of our Nations. They are an enduring expression of our identity, the philosophy of our people from long ago and our world view. We respectfully acknowledge their dedication, contribution and individual sacrifice to maintaining and preserving this custom which benefits us all.
Being a knowledge-carrier is a gift from the creator that is passed down through the ancestors.
These people are my professors, mentors, and leaders in the inter-generational resurgence of culture and language. It is thanks to the courage and perseverance of so many others of their generation that we are able to still live our cultural teachings. They worked tirelessly during times of great hardship to preserve ancient practices for future generations.
No matter which community we travelled to, I saw people volunteering their time and expertise with researchers from every discipline to document ways of life in anthropology, archaeology, history, linguistics, resource management, governance and education. Because of the efforts of so many, my generation is finally starting to see a time when traditional knowledge is acknowledged and accepted on par with academic credentials.
To Honour Our Elders
So many have left on their final journey
The fear grows stronger everyday
So much to learn, so much to do
Teachings and messages ever true
How do we make your teachings fit
In a world that disposes every bit
You never really leave our side
Your words and deeds are still a guide
Too many distractions and ways to fall
Things move too fast, but not at all
Listen to teachings, what did you learn
We need each other at every turn
You are inspiring and have faced greater tests
It is up to us now to take care of your gifts
To honour your memory, to honour our land
Hold onto the positives and take a stand
Our children are watching, they take it all in
They follow the deeds of their older kin
What will we leave, what will our legacy be
When the time comes for our final journey