Listening to their songs

By Amy Reiswig, October 2013

Katherine Palmer Gordon’s latest book celebrates the stories, strength, and diversity of BC’s First Nations people.

One way to combat prejudice is to get personal. And one way to get personal—to find out what someone thinks and feels, what they’ve been through, what they hope and work for—is to simply ask them. That’s exactly what author Katherine Palmer Gordon does in her latest book We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia (Harbour, September 2013), and it’s a testament to the power of simple conversation.

As a lawyer and journalist with many years’ experience—both in her former home of New Zealand and here in BC—working on and writing about indigenous rights, Palmer Gordon has done a lot of listening. That’s something too few make time to do. Not only can it have disastrous consequences like bad policy built on uninformed assumptions, it means missing out on appreciating our society’s diversity.

This collection of 16 detailed interviews, plus seven shorter “Thoughts from” pieces, ensures we don’t miss some amazing First Nations individuals from across BC. We meet funny, inspiring, resilient, passionate people working in environmental assessment, biology, the arts, medicine, mentorship, social work, tourism, law, education, economics and administration. They are men and women, gay and straight, married and single, parents and childless, living in urban and rural areas, who grew up on and off reserve. 

Some are well known, like carver John Marston, former Tsawwassen chief Kim Baird, or 12-year Vancouver Canucks veteran Gino Odjick—“The Algonquin Assassin.” But standing just as strong and accomplished beside them are those with equally noteworthy stories. Like Lyana Patrick, a filmmaker, Fulbright and Vanier Scholar now completing her PhD in community and regional planning; Merle Alexander, an Aboriginal resource lawyer who’s been an indigenous legal advocate for the UN; Anne Tenning, district principal of Aboriginal Education in Penticton and winner of a Governor General’s Award for her teaching. On it goes. One of my favourite surprises is that Evan Tlesla Adams, better known as Thomas Builds-the-Fire from the film Smoke Signals, is now a doctor with a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins. Why not?

“Why not?” implicitly underlies the collection, for there is no reason “why not,” and we are confronted with another implicit question: Why be surprised? 

“This book should be redundant,” Palmer Gordon tells me over coffee at Mad Rona’s café on Gabriola Island, where she lives. Contrary to damaging myths many of us have grown up with, she explains, these are representative, not exceptional, First Nations people. She writes that if she “included the full story of every smart, articulate, self-confident, inspirational, ordinary yet wonderful young First Nations individual in British Columbia, let alone Canada, it would be many thousands of pages long—and that would just be Volume 1.”  

While she admits it’s a bit arbitrary, Palmer Gordon chose people in their 20s, 30s and 40s because she wanted to highlight the newer generation, those most relevant to youth looking for role models. And while she sometimes lost her focus over the five years working on the manuscript—“Was it about language? Identity? Just telling the stories?”—she says the book is about First Nations people being strong and well because they have embraced their culture in whatever way seemed right to them. Puglaas (Jody Wilson-Raybould), BC Regional Chief, Assembly of First Nations, reflects Palmer Gordon’s message perfectly: “When we are culturally strong in our own world, Aboriginal people are strong living in any world.”

As we know, though, that’s not always easy. Palmer Gordon emphasizes that these ordinary people come from extraordinary circumstances—a background of forced separation from their culture (sometimes from their own families), discrimination, and generations of being made to feel lesser-than. As interviewee Clarence Louie, Chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band, says: “They ask us dumb questions…like, why don’t you get an education? Why don’t you get a job? If you really want to know, it’s about what happens when one society tries to destroy another.” And so what also emerges is the story of people engaged in their own conversations: with those who don’t understand them, with their own changing culture, and with themselves. It’s a struggle for self-definition, to find the unique songs inside them in the face of barriers and challenges not of their own making. 

Many in the book speak openly about the racism and trauma that they have endured individually and as nations over the years, describing how that’s affected their emotions, opportunities and choices. For example, William Yoachim, band councillor for the Snuneymuxw First Nation and executive director of Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services, explains the impact of his mother’s suicide: “The day she died was also the day that I was forced to start thinking about who I am. It was the day I really became involved in the concept of working for my people.” And he simply and poignantly asserts: “Misinformed attitudes really matter. They really hurt us.” One might comfortably make judgments or assumptions from afar, but not when someone looks you in the eye (or from the page) and tells you how it makes them feel. 

Palmer Gordon is the award-winning author of five other non-fiction books, including BC bestsellers such as The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley; The Garden That You Are; and Made to Measure: A History of Land Surveying in British Columbia, which won the 2007 Roderick Haig-Brown Prize. And her success is no surprise, since this new work demonstrates a fierce intelligence married to an equally strong but humble heart, full of compassion, commitment, humour and humanity. She skillfully uses her own voice to lift up the voices of others, never dominating, and avoiding over-political messaging. The fact that people entrusted her with their intimate, personal stories speaks to the kind of listener she is—another role model to which readers should pay attention.

And she is a writer also in conversation with herself, recently undergoing a personal experience that reinforced her understanding of cultural connection. Of half-English half-French ancestry, in 2007 Palmer Gordon finally took a trip to France to seek out relatives on her mother’s side. “I had no real sense of my French identity then,” she tells me, but she’s been back every year since. “I felt whole for the first time! I’m full of clichés about it,” she laughs, “but I couldn’t believe how great it felt. It gave me great insight and understanding into who I am as a person.” In my own case, as a culturally-deracinated Canadian whose German-Polish-Swedish ancestry is pretty much lost across the waters of generations-old immigration, it made me realize that in making do without that sense of cultural connection, perhaps that’s another area where many of us are missing out.

With a foreword by Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (which, Palmer Gordon hopes, might make even Ottawa take notice), this is a book that is part social critique, part education, part pure humanist celebration. And it’s certainly a conversation starter—between communities and within individuals no matter what your background. For ultimately, it’s about human rights and the importance of creating a society that understands, as Lyana Patrick says, “what it means for Aboriginal people—for all of us—to be healthy and whole.”

A book launch and author reading of We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us will be held at The Alcheringa Gallery, 665 Fort St on Friday, October 18 (doors at 6pm, presentation 7pm).

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig’s favourite moment in the book was Troy Sebastian explaining his heritage: “Part of my background comes from a community that likes to eat strange foods, has a history of living off the land, going into combat with war paint on their faces and fighting the English. But you know, the Scottish have their good points too.”