Poetic justice

By Briony Penn, June 2015

A sense of humour and humility are essential as settlers wade into the rich intertidal zone of decolonization.

The gathering of #1 seaweed, LEKES in the Coast Salish SENCOTEN language, is best done on a warm day in May when the tide is low and your heart is open to the possibility of wading into the intertidal zone of decolonization. It is a vital zone—messy and rich where land meets ocean, fresh water meets salt, settler meets indigenous, Western laws meet aboriginal title, and inundation follows dehydration every six hours. It is a zone in which you ask permission to enter, but are welcomed if you do. 

Seaweed and decolonization have become entwined in my mind like the bull kelp KO,EN on the beach in November. The anchors of the kelp that kept the plants rooted in their quiet ocean forests have been severed by pounding winter storms and the long stipes of the kelp lie tangled on the high tide. The ribbon-like blades of the plant break down in the waves but spores ride on each tiny piece disseminating around the shores. 

Bill Mussel, a Stó:l? teacher, the first of his community to get a university degree, defines “decolonization” as a process where a colonized people reclaim their traditional culture, redefine themselves as a people and reassert their distinct identity. As the Chair of the Native Mental Health Association, he knows that the restoration of family ties and cultural practices is essential for restoring mental and physical health. 

Bill also calls for a parallel process of consciousness raising from Canadian settler society. So that is the job of HWINETUM or “the hungry people”—settlers like me who anxiously peer in from the edge, hungry, as usual. 

But this time we are hungry to help. Sometime a little too hungry with a basket of good intentions and guilt; a little confused about protocols, traditions, territories and fumbling on the names.

First tip: Learn your local seaweeds.

Take a deep breath…wade on in, but with permission. A sense of humour and humility are essential. But you can’t go too wrong if your heart and scholarship are in the right place. 

Joe Akerman, a Saltspring islander with both Cowichan and settler roots, says our job is as allies—to listen, research, understand, act in solidarity, and repeat. 

Gwen Underwood, of Tsawout, says colonization took centuries to undo her culture; decolonization will take probably as long to mend. So give it time. 

Rhiannon Bennett of the Musqueam, Delta’s first aboriginal school trustee, calls it a messy process. 

Belinda Claxton, also of Tsawout, calls the process CENENITEL (pronounced kwananital), which translates as helping one another heal. There is no equivalent word in English; that’s part of the problem. 

Belinda’s family have allowed my family to live in her territory for over 100 years without permission. Our great grannies both knitted on the same beaches, fished in the same bays, dug clams from the same beds. Both our great great grandfathers were chiefs of the same territory. One was legal, one wasn’t. But it was my lawmaker ancestor who broke his own law. 

My ancestor’s graves were guarded and protected, while Belinda’s ancestors had and still have no protection. My ancestors wrote laws that enabled a century and a half of travesties, yet there is still a spirit of forgiveness and generosity to help heal. 

Belinda and Gwen invited me to work with them to restore TIXEN, the spit at the Tsawout First Nation reserve, where the public are also welcomed to the delicate sand ecosystem containing many of the region’s endangered species. This includes food and medicine plants of the WSANEC people. The biggest task to protect them is to pull out invasive species, like Scots broom, that shade them out. 

When it comes to invasive species, I never miss an opportunity to explore a good metaphor. Many of my ancestors were Scots and planted broom all over the place to remind them of Scotland. I’ve spent hours helping pull it out. What that proves is that there is poetic justice.  

Second tip: Learn your native plants. 

From the WSANEC worldview, I understand no plant is inherently bad, all life has value, but we need to create some space for diversity and distinct identity.  

From a Western scientific perspective these principles bear up. In a world of shifting climactic patterns where native species hold the genetic resilience for adaptation, but weedy species might be the only plants able to shift and adapt fast enough to provide some shelter to those that move more slowly, there is wisdom in these principles.  

The Tsawout have created other opportunities for the public with their annual seafood festival. It brings people together to share traditional foods and listen to elders recount detailed stories of the places, medicine and food plants and their uses. This is not a one-way process of mental and physical health. 


Meanwhile, on Xwaaqwu’um at Saltspring Island, there is another experiment in decolonization going on at Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park. Xwaaqwu’um in the Coast Salish Hul’qumi’num language means female merganser duck. 

Third tip: Learn your ducks. 

All winter you’ll see red-breasted mergansers overwintering there, often bands of females, before departing around April to their breeding grounds. They are the ducks with razor sharp hooked bills and crazy punk rocker hairdos. Their fancier cousins, the hooded mergansers have even more impressive “hoods” that pop out like fans during their courtship. The common mergansers stay all year round close to the creeks.

Every second Sunday of the month since March, one of the Cowichan elders has come to teach any interested allies about the land. Joe Akerman is heading up the initiative. The group gathers at the base of Mount Maxwell or Hwmet’utsum, which means “Bent Over Place” in Hul’qumi’num. Hwmet’utsum is where the Creator Being XALS asked the mountain to bend over so he could get a good shot at the monster over at Sansum Narrows who makes the water boil. 

Each session starts with a circle, setting intentions to form new friendships to help heal the land and the culture. We are asked to introduce ourselves and our families. It is not often that you are asked to define yourself by recounting the name of your mother and father, grandmothers and grandfathers and so on, back to where you come from.  

The sharing of stories about this land from both settler and Cowichan perspectives helps identify lots of mutual interests to reconnect with the land and with each other. Some of the settlers tell stories of battling the developers who made the water boil a couple of years back; it gives us pause at least to think what it might be like to resist these same forces for centuries—or millennia. The more that is shared the easier it is to listen. We are told that the gathering is a welcoming space that one enters into with responsibility—responsibility to respect history and our place within it, and to carry this healing work beyond these Sunday gatherings. Decolonization writings explore how applying and adapting both indigenous and Western knowledge and values are what is needed to address the challenges the world is facing. Decolonization could save the world. 

We listen to the stories about specific places of Xwaaqwu’um, then pull more Scots broom. Then it’s time to go gather seaweed. I accompany one of the elders who has never collected seaweed on Saltspring because, as a boy of five, he was taken away to residential school and his family lost their traditional gathering areas. There was no sharing circle or welcoming committee back then. 

Now half a century later, I can show him where the #1 seaweed grows. He still has the teachings of his great grandmother, which he shares. Our respective ancestors have guided us to this beach that overlooks the residential school he was sent to on Kuper Island. 

Decolonization is full of these moments. There we are on a warm day in May, when the tide is low, wading into the intertidal zone with hearts that have been opened to the real possibility that we might all emerge the healthier and stronger. 


See details on the Tsawout First Nations website for TIXEN restoration days and on the Grace Point facebook page for restoration days at Burgoyne Bay, Salt Pring Island.

Briony Penn PhD is the author of the new book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, scheduled for released in September.