Before I left Australia, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted this trip to be about. I decided that the most important things were the following; that I would try to never feel like I was rushing (unless I was trying to escape the impending rains in Oregon), and more importantly that I would listen to anyone and everyone - because we all have a story to tell. I believe humans are natural-born storytellers and this trip has only confirmed that belief for me. I mean, it makes a lot of sense. If we look at many of the oldest cultures — Australia being a great example — we see that life revolved around story. It helped us make sense of the world in what I believe to be the most beautiful and sincere way. Stories are always didactic, regardless of their initial purpose, and I can't think of a more engaging way to learn.
A very generous guest of mine in the last bushwalk guiding season sent me a number of books in April of this year. Among them was a book that we'd talked about over the six days. Marion had told me that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown had fundamentally shifted the axis on which she lived her life. And I could tell by the way she spoke those words that it had profoundly impacted her life. Now I must confess that I actually only read half the book. The reason I stopped was because every chapter, which told the story of a different clan in the American West, followed the same disastrous formula as two conflicting cultures clashed. It was not an uplifting book, but it is a book that needs to be read (and I need to finish it). Turning the first pages of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, i began the introduction and was suddenly aware of an overwhelming sensation as goose bumps appeared across my body — a feeling that's incredibly hard to put into words. It was these words from Brown that had caused the reaction:
"This is not a cheerful book, but history has a way of intruding upon the present, and perhaps those who read it will have a clearer understanding of what the American Indian is, by knowing what he was. They may be surprised to hear words of gentle reasonableness coming from the mouths of Indians stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages. They may learn something about their own relationship to the earth from a people who were true conservationists. The Indians knew that life was a paradise, and they could not comprehend why the intruders from the East were determined to destroy all that was Indian as well as America itself.
And if the readers of this book should ever chance to see the poverty, hopelessness, and the squalor of a modern Indian reservation, they may find it possible to truly understand the reasons why."
The book was written in 1970, but I don't believe it has lost much significance in the course of the forty or so years since its publication. The reason the book is not cheerful is because it is only a small fraction of a very rich history. It is a horrific history that needs to be told and, most importantly, to be genuinely acknowledged. The same applies back home.
In my preparation time before the trip, I'd also given a lot of thought to undertaking a project where I'd try to look at Indigenous cultures across the entire Americas and the ways in which they were surviving and thriving in the present day. After much consideration, I decided that if I was to undertake an endeavour of this magnitude, it made more sense to do it in the place where I felt most strongly connected to place and country: Australia. That's not to say I haven't been learning magnitudes about the Indigenous cultures of the area, because I have, but after wrangling with the idea I concluded that my voice may not have been the most suitable.
A few weeks ago I was in the museum of Northern British Colombia in Prince Rupert looking at an exhibition that celebrated Canada 150. Much like Australia Day and the Bicentennial of Captain Cook's arrival in Botany Bay, celebrating one hundred and fifty years of Canada's history can deliver mixed feelings depending on who you are. In a gallery exhibiting art from of Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Kwakwakawakw peoples there stood a small placard on a blank white wall. This is what it said:
"As we begin the next 150 years, let's learn to acknowledge the suffering inflicted on First Nations during Canada's 150 years, and to honour and respect the wisdom of peoples who have sustained themselves and their land for millennia."
I took a photo of that phrase because I'd never seen anything like it in a publicly funded institution in Australia. The words struck me. It was such a simple acknowledgement, but I think it means so much. I believe that the best way to address issues like these is to focus on a shared understanding of our modern nations, because as they say, sharing is caring.
One of the many great luxuries of this trip for me has been the ability to draw parallels from the experiences of Indigenous people where I've been, and consider these experiences in light of what I have been lucky enough to learn from Indigenous brothers and sisters in Australia. These parallels stand at both ends of the spectrum; on one hand I've seen the beauty and wisdom of creation stories and the intimate knowing of one's environment. On the other side, there's an uneasy familiarity that accompanies accounts of despair and hopelessness during the colonial eras. Our histories are vastly different, but there is much that is the same.
Above all else, what continues to amaze me is the willingness of the first peoples to share their wisdom and culture. The humility and dignity with which people carry themselves during this process usually leaves me scrambling for words to describe it. It takes a lot of strength and courage to offer to share your culture with the descendants of the people who tried to systematically destroy it.
We are seeing a resurgence in the presence and importance of Indigenous story across the globe, through visual arts, literature, theatre, film, the list goes on... I'm currently reading Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk. The book gives subtle insights into Indigenous knowledge and belief systems (Wagamese is an Ojibwe from Northwestern Ontario) through a modern father-son relationship. It is but one example of Indigenous culture and knowledge existing, and thriving, in the modern multicultural settings that we find ourselves in.
The point I keep coming back to over and over again is simply this: what have we, as a collective and diverse group of human beings, got to lose from sharing with each other?
And I believe the answer is nothing. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Dee Brown mentions that the First Peoples of the American West could not comprehend why these newcomers to their land wanted to destroy everything they knew. It seems as though even today, a lot of us are still grappling with that question.
Back when I was in Victoria, I was watching a video at the Royal BC Museum called Our Living Language. It was a short feature that captured some insights into Indigenous people who are resurrecting, or continuing, the practice of speaking their native language. Cindy, who was in the process of learning an old language of the land from her aunty Barbara, touched on the profound complexity and subtle nuance involved in translating between English and this ancient language. The definition of a single word could take her mentor five minutes to explain, and often English was not sufficient to capture the essence or true meaning.
In the same video, Clyde Tallio tells us that in his language there is a vitally important word: putl'lt
putl'lt translates in English to "everything belongs to those not yet born".
I think it's one of the most beautiful sentiments I've ever come across. Maybe, if we considered putl'lt every day, and in everything we did, we as humans would live a little differently, and think hard about the way we treat each other and the planet that sustains us.