Most people seem to be using appropriation when they include a Native character in their story. One of the people who was accused of appropriation in the 1980s was the author of Dance Me Outside, W. P. Kinsella. I was asked about his work often after arguing against appropriation at the 1988 International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal. Two things happened at the fair. One was that I asked the feminist movement as a whole to move over. I did not ask Anne Cameron, who wrote Daughters of Copper Women, to move over, as many have said. I asked Anne Cameron to stop stealing our stories. We talked together for several hours. Like other people (white people), she thought if some elders asked her to write our stories down that it was okay with the rest of us.
What our elders did not know, and I know no white person has ever explained to them, is that once you give away the story, that is it, your children are disinherited. Some elders don’t mind that but some do, and that should have alerted the white writer to something being wrong here. Who would give away their children’s inheritance if they were aware that that is what they were doing? It would have to be someone who is alienated from the children. A caring person would ask, how is it that some of our elders do not know they are giving up their children’s inheritance? Instead people—particularly white people who are offered the heritage of Indigenous children—salivate with pride and go ahead and plunder it. Shame on you.
I was at my ex-husband’s home not long ago and he seethed with rage as he asked, “What is it with your people fighting over names?” and he spat out a common North American curse. I answered, “We did not own property and we gave away all our possessions during potlatch and potlatched as often as possible in our lifetime. All we owned was our stories, our songs and our names—this is our private, clan, family wealth. That was our private property. In the songs of Aiylmilth is the history of the Sto:lo, as told by us, remembered by us, and lived by us. It declares who we are and what we believe, where we have been and where we are now. It is our bible. For some white person to come along and say, ‘Chief so-and-so gave it to me,’ is to disinherit us of who we are. We can no longer say, ‘I am the granddaughter of the singers of the songs of Aiylmilth. I am without property, inheritance, or citizenship.’ The possession of the songs, the stories, and the names is as sacred as the Bible, your home, and your passport—altogether.
Everyone in the world would laugh if I said, “I just wrote this great book, I think it is a bestseller. It starts out: Verily, verily I say unto you.” Everyone would say, “That is already written,” and laugh at me. But if someone writes Daughters of Copper Women and signs her name to it and collects the royal coinage for it (copyright and royalties), no one laughs. It is an Indian story and we are entitled to steal that, just like Indian property, Indian names, etc. Everything we own is up for grabs. In 1988, we said, “No more theft.”
The intention of appropriation is stealing, so in order for appropriation to occur, theft must travel with it and receive either resale for profit or personal royalties as benefit from its use. Theft must be the outcome for the appropriator, while the original owner must lose the use, benefit, authority, and ownership (as control) over the appropriated item; otherwise it is simply sharing. We are teaching our languages to everyone—that is not appropriation. English was forced on us—that is not appropriation. It is offered by the owners of the language and we pay to learn it—it cost us a continent. Appropriation can occur only if the person doing the appropriating has no prior authority or birthright or permission to access the item and no permission from its original owner to use or benefit from it.
During the colonization of Canada, both land and knowledge were appropriated—that is, expropriated without permission from the owners. On the one hand, we were separated from our knowledge, and on the other, Europeans were entitled to appropriate the knowledge associated with the use of items they purchased. For instance, Johnny Whiteman purchases squaw vine for his wife’s menopausal condition from Lee’s gramma. He copyrights the knowledge he acquires. Lee is sent to school and cannot access her gramma’s knowledge about squaw vine while away because she is separated from her gramma and someone else owns the copyright of the information. Gramma dies while Lee is in school. Johnny Whiteman publishes a book and includes the squaw vine knowledge of Lee’s gramma, and on her return from school. Lee learns that in order for her to access her gramma’s knowledge, she must purchase Johnny Whiteman’s book. She is purchasing from the appropriator access to her inheritance. Johnny Whiteman receives all royalties from the sale of the book, while Lee, the intended inheritor of the intellectual property of her gramma, must now contribute to the wealth Johnny Whiteman gained by having access to her gramma while she was separated from her. Now Lee was in residential school, which neither her mother, her father, or grandmother agreed to, as they were “children in the eyes of the law.” The grandmother did not think she was disinheriting her granddaughter. The white people who took the knowledge told her gramma that Lee could use it if she wanted to. And that was true, as long as she was willing to pay for it. The universities of this country own most of our knowledge, and Indigenous people must buy it back as courses.
Universities are using the book in their course work. Researchers at the university examine the humble squaw vine and find the “active ingredient” in it, name it in Latin, and claim to have “invented” it. Now more white men are benefiting from Lee’s gramma’s knowledge while Lee is separated from the possibility of isolating the active ingredient herself, because as yet she is not entitled to secure the research grant and engage in the process of isolation in the same way white men are.
Now Johnny Whiteman, a group of researchers, the institution, and the public have benefited financially from the theft of the birthright of Lee while Lee has been left out in the cold with no inheritance. Now any white man can figure this out, it is their system of plunder. Not so our people. We operate on truth and belief; if you tell my grandmother I can use something once she gives it to you, she believes you. If you don’t tell her that I will have to pay for it, because you own it, you have appropriated our cultural knowledge and separated my grandmother’s grandchildren from inheriting it. This was never the intention of our grandmothers. White people in the process of acquiring our cultural knowledge never told our ancestors the consequences of the decision they were making. In this way it is unconscionable and it is still stealing. In fact, stealing is embedded in the definition of appropriation.
We currently must purchase our original medicines (herbal and many herbal medicine–based pharmaceuticals are Indigenous) and our medical knowledge from non-Native people who do not recognize our authorship of this knowledge. For this appropriation to have been possible, the authority of the original people had to be abrogated and usurped by the official representatives (the Crown) of the would-be appropriators and Indigenous access to the knowledge and land severed; as well, the appropriated authority had to be rationalized and maintained. That is the very nature of how colonialism works.
The rationale for this complicated fraud was threefold: first, non-recognition of the validity of Indigenous governance; second, the infantilization of the oral nature of Indigenous knowledge as not deserving of the same recognition and protection as written knowledge; and third, the dismissal of the Indigenous relationship to the land as non-ownership and non-civilized—that is, non-private property. Private property is the foundation of citizenship and civilization in European society, and intellectual property is an extension of private property. While the power of our names, our stories, and our songs is what our inheritance is about.
Following the successful appropriation of Indigenous authority and the separation of Indigenous children from their parents, grandparents, etc., and from their knowledge, deliberately, through epidemic death, residential schools, and the new governing body (chief electoral system) established by the Indian Act and enforced by the Department of Indian Affairs, we lost access to land, knowledge, proprietorship, and the benefits that accrue to continued inherited access to land, and knowledge’s development, etc.
At the time of pre-emption, when white men were offered Indigenous people’s land, Indigenous people were not entitled to purchase land or pre-empt land and were restricted to reservations with one-fifth the amount of land per family compared to that allotted to white people. People of colour, such as Blacks and Asians, were entitled to purchase much less per family but they could purchase land—this means everyone got ahead of us. Indigenous people were further prohibited from transmitting and practising culture (which included transmitting knowledge and singing and dancing, telling stories, hosting meetings, gatherings, getting married, etc.). At the same time, Indigenous people were not permitted to attend Western institutions of higher learning, such as public school or university, or accrue wealth and land in a European manner, i.e., through purchase. We were declared uncivilized and uncivilizable; our land and our knowledge were deemed (white) public domain to be exploited by Johnny Whiteman and his cohorts and descendants. This gave a decided advantage to certain white men. A single white man purchased our mountains, from North Vancouver to Pemberton, BC, for twenty-five dollars—Whistler, Grouse Mountain, the Lions, and Mount Seymour were among them, all of which are multimillion-dollar profit-bearing ski resorts now.
Children were separated from knowledge keepers. Land and open water (rivers, lakes, and oceans) were controlled by the Indian agent, who often prohibited their use by the Indigenous adult population for food gathering. Following the separation of children from adults, and adults from the land, a hostage-based treaty-making process was set into motion (which was successful everywhere but in BC until recently), and Indigenous people were declared “infants in the eyes of the law,” infantilized and managed by white men. This infantilization and the concomitant Indian agent and residential school system were used to maintain the Crown’s authority and the separation of children from the adult population. Upon returning, the children were adults and began families, and work separated them from elders, and they in turn were separated from their children, until alienation and internal violence overtook the original caring and sharing between Indigenous people and their families.
At the same time, only Europeans were entitled to attend university, which is where our knowledge was concentrated, and only they could access it. They then could write about us, so they became our experts and we began to believe we were inferior. Inevitably and predictably, the children returned from residential school languageless, and over time, because the knowledge was not transmitted to children, we began to think we did not have much knowledge. I can remember Indigenous people telling me we had no science, to which I responded, “So what is space-logging then—home economics?”
Our children are no longer able to speak the language that connected them to the land, articulated their authority over its care, and identified and defined the knowledge attached to its use. The base (of knowledge) atrophied, grew smaller. Further, the pass system prohibited interaction between communities, such that the exchange of knowledge, the discourse between knowledge keepers and common knowledge, its growth and development were arrested.
In the meantime, different types of alter-Native medicine have developed since Johnny Whiteman first appropriated Lee’s gramma’s knowledge and the nature of discussion between us has atrophied. We still wonder whether or not we had si yams, clan heads, and traditional chiefs, or did we just have elders? We wonder whether or not we had science. We wonder whether or not we should give tobacco to our elders when we go and speak to them, or should we bring food? When I was little, my Ta’ah did ask me for tobacco. I brought my mother’s bannock; Ta’ah held it, shook it a little, smiled, and said, “Best.” This is one of her few English words. Then she put it in her cupboard. It was my gift to her and she knew it. It was payment for whatever knowledge she chose to transmit. She knew that too and so did I. Sometimes I came with bannock and a can of fish. She twirled when I gave it to her and put it in her cupboard. I was paying for the knowledge. This is part of our tradition.
Today we struggle to reclaim our knowledge, to articulate and create literary and scholarly works from it, and to end the theft through writing that characterized 120 years of prohibition, theft, and abrogation of our ancestors’ authority and ownership of knowledge. For us to reclaim knowledge, we must have access to it, we must re-aggregate it and we must build institutions to accomplish this. Protection before aggregation of our intellectual property will only lead to an atrophied or crippled and limited rebirthing of our original knowledge base. No one grandmother knows what we all once knew. Our knowledge was collectively held. Our fire has been hit, the logs scattered. With the scattering of our logs, so is our knowledge scattered. We need to assemble ourselves as our ancestors once did (powwow) and hold a series of discussions (conferences) exchanging what we know and rebuilding the knowledge base. We must ensure that our children and grandchildren have access to this process of Indigenous knowledge acquisition from beginning to end.
At the same time, we must protect our knowledge from those who wish to continue the theft without our permission. We must be cognizant of the need for protection, while still wary of getting so caught up in the business of protection that we create the sorts of protocols, rules, and regulations that inhibit our willingness and ability to transmit knowledge to our descendants. Protocols are for foreigners, particularly those who have a history of appropriation; they are not for our children. On the other hand, I am unwilling to volunteer ourselves up for any further theft. Protection from abrogation and appropriation while assuring transmission is tricky.
We need to know who we are, who we once were, and who we will always want to be (as my uncle Lenard George always says). First, we need to address our relationship to the land and to one another not as nuclear families, but as extended longhouse families. Second, we interacted not merely from within longhouse families, but the extended longhouse families had relationships to other extended longhouse families who lived inside villages, and they interacted with each other. Each village had relations with other villages from other nations who interacted village to village. A complex recognition system developed between the various si yams that existed between each village and within the nation. This system included the covenants between us and the processes and extent of sharing, exchanging, and transmitting knowledge, thinking, stories, songs, and so forth. They were recited at gatherings by rememberers. Over time, certain villages became known for certain types of expertise (horticultural, aquacultural, medical, etc.), and the sharing and exchange of valued items, knowledge, and services led to the formation of a confederated interactive group of friendly people who spoke the same language—not literally, of course, but they shared terms and a common philosophical perspective, a common understanding and a shared foundation of fairness, equal exchange in trade, recognition, or ownership, territoriality and mutual benefit. We then formed confederated groups that could communicate in a way that was based on shared understanding, shared story, and shared naming. We could make deals, agree on terms, and interact easily.
Our pragmatic sensibility led to the creation of confederated organs of recognized and shared authority, which carried out duties and responsibilities in accordance with recognized expertise and familiarly owned knowledge, stories, songs, and intellectual property. The customs and conditions for sharing the foregoing and exchanging the foregoing were agreed upon in varying degrees by all of those people living inside the territory shared by Coast Salish people. Those who agreed less, interacted less—there was never a sentiment of discord over lack of agreement. This enabled the social, cultural, creative, intellectual, medical, scientific, and economic interaction between the friendly nations of the west coast, now known in English as Coast Salish people. (Some people prefer the original languages. I am told that Kevin Paul’s people prefer the original language used to describe them. I respect that.)
Jurisdiction over land, production, caretaking, and use was recognized and maintained through complex negotiations between the various si yams of the numerous longhouses, and gatherings were coordinated by those who carried this responsibility to ensure the broadest possible engagement for discussion, negotiation, and agreement between the houses. No such process exists for those who would appropriate our stories. We never saw the land and its relatives as a source of wealth per se, but we were always aware of territoriality, the limits and extant of sharing between us. For example, Snauq’w was our garden, not just one village’s garden, but a garden for all of the friendly nations that had access to it.
Further, we were severally responsible for it. Laws and customs during harvest were practised to ensure its continuance as a garden. Jurisdiction over the land was seen as much for the domain of caretaking responsibilities as our sustenance, while our art (carvings, blankets, stories, and songs) were seen as private or family property, and hence personal wealth, which was intended for giveaway. No wealth existed simply for its acquisition.
On the west coast, Coast Salish people interacted with all those living within the jurisdiction now known as Western Montana (Flathead Salish Territory), Southern BC, Vancouver Island, Washington State, and Northern Oregon. Each family developed knowledge through their interaction with one another, the land and the sea and all the beings in it, and they exchanged or shared it with others within this territory. Some families never stopped this practice. Geographical confluence with other villages, land-specific and ocean-specific learning occurred, and each family became known for their specific knowledge and carried the responsibility for maintaining the expertise they inherited from the learning of their si yams, who then were responsible for caretaking the learning and transmitting it to their children. The learning, while collaborative, was kept and transmitted by the si yams.
I am interested in reclaiming and rebuilding the systems that existed prior to the arrival of a handful of powerful European men on our shores. I say a handful of powerful European men because the initial theft was conducted by white men, and it was maintained on behalf of the institutions they set into motion. That was how it happened. I am cognizant that non-Europeans (Asian, Black, and South American) and many Europeans (Irish, Ukrainians, etc.) came on different ships, with a lower level of theft entitlement. I am also interested in establishing a sharing arrangement between us that is fair for all of us. Like the late Art Manuel, I am not happy with the current arrangement. (Art, son of George and Marceline Manuel—two of our previous leaders—has recently passed away. He was a constitutional lawyer, youth organizer, Red Power advocate, and founder of the Defenders of the Land movement).
Today, we are buying back our knowledge. I say this only so that our youth who attend these institutions to study themselves can be aware that they need not be grateful for their education. They stole our knowledge and are now selling it back to us. I believe this to be shameless, but it seems I am one of the few. Our youth need to know the extent of the pillaging of Indigenous knowledge and they need to know that it continues. That is the nature of capitalism, it continues to pillage. I am also interested in memory, as our people did not write things down but developed a system of remembering who was responsible for what, who had access to what, how things were transmitted and earned, and what was available to all. This system identified the relationship of a person to family (house), clan (village), the clan to the nation or confederacy, if you will, and individuals were trained to remember in accordance with their natural bent toward subject. The relationship to land, trees, animals, fishes, etc., were part of the system we lived by. We understood these relationships and the expertise that each family contributed to the whole; it set into motion the visitations between villages and the discourse of the si yams in the national life of the confederacy.
Residential school separated us from that understanding of our national systems, and during our absence Canada established many borders that would serve their increasing privilege and theft entitlement, while each of our villages became separated village from village, and our families were destroyed as school separated children from parents and parents from children and family from family. All of these separations facilitated further theft engagement and invasion and continue to do so. Tsawwassen was once connected to the whole; now it has made a real estate deal with the BC government outside of the whole.
In European law, oral knowledge is folk knowledge and so belongs to the public, which rationalizes the theft of our national intellectual knowledge base and privileges the written word as the only knowledge that is protected. Hence the education of children is biased toward reading and writing rather than remembering. While the written word is no more reliable than the remembered word, writing is privileged as “source documents,” and memory is demeaned as unreliable because the European education system did not invent ways to cultivate reliable rememberers and so does not have a component in its education system that would teach children to become rememberers; it is not recognized as a way of knowing—they have no way to study and cannot imagine educative processes that would lead to systematic skill-building in remembering. Children are called here, so we owe them the best present possible. Children are our future, and the future belongs to them. The land we use is borrowed against our children’s future. These are all common sayings or teachings that have survived the holocaust we endured, the process of colonization we were subjected to, and the consequent disconnection from knowledge and transmission systems, as well as the dismemberment of our nations, that colonialism has resulted in. These teachings form the philosophical foundations of our laws.
Cultural and knowledge transmission exists primarily for children. Without children, knowledge atrophies and stasis replaces the internal dynamics of interaction, cultural transmission, and knowledge development, which are necessary for the intellectual growth of a people. This stasis and atrophy persist to this day because while we protect our ownership of story, song, dance, knowledge, and so forth, we are just now beginning to realize that we must revive the system to use, share, and transmit these things within Coast Salish families and between families.
Our children have a birthright; it is access to and use of sustenance materials (both tangible and intangible) within and on their territories (Turtle Island). They are entitled to whatever sustenance the land can provide (and the knowledge attached to the land and its sustenance); whether or not the oppressive state that claims to govern it agrees to this birthright, it does not eradicate its existence. As parents and grandparents, we are responsible for securing children’s access and dominion to the land and its material and non-material (knowledge) sustenance and insuring they inherit this birthright. We are then also responsible for the state of the land. That responsibility carries with it the transmission and protection of the knowledge that travels with and arises from the land. No one but our children are entitled to our knowledge, stories, law, teachings, science, or medicine. We are responsible no matter what the newcomers’ narrow parameters of permission grant us.
This birthright is not wanton, lustful, hedonistic, or exploitative. Our law is clear—sustenance has a covenant: the least damage to land and waters and the least invasive means possible are to be deployed to protect our relatives (land and beings) in securing our existence. All our relations refer to the earth and all its beings in relationship to us. Relation implies a loving, caring, sustaining covenant between beings. We cannot exploit our relatives for our hedonistic aggrandizement. And we cannot endanger the cultural legacy of oratory our children are entitled to, nor can we exact favours from them or insist they earn the right to learn—they are entitled to our whole knowledge. As Indigenous people, we have agreements with all beings on this island that form what today are known as contracts. Violation of these agreements has consequences, in law and in life, and these consequences affect us personally and socially.
This covenant makes the elders, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties—the entire adult population, whether they have personal progeny or not—responsible for the cultural education and guidance of all the children within the nation. We are the caretakers for both the earth and all of the human children. This makes every single adult a responsive Indigenous educator, regardless of whether we know enough to transmit the foundational knowledge required. The point is that all First Nations children are entitled to the entire body of knowledge of their nation, and the adults of the nation must see transmitting knowledge and culture as an imperative personal responsibility. This means we must acquire our knowledge if we don’t have it, and if we do we must transmit it to our children.
Our children are in crisis. We all are aware of the burgeoning suicide among our youth. This is not the time to effect rules, regulations, and protocols on our youth’s ability to acquire our knowledge, our stories, our songs, dances, and languages. Protocols are for outsiders. Our children are the only “insiders” in our nation. They are the only ones for whom culture exists. Cultural protocols exist for Outsiders who seek to learn from us. Outsiders know this. They also know they are asking for the birthright of our children.
Protection is from outside in. We need to protect our cultures from theft and misuse, from abuse and exploitation, but we do not necessarily need to adopt Western (private property–based) frameworks to do that. Right now we are teaching our young that they must conduct themselves in a certain way to access their knowledge. In the past, if someone wanted to excel at something, they apprenticed with a master. That was our only systemic means of transmission. While they were apprenticing, their families fed them. That is not the case today. We live in nuclear families and can hardly wait for our children to become adults so they will leave. We have schools our children attend. This means that adults who wish to access knowledge (after receiving the wrong education) must become an apprentice (without pay) to a master, from whom there may or may not be recognition as a master later. Further, the elder must agree to teach the incumbent student, generally without pay. This would not have been the case centuries ago. We were once free, and in the course of our lives our children learned from us as they wished, they were our witnesses, our students, and they were around us all the time. They were expected to be curious, to learn, to query, and as adults, parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles, we constantly divulged and transmitted knowledge to them. Children were not required to tobacco their elders in the ordinary course of everyday living. Visitors who were adults and were not directly members of a specific family tobaccoed an elder in seeking specialized knowledge to which they were not normally entitled. This tells me that outsiders were not automatically entitled to our knowledge. In the past, at gatherings clans from all over the territory, learned men and women would engage in discussion, and ceremonies always opened the discussions; tobacco was exchanged to ensure the good mind and knowledge were shared. The exchange was considered important to the well-being of the nation (confederacy) and so involved tobacco, but on ordinary summer days, as children walked with their grandparents, knowledge was exchanged without acknowledgement of tobacco. Children were not expected to gift their grandmother or grandfather for it; the knowledge was considered essential to transmit, and the child’s birthright. I teach my grandchildren every chance I get, but do not expect tobacco for that. The tobacco requirement puts the child “outside my family,” and I tend to think that Indigenous children in crisis are inside my sphere of grandmothering. Likewise, during the winter dances, ceremony was a part of the process of dancing, storytelling, and knowledge transmission, as outsiders became “insiders.” We were not required to tobacco or gift our elders in this circumstance. In fact, those holding the ceremony gifted the visitors.
The exploitation of our people, the land, and its wealth, accompanied by the separation of our elders from their children during the residential school period, has created a situation in our communities in which our children are outsiders. We as elders are disconnected from our responsibility, and some of us are disconnected from our children. We must reconnect.
This is where the issue of appropriation of culture comes into play. We want our sensibility about ownership honoured by the Outsiders and we also want our children to pick up their cultural bundles and access their birthright. These two things are not the same. Our children will become sharing, caring, and responsive adults only if we are sharing, caring, responsive parents and teachers. Even when a story belonged to another family, members of that family were happy to share it, even if they were not with First Nations people from the same nation. As a child, I heard teachings, stories, and songs, witnessed dances, ceremonies, from non-family, non-clan First Nations people, and I always felt entitled to use those teachings, stories, songs, dances, and ceremonies. The elders made me feel like I belonged and so transmitted what I needed to know to be able to become the sort of elder who understood that children belong, they do not have to earn their access to the culture, the land, its sustenance, or our knowledge.
Protocols have come into being as a result of the desire of Indigenous people not wanting their knowledge appropriated. These protocols protect our children’s future. When a college or university employs us to divulge knowledge, which they then claim to own, because they caused it to develop or paid for its research, they are free to resell that knowledge to our children in perpetuity. This is not a responsive way to transmit knowledge to our children. We must continue to own the knowledge after the course, research, or knowledge has been developed.
The exploitative system that has replaced our systems has led us to protectionist policies that require our attention. It is theft and exploitation by foreigners when a university opts to jointly develop a course for which they own copyright of material in which even one of us was a participant. All our knowledge belongs to all of our grandchildren far into the future, whether that knowledge is art-based, philosophy-based, or story-based; we are merely the keepers of the knowledge for future generations. To sell our knowledge to someone who will charge our children tuition to acquire it is to violate our law.
Our cultural systems and the knowledge that holds them up must be recognized by the newcomers as the nation’s intellectual property that belongs to Indigenous children. Just as visitors from other communities within our nations had to respect our villages, we need the outsiders to respect our ways, our laws, and our sense of ownership. This begins with recognition. Recognition of the way we use and own song, dance, ceremony, and story, and how we keep these things in their original form and keep them in the family, cite their use and their origin, and how we share them with others. The oral presentations made in ceremony, the stories transmitted, the history transmitted, the knowledge transmitted orally, are kept by certain individuals in the families who are charged with the responsibility of caretaking and monitoring, determining their use and transmission. These keepers are responsible for transmitting the knowledge and cultural property specific to their families and protecting its original authority and authenticity. Since the outsiders have shown themselves to be engaged in exploitative relations with the land, it is incumbent upon us to ensure they are prepared to enter into a non-exploitative covenant with us and with the land and our knowledge. That is where ceremony and tobacco and gift exchange come into play. It is also where safeguarding our knowledge, customs, stories, songs, and dances comes into play.
A keeper of knowledge or story is a position of authority recognized by the community as the owner of certain knowledge, stories, laws, teachings, science, and medicine. The knowledge belongs to the family, and the family ensures that every generation a si yam is educated to maintain the knowledge the family is responsible for keeping safe. That is, they are responsible for the origin of the story, song, and dance, the ceremony they keep alive and transmit to the children on behalf of the nation. They are responsible for its transmission and its good use. If we keepers are responsible for keeping knowledge and we pass it on to someone who is irresponsible, disrespectful, and exploitative, it is we who are responsible for their misuse. Sometimes it is our own children who, in their lack of familiarity with the law, practise misuse. This has happened many, many times to us, and so we are cautious.
We then feel forced to develop protocols to protect our knowledge and our cultures from misuse and abuse. This means that when we say, “Do not write this story down,” it means that if you hear it, you may repeat it, providing you cite the source, but you cannot turn it to profit by writing it down and gaining royalties from it as though it were yours. If we explain that this story we are about to tell was told to young people during the transition from childhood to adulthood, it means the story belongs to teenagers—it is not there for the personal aggrandizement of the adult hearing it, whether they are First Nations or not. No one may use their knowledge to self-puff, to brag, to withhold, to lord over others, or to shame youth. The listener does not have bragging rights, or the right to profit from the story, no matter what their nationality, nor is the listener entitled to take teenagers hostage, extract favours of service from them or shame them with their lack of knowing.
Our knowledge, stories, songs, and dances do not exist to validate us as Sto:lo, Ojibway, or any other nation or clan; they are not there to guarantee us a place in the world. They are there to engage the listener in establishing a relationship to the land and help us to build good relations between being and the land. I encourage all my listeners to use my stories in that way, but they must cite their origins, as I do. Stories are our helpers; they lead us to right living, to the good mind, to relationship with one another and the land. Stories help us to be human. In that sense, they are an appeal to the human soul divine, to the spirit, and in this way are spiritual helpers. They cannot be property in the same way that Europeans view their written word. When the author, the conjurer, is making it up before you, this can change how the story is treated. We understood that everyone had their own song. A personal song was just that, a personal song—no one would sing someone else’s personal song without permission.
When we make up a new story, of course that becomes the story of the conjurer (author in Euro-English), but if a knowledge keeper is attempting to educate us in our national, historical, philosophical, or legal point of view, then the story doesn’t belong to the individual, but rather the version belongs to the family and the keeper is sharing it, as is their responsibility to the whole nation. Likewise, when I make up a story, it is my story; when I make a knowledge discovery, it is my knowledge; however, it is never completely disconnected from original knowledge, and we backtrack the knowledge trail, cite the individuals who contributed to it, before we advance the thought.
Any Indigenous person may use my stories to springboard off and reconceive of the story and tell it back different but the same; that is, Indigenous people, particularly children, can reimagine the story, decipher what they believe is the message, and create a new one from the original teaching or message without violating copyright (in our minds). In this way, we join the story maker, the myth maker, in the creation of a new story. We are entitled to do this.
We are also entitled to build stories collaboratively. We do it all the time, sitting around the kitchen table—someone starts telling a story and we all add to it. We build stories collectively, but we do not run off and get it published as our own, because it is oral, and all knowledge that is oral is folk knowledge and therefore belongs to the public. Anything else is unacceptable. None of the above makes our stories, our songs, or our knowledge property in the Western sense, but it is like property. Our languages have names for songs, for stories, for knowledge—none of the words translate directly into property. We must use our own words, or translate them carefully. We want a non-exploitative relationship with the outsiders and we want that street to go two ways; that is, we want them to stop being exploitative in their relations with us. We wish them to stop appropriating the land’s wealth, but this does not make the earth or this island a large piece of real estate or property. We are caretakers who must guard the knowledge, the stories, the songs, dances, art, and ceremonies of our nations, but this means we must be willing to transmit these stories, songs, and dances to our children and protect them from exploitation by those who would appropriate. When you give me tobacco, you are recognizing that you are asking for knowledge to which you are not entitled by birth.
For exploitation to exist, the item, the being, the spirit must be appropriated and turned to profit by the individual doing the appropriation. Western society believes that once written, knowledge, story, song, etc., become property, intellectual property, and they have copyright laws protecting it. They maintain that oral knowledge is not property—i.e., for it to become property, the individual must do something to it. We don’t get this; we can’t wrap our spiritual sensibility, our heart, or our mind around it. This reminds me of how the mink became small. He exploited the goodwill of bear, rabbit, and mouse women until bear squeezed him and squeezed him and he became a skinny little weasel. Which reminds me of the rationale for stealing the land: the Indian isn’t doing anything with the land and so he is not entitled to it, and so they took it. We maintain that a farm is not necessarily an improvement on the land, while European law maintains it is an improvement. We maintain that we do not have to do anything to our stories to make them ours. Europeans maintain that we must write them down, transform them into metaphor. This notion of writing things down contains a kind of incarceration of story. A sentence is captured, rendered permanent, unchangeable, static, still, dead. I write only the fictional, today versions of our story—in this way, I am working with it, keeping it moving, fluid, alive, and ready for some other Sto:lo child to work with, play with, and continue to use. Our stories exist; they have existed for thousands of years.
We as story keepers are responsible for ensuring that our children may access them for thousands of years forward without it costing them an arm and a leg, or the purchase of a course, the purchase of a book; hence, every time I engage Indigenous youth, I tell as many stories as I can. When I write stories down, I encourage Indigenous youth to use them, tell them back different but the same, so that a new generation of storytellers may be born. Likewise with medicine: someone wants to know what to do about warts, I tell them the milk from dandelion or milk thistle helps, and I encourage them to pass it on. They do. They tell others, “Lee Maracle says…” And so they pass it forward and our children are educated in this way, in our story and medicine, our teachings, so that they may be who they are and always will want to be (Len George teaching).
When I am speaking to Europeans, I have to explain the complexities of ownership and used to make sure they did not abuse or hoard or resell our stories. This is as much as I see. Someone else, younger than me, will have to add to this story, I have no more to say about it. Each generation adds its history of seeing to every story, and so we accumulate knowledge. Not long ago, a Canadian asked if they could write stories with Indigenous characters in it if it was fiction. Of course you can, but why would you? You are taking space at the table that our writers need to earn their way as writers. Sharing space and time is the opposite of racism. Occupying another people’s space and time is racism. Why can you not stop “fucking caribou squaws” or writing about “dirty half-breeds” (Al Purdy and Margaret Laurence).
Have we not had enough torment from Canadians?
from Lee Maracle’s My Conversations With Canadians, BookThug 2017
North Vancouver–born Lee Maracle is the author of numerous critically acclaimed literary works, including Sundogs, Ravensong, Sojourner’s Truth and Other Stories, Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel, Daughters Are Forever, Will’s Garden, Bent Box, Memory Serves, I Am Woman, and Talking to the Diaspora. She is the coeditor of a number of anthologies, including the award-winning My Home As I Remember. A member of the Sto: Loh nation, Maracle is a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, the JT Stewart Award, and the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for 2014. Maracle is currently an instructor in the Aboriginal Studies Program at the University of Toronto, where she teaches Oral Tradition. She is also the Traditional Teacher for First Nation’s House and an instructor with the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. Maracle has served as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Western Washington, and received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Thomas University in 2009.