Indigenization in Action: The Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle

By Allan Chan

Photography: Noriko Nasu-Tidball

Gail Sparrow, the former Chief of the Musqueam Nation and the guiding elder for the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle initative, delivering her opening remark. 

A question that has become elevated to the forefront in recent years is the issue of how our institutions, and how we ourselves, can incorporate the knowledge of marginalized groups into our knowledge systems. As an anthropologist, and as a child of immigrants, I began to see that many institutions are not built with the thought of colonial subjects in mind. This is a sentiment shared by many made to navigate institutions and cultures that oftentimes made us feel like the perpetual foreigner, the institutional “other”. So this raises the question, are we doing enough to incorporate the perspectives of those who have been left out of systems, which has historically been hostile to their presence? Are we doing enough to let them into those systems now?

According to a study by Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz on the topic of reconciliation, while institutions have found success in advancing Indigenous equity, there remained failures in making these spaces hospitable for students with Indigenous backgrounds. Respondents to the study spoke of the need for “[increasing] the presence of Indigenous knowledges and ways of learning.” However, this concept finds itself struggling to find footing with the underlying truth, which Candace Brunette-Debassige speaks about in University Affairs: “Euro-Western notions of hierarchy and colonial logics … limit our ability to decolonize – and … make the meaningful inclusion of Indigenous People and knowledges in the academy challenging if not impossible.” We must ask how we can implement these concepts in ways that produce meaningful change. In addition, how can we as a collective whole embrace and find empowerment in those changes?

What can we do, are there any realistic solutions to these dilemmas? One solution to this question on our minds is the concept of indigenization. To those who are unfamiliar with the term, let’s start with a brief definition: indigenization is to incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing to transform places, spaces, and hearts. Maybe one of the first thoughts, when we hear this term, is whether this means a wholesale rejection of the Western-built ideas that we are familiar with, or whether we as a collective whole are aiming to create a syncretic way of knowing the world built upon both Western and Indigenous knowledge systems. Neither of these assumptions are in fact true. An educational guide by BCCampus describes that indigenization “does not mean changing something Western into something Indigenous. The goal is not to replace Western knowledge with Indigenous knowledge, and the goal is not to merge the two into one. Rather, Indigenization can be understood as weaving or braiding together two distinct knowledge systems so that learners can come to understand and appreciate both.” Now, this raises the question as to how we can indigenize; can indigenization really be put into practice? 

Indigenization is not a wholly new concept in the city of Vancouver. The idea of incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing in order to transform spaces and hearts can be exemplified in the cross-cultural solidarity between Chinese farmers and the Musqueam people during the early twentieth century. During this time, both the Chinese community here in Vancouver and the Musqueam people found themselves marginalized by wider society. Because of shared solidarity, the two groups came together. According to UBC ethnographer Sarah Ling, using oral testimony from Musqueam elder Larry Grant: “there was a relationship of respect, so respecting different cultures, different practices”. The sharing of ideas and Indigenous ways of knowing between the Chinese diaspora and the Musqueam people formed the backbone of a cooperative relationship between the two groups. A relationship that informed ways in which we could move forward in strategies for reconciliation. Sarah Ling remarks, “learning about the farmers at Musqueam provides a model for us to reach towards or to learn from.” Through sharing his story, Elder Larry Grant provided wisdom for us to move forward with the process of reconciliation and engage with the process of indigenization.

In considering contemporary examples of indigenization in action, let’s take the example of the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle held at the Kerrisdale Community Centre, in collaboration with the Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society. The story circle event was developed with the idea of indigenization in mind, primarily with the recognition that stories hold immense power in helping us learn about the experiences of others and about ourselves. Stories can aid us in navigating the world and illuminate methods of how we can move forward in uncertain times. In an Indigenous-focused context, this comes to form in a quote by Sto:lo Elder Terry P’ulsemet Prest: “learn to listen so we can listen to learn.” What he meant is that through opening our minds and taking the time to listen to the stories of others, it gives us the chance to process the information and allow for the diverse meaning of their stories to come forward. The idea is simple, to listen and engage with the story that is being told. To be a good listener is to enact indigenization in the everyday. 

Musqueam Elder Gail Sparrow was a featured guest at the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle. During her time in attendance, she delivered to us an insight that stuck with me, even as she departed for the day. Vancouver was named after an explorer who had gotten lost and the area was originally named Musqueam. It was the Musqueam people who had helped Captain Vancouver. With this knowledge in mind, she proposed the name “Musqcouver”, something that she still calls the city today. Gail Sparrow’s story reminds us of the core principles of indigenization. Rather than calling for the renaming of the city as a whole, she interwove the two names of what we call Vancouver today to form a new understanding that helps us to appreciate both cultures equally. It was her wisdom, her story, that helped me to intimately understand the underlying power of indigenization. To change hearts and minds through Indigenous perspectives, stories, and ways of seeing the world.

Featured during the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle was the Indigenous Pop-up Library. I recently had the opportunity to meet with two of the authors whose books were featured in the Pop-up Library, Dorothy Nason (Leech Lake Ojibwe), co-editor of Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s Writings on Native North America, and Michael Blackstock (Gitxsan), author of Oceanness. Having the opportunity to talk to them and listen to their stories helped me better understand my perspectives on indigenization through their experiences. During our conversation on E. Pauline Johnson, Dr. Nason spoke about how Pauline Johnson’s stories exhilarated her in how she “[said] things that [she] wanted to say”. Dr. Dorothy Nason spoke on how Pauline Johnson’s stories felt empowering to hear, on how she spoke about issues that had affected her but she struggled to articulate. Dr. Nason particularly highlighted Johnson’s A Red Girl’s Reasoning, one of Johnson’s stories which critiqued the ways Indigenous people were and continue to be, portrayed in literature through the relationship between Christine and Charlie. 

With Michael Blackstock, he spoke about how his work would take him to listen to the oral history of Indigenous elders, who he would build working relationships with. Many of these elders felt very wary of ethnographers and anthropologists because of the often troubling relationship that the study had with Indigenous peoples. He noted during our interview that one particular conversation with Millie Michell, a Nlaka’pamux Elder, particularly struck him. Mitchell spoke to Blackstock and his team in a single interview. She discussed the importance of being respectful to everything and her concerns about climatic changes in her community. As soon as she had completed her story, Millie passed away. Her family members would later tell Blackstock that she had been visited by her deceased husband and son in her dreams telling her to join them prior to the interview, but she refused, waiting to do so only when she had completed telling Blackstock and his team her stories. Eventually, these stories led to Blackstock building up the concept of Blue Ecology, an interweaving of both Western and Indigenous understandings of the water cycle and highlighted in his book Oceanness. Blue Ecology and its principles are a prime manifestation of the principle of indigenization, a way in which both worldviews can lead to us appreciating both. Their experiences let me understand the power that story holds in our everyday life. They proved to me that stories have actual power, whether it empowered Dr. Nason’s voice by articulating the thoughts that she had held, or the importance of articulating her story was to Millie Michell, how she refused to pass until she had met Michael and shared her story. 

We had the amazing opportunity to feature Musqueam artist Grace Ulu at the Musqueam-Kerrisdale Story Circle event and co-create a piece entitled The “Musqcouver” Butterfly. Recalling back to Elder Gail Sparrow’s idea of the city of “Musqcouver”, the piece was an interweaving of both Indigenous and Western perspectives through a visual medium. The butterfly in its own way is heavily meaningful, in Western and Eastern traditions, the butterfly represents the soul, the psyche. Psyche was both ancient Greek for the goddess of the soul, as well as the word for “butterfly”. The butterfly is free and we find beauty in its presence. The butterfly also represents a transformational force, by engaging in the process of metamorphosis to enter a new form. By creating a piece together, it symbolically represents the changing of hearts and minds through the collaboration between Indigenous and Western visual cultures. In its essence, it is a visual representation of indigeneity at its core. The power and beauty that can come forth when we engage in positive dialogues and constructive development of a positive community. By the end of the event, many of the participants walked up to us and told Grace and I how much the event had meant to them. The process of indigenization, in being able to share stories and engage in creation, was empowering to the participants and helped them see the world through a new lens. 

Stories play an important part of Indigenous life prior to colonization and into the present. Many Indigenous cultures lacked a writing system; thus, many stories were passed down through oral history. Oral history, as learned through my studies in the field of anthropology, contains crucial insights into our past. They contain vital records contextualizing historical events such as the eruption of the Tseax Cone or the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake. Oral histories, in the form of stories, are a cornerstone of how we will understand the world moving forward. Sharing stories and taking your time to listen is one of the many ways we can bring indigeneity to the forefront of our lives. Simple as it may be, it has the power to change lives, as it had with Dorothy Nason and Michael Blackstock, and the participants of the Kerrisdale-Musqueam Story Circle event. As Elder Terry P’ulsemet Prest reminds us: “learn to listen so we can listen to learn.” So let’s listen to the stories of those around us, learn from them, and learn to respect all that is around us. 


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