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'Generation of hope' looks back on elders' experiences

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  • Don Bain
    Generation of hope looks back on elders experiences By Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist June 5, 2011
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 6, 2011
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      'Generation of hope' looks back on elders' experiences
      By Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist
      June 5, 2011

      First Nations elder Marguerit James with Dalton Louie, who help record her story for a book launch on Penelakut Island.
      Photograph by: Lyle Stafford, timescolonist.com
      Dalton Louie is a 15-year-old who lives on Penelakut Island. This is the former Kuper Island, just off Chemainus, which is owned by the Penelakut First Nation.

      Louie is the author of a poem about his grandmother, My Grandma's Younger Days. It includes these lines:

      I didn't like it when I learned my Grandma

      had to stand up in the broom closet and

      the nuns hit her and her language

      was already broken.

      A thickly treed retreat, Penelakut's bucolic atmosphere is at odds with its notorious history. For almost a century, the island was home to a residential school. Hundreds of Coast Salish children were taken from their parents and sent there before its closure in the 1970s. Overseen by Roman Catholic missionaries, the youngsters were forced to assimilate into white culture. This meant abandoning their language, their entire way of life. Living conditions were awful; the children were treated cruelly.

      Louie's poem appears in a small book, The Elder Project. It's part of an educational series in which First Nations students interview their elders about their pasts, then write poems based on this. The third and newest instalment, The Elders Speak, was launched Wednesday on Penelakut Island.

      We met in the gymnasium of Penelakut Island Elementary School. Visitors were formally welcomed in the Hu'qumi'num language, then in English: "Thank you, creator, thank you for bringing us together today."

      We ate salmon sandwiches and chowder made with oolichan oil. I sat with the baseball-capped chef, Dennis Nyce, who confided daily doses of oolichan oil (a fish oil) is what keeps him so healthy. When we said his food was delicious, he smiled politely.

      First Nations children - traditionally dressed in red, black, gold, turquoise - danced to drumming that became progressively powerful, like a thunderous heartbeat. They danced under basketball hoops, some wearing feather headpieces that twirled like propellers. When an elder started to chant to the drumming, a chubby baby burst into tears.

      About 25 students read their poems. One girl, Ann Louie, recited Laura: School, based on her interview with Laura Antoine.

      As a girl, Antoine had attended Westholme Indian Day School.

      When Louie read the following passage, the room went very still:

      I was supposed to speak English.

      If I spoke my language, I would get hit on the head

      with a metal ruler. I would go home with blood dripping down my head.

      One of the tribal hosts was Marguerit James, who offered the welcoming prayer. Outside the gym, we chatted briefly. She lives on Penelakut Island but grew up on Galiano Island. She didn't attend the island's residential school.

      Her husband did. He never speaks of those days.

      "I like the exercise of elders teaching the young people their history, their culture, their heritage," James said.

      I asked about the old residential school, which no longer exists. It was torn down.

      "It's gone, it's gone. It wasn't a happy part of peoples' lives here. It was dark," she said. "It's turning around now. We're getting back what we need to be proud of our heritage."

      With her was Dalton Louie, whose poem is quoted at the top of this column. A soft-spoken young man, he talked proudly about having his writing published.

      I also spoke with Larralee Sam. Waiting in the ferry lineup on the way to Penelakut, the exuberant 15-year-old explained how she'd help coach the new crop of student writers.

      Grinning, Sam pointed out photos of her protégés in the book: "This one, this one... oh, and this one."

      The Elder Project book series is overseen by Sooke poet Wendy Morton, who - for the latest Elders Speak book - worked with students from Chemainus Elementary, Crofton Elementary and Penelakut Island.

      She originally hatched the idea for the book series after chatting with a Chemainus Secondary School teacher, whom she'd bumped into by chance on a plane flight.

      "I'll turn your students into poets," is what Morton said. And so she did.

      Morton collaborated on the series with Denise Augustine, co-ordinator of aboriginal education for the Cowichan Valley school district. Augustine says opening of the doors to tribal elders in such a way is a think-outside-the-box approach to education.

      "The students are hearing stories they had no knowledge of," she said. "It really does take a village.

      We all need to be working together here."

      These young First Nations poets are several generations removed from the bleak residential school experience which so profoundly affected their grandparents.

      "This," Morton said, "is the generation of hope."


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