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“Let’s see… What do I know about Native Americans?”
I compiled a mental checklist.
“They lived in teepees. They used to fight cowboys. Hmmm… They were in tune with nature? They live on reservations now?”
Uh oh. This was not the voluminous database of knowledge I was hoping for.
My trip to British Columbia was starting to draw near and all I could conjure up about the people I’d be working with was the stuff I learned through my first grade social studies class (and having Dances with Wolves in my Netflix queue, of course).
My understanding of Native Americans was about as nuanced as a playground game of Cowboys and Indians.
I had a lot to learn.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to fill out my perspective quite a bit since that day. I’ve read some great books, I’ve asked some important questions and, most importantly, I’ve travelled to British Columbia to see it all firsthand.
For the next month or so, I will be living on Penelakut Island (a reservation for people native to the Northwest Coast). I will share some of the stories I hear (both new and old) and attempt to understand what life is really like for this community.
I’ll also be tagging along with Tim Christensen and Tal James, two amazing men who have dedicated their lives to helping the Penelakut people recognize hope and experience dignity in the midst of layers of social and historical injustice.
R.O.O.T.S. (Reclaiming Original Outdoor Technology and Skills), the program they developed with elders and leaders from Penelakut, teaches kids and adults skills like archery and kayaking to help them develop pride in activities once central to their culture.
Tim and Tal’s day-to-day activities on the island help to give holistic support to folks looking for a chance to break free from the cycle of poverty (a poverty that has become the norm for this community long kept on the margins of society).
And I get to see it all from the inside! I can only imagine how much I’m going to learn.
Blowing my Mind
I’ve only been here for a few days, but I have already moved well beyond what I learned in my first grade social studies class.
One thing I learned right off the bat is that “Native Americans” prefer the term “First Nations” here in Canada. This makes sense when you think about it. How would you like having your people named after Amerigo Vespucci, the cartographer whose people killed and enslaved your ancestors?
Another thing that I learned is that First Nations people still exist. In Indiana, where there are relatively few indigenous people alive today, it’s easy to think of First Nations as little more than a footnote in our history textbooks. But here on the Northwest Coast, their communities are alive and well.
Finally, I’ve learned that First Nations folks are today in the middle of a protracted struggle to regain the land and rights they have lost. Although the 1850s may seem like ancient history to us in the suburbs of America, the conflicts from that time continue to impact legislation and culture today.
The long and short of it is that my mind has already been blown many times since arriving in British Columbia, and I know that the learning has only just begun.
Just wait till I tell you about my night visit to the smoke-filled Big House where traditional winter dances were performed. Wait till you see the incredible work of a talented woodcarver I got to meet. Wait till you hear the fascinating stories of the people I’ve had the privilege to spend time with already.
This World Next Door trip is going to be quite a bit different than most that have come before and I don’t know quite what to expect. But I can tell you one thing…
You don’t want to miss what lies ahead!
- Tim and Tal work for North America Indigenous Ministries. Check out their website to get a glimpse at the big picture of their organization.
- I’m regularly posting up-to-date info on my Twitter feed about my time at Penelakut. Feel free to follow me!
- If you are looking for a good read that will give you a glimpse into the life of a modern First Nations man, take a look at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It’s fantastic! (Caution: This book contains some mature content that is not suitable for children)
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.