Looking up, through very thick trees, you can just see a spot of light, the sun and sky, but thought tiny it shines brightly.
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Beginnings of Knowing: A Story

The Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report is hovering, waiting for us to read, write, and develop programs in response to their findings. I feel personally and professionally compelled to participate in necessary and long-overdue healing. Heeding the Call(s) is my attempt to further the conversation about the TRC’s Final Report, its urgency, and what we can do in response as Student Affairs professionals.

“Story is one if not the fundamental unit that accounts for human experience.”(1)

Reading the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the subsequent research rabbit hole, as John Hannah might describe it, in which I am now knee deep, has me thinking about social locations, im/balances of power, overt and covert privileges, and implicated-ness. About complicity and responsibility. About empathizing without appropriating. About all that I don’t know but long to. And about relating, relationship, and storytelling.

“The relationship between storyteller and listener is a reciprocal one.”(2)

“[A] fundamental tenet of Anishinaabe, and Aboriginal, worldviews: the notion that everyone is related.”(3) Relatedness. Relationality. Relationship-making. Relations with others, with histories. Relating to stories, relaying one’s stories. Relatives. Reciprocity.

Stories comprise many layers of meaning, giving the listener the responsibility to listen, reflect and then interpret the message. Stories incorporate several possible explanations for phenomena, allowing listeners to creatively expand their thinking processes so that each problem they encounter in life can be viewed from a variety of angles before a solution is reached.(4)

One of the stories that my father—Jewish, communist, a writer, equal parts Don Draper and Philip Roth—would sometimes tell was how in his early twenties he fell in love with a Catholic nurse, a shiksa, and, destined never to be together, he headed west, mired in longing, angst, and wanderlust. He hitchhiked westwardly from Toronto. Once in BC, he went north and found work as a teacher in Gitlaxt’aamiks, then called New Ayansh, further up than Prince Rupert, and not far from the Alaskan border. He found himself in the heart of the Nisga’a First Nation, in the Nass River Valley. My father passed away from cancer when I was twenty-six, and my mother died, also of cancer, just three years later, so these are a fading collection of finite stories.

We live in, through, and out of stories, and extract meaning by way of stories. Storytelling is a foundational way we express ourselves.(5)

Was it voyeurism or a desire to learn that fuelled my father? I think he would’ve been about twenty-one. It might have been 1949. I believe he said he stayed through one winter, leaving when an outbreak of TB hit. What were the experiences of those who didn’t or couldn’t leave? I feel certain he would’ve brought his typewriter. With few family members remaining, I’ve pieced together only that he would’ve likely taught English to mixed age classes in a local Presbyterian school. I do remember him telling me about how he arrived not long after missionaries had cut down the village’s giant red cedar totems out of a misunderstanding of their meaning, mistakenly viewing them—and thus condemning them—as items of worship instead of family and clan, or dodem, identification.

We are all, “at once, engaged in living, telling, retelling, and reliving stories.”(6)

Chief among the questions I wish I could ask my father about his experiences in Gitlaxt’aamiks was whether the school in which he taught was a residential one. In the early research I’ve tried to do, there is no record of this. There were, however, residential schools all over the region, including the Greenville Mission Boys’ Boarding School in Nass River and the Metlakatla Indian Residential School. Did he know of these? I would also ask how and why the school at which he taught came to be, what it purported to teach, what he brought with him in terms of cultural awareness beforehand, about the relationships he built and whether any endured, about how he navigated being an outsider. And, aside from romantic forlornness, what took him to that spot?

“Through narrative, we develop a deeper understanding of…the implications.”(7)

I reached out to my father’s first wife, who said he’d wanted “an adventure.” I wonder how his students would have felt about this as motivation. Did they regard him as the “white driftwood”—health professionals, social workers, and teachers drifting through a short stints and stays—that Allan MacDonald described in a recent Ryerson Student Affairs TRC talking circle? Was there something pollyannish in my father’s journey?

Story is “a mode of knowing…we learn through storytelling.”(8)

My four half-siblings from my father’s first marriage hadn’t heard any of these stories. Did life events—divorce, navigating two households—hinder my father’s telling? Was he proud of his time in Gitlaxt’aamiks? Self-conscious? Ashamed? These questions are undergirded by what I really want to ask, more largely: what stories become collapsed and conflated, overlooked or overshadowed or omitted altogether? Whose stories get told and heard?

“[S]torytelling creates a context or a window into the life-ways and life-experiences…[i]t builds on lived experience and allows the teller and listener to draw meaning from the story through one’s critically reflective centre.”(9)

At one time, I had a thick folder of photographs of his class, and notes of gratitude from the families of the students he taught, but these are now long gone. The incompleteness—unreachability—has only fired up my desire to connect with this part of my father’s history. To hear these stories from my childhood again, but this time ask more questions. This gossamer thread of memories was prompted by Jen Gonzales’ description in a talking circle of how she spent the past year exploring her ancestry/ies. My barely-there recollection has become, for me, a waypoint, a guide post reminder, of listening, querying, relating, and telling my own story/ies, tender as they may be.

It is through narrative that we experience the world.(10)

With few avenues left to sleuth out, I will likely be in a perpetual beginning in my father’s time in Gitlaxt’aamiks. I do remember, prompted by his time with the Nisga’a, that he always silently gave gratitude before eating meat; that for better or worse he felt resonance with Margaret Craven’s, “I Heard the Owl Call My Name”; and, he never overtly took on, put on, or appropriated. But that’s the extent of what I can recall and relay. Although unsatisfying, ever-curious, and possibly damning, exploring his story is akin to my own starting point in deepening my understanding about aboriginal histories and ways of knowing. As I unlearn my own colonial complicities, I am at the beginning of a messy mosaic of storying and seeking. Of carefully considering how to relate and relationship-make.

Michael Polanyi (1958/2015) reminds us, “as human beings, we must inevitably see the universe from a centre lying within ourselves and speak about it in terms of a human language shaped by the exigencies of human intercourse”.

Polanyi’s line reminds me of a chapter title, “The Self Is Always First in the Circle,” in Cyndy Baskin’s text, Strong Helpers’ Teaching: The Value of Indigenous Knowledges in the Helping Professions (2011). These encourage me to ask: where do we each stand in relation to that which we are trying to know, understand, and tell the story of?


(1) Pinnegar, S., & Daynes, J. (2007). Locating narrative inquiry historically: Thematics in the turn to narrative. In D. J. Clandinin (Ed.), Handbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology. (pp. 3-35). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452226552.n1 (p. 5)

(2) Baskin, C. (2005). Storytelling Circles: Reflections of Aboriginal Protocols in Research. Canadian Social Work Review. 22(2), pp. 171-187. (p. 181).

(3) http://www.ideas-idees.ca/blog/everything-alive-and-everyone-related-indigenous-knowing-and-inclusive-education

(4) Lanigan, M. A. (1998). “Aboriginal Pedagogy: Storytelling.” In L. A. Stiffarm, ed., As We See…Aboriginal Pedagogy (pp. 103-120). Saskatoon, SK: University of Saskatchewan Press. (p. 113).

(5) Crites, S. (1971). The narrative quality of experience. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 39(3), 291-311.

(6) Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14 (p. 11). American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176100

(7) McKeough, A., Bird, S., Tourigny, E., Romaine, A., Graham, S., Ottmann, J., & Jeary, J. (2008). Storytelling as a foundation to literacy development for Aboriginal children: Culturally and developmentally appropriate practices. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49(2), p. 150.

(8) http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/pdf/03092402/v45i0005/519_nilaeiarm.xml

(9) Chartrand, R. (2012). Anishinaabe pedagogy. Canadian Journal of Native Education,35(1), 144-162,221. (Para. 3). Retrieved from http://myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1370197105?accountid=14771

(10) Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14 (p. 11). American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1176100

Heeding the Call(s) is a series dedicated to Student Affairs contribution to integrating the TRC’s findings into our everyday work. Join me in the coming months as I explore some principles of aboriginal education, examples of “indigenized” programming, and suggestions of how we might transition towards what some call indigagogy, all in the hopes of taking responsibility and prioritizing reconciliation.