Back Where My Ancestors Walked
By Michele Sam
FRW editor note -- we are pleased and honoured that Michele Sam has agreed to be our guest this week. Michele is Ktunaxa ʔaqⱡsmaknik—her father is Haudenosaunee with Italian heritage and she honours her fathers’ people by following her mothers’ lineage. She returned home as a 60s scoop survivor having been adopted by a Dutch Catholic immigrant family, raised as the youngest of 5 brothers and one sister. Michele has familial ties across all 6 Ktunaxa/Ksanka communities and is an “official band member” of ʔaq̓am. She is the eldest daughter of 7 girls and a brother and is becoming an infant Ktunaxa language learner.
Like most Indigenous Peoples, I was not born with the privileges of being raised within my place based relationships to landscapes and waterways. Even those born within their homelands have not had the freedom to explore their identities as they are reflected in the waterways and ancient stories of how to take care of the land, and thereby, be taken care of.
Rather, if we were/are in our homelands, we are still trying to find our ways through the maze
of dysconscious racism and the cultural appropriation of our identities from the imagined versions of our true selves—usually sanitized of the genocide experienced over generations and the crazy-making that goes along with delusions of rights and privileges—and the Western ideal ingrained over generations, that somehow our “reserves” are the extent of our relationship with ‘all living things’, which it is not.
I come from a long line of Indigenous peoples, Ktunaxa specifically, whose relationships to place are not always thought of in terms of relationships that matter, nor in terms of reconciliation. My mother was ‘placed’ into the residential school system and child ‘welfare’ system, without her parents’ consent, and when she ‘aged out’, she ‘moved’ to Toronto, Ontario. My mother, herself limited in her relationship to and with her homelands, just as her mother before her, and hers before her—in all I can reach back to my great-grandmother’s time as the first generation whose lived experiences morphed as a direct result of settlement and restructuring Ktunaxa relationships to landscapes and waterways, making way for newcomers and settlement. It was her father, my Great-great Grandfather, whose social responsibilities for us were usurped when we would not give up our ties and covenants for the reserve and reserve life.
My father’s side was Haudenosaunee and Italian, he said, when I met him in my 20s. He had no claim to community, nor do I. A grandmother sometime back, married outside the peoplehood, and the Indian Act, in full course, exiled her from her being Haudenosaunee. The place I was born, Toronto, I once heard was loosely translated to mean “trees stand tall in the water”. A few years ago I made friends with a person from the lands where I grew up in Southern Ontario, where they told me, the farm I lived on, the small hamlet of a place, was smack dab in the centre of his family’s hunting grounds ‘back in the day’. When I was there, then and just recently, there is no reminder the lands had such ties.
In 1998, I came home, and had the blessing to hike the Earl Grey Pass. As part of the work of the Ktunaxa Treaty Process which back then included getting people back onto the landscapes and visiting the waterways that only a few generations before us, would have been used for life NOT lifestyle, I was privileged to spend a few weeks walking the trail. We made our own teas over that hike—each night we would share what we picked along the way and boiled it for a few sips each.
My experiences of reigniting the relationship of self to place changed my life. The lands and waters are that powerful—they remember us, and we can revitalize our responsibilities to act according to our sacred covenants, set out in our versions of creation. Sometimes human beings need more help than they have to give.
By the end of the Ktunaxa Creation story the land giant and the water monster are each transformed—one into the landscape—known now as the Rocky Mountains, and the other, into the human beings. The funny thing for me is that the water monster, was on all accounts, ‘a menace’ disregarded boundaries and reminds me of people whose first words are usually “I have the right to….”. It was the actions of the water monster that brought about its own
demise. Sound familiar? Yeah.
The human beings created from the inner organs of the water monster, are given “responsibilities” for all living things. And from all living things, the human beings are given “the ability to respond” to meet the needs of all living things in order to continue and perpetuate themselves. It is this responsibility that has been the purpose of social and Indian policy—targeted attempts to eradicate Indigenous Peoples' relationship to landscapes and waterways, the knowledge systems inherent to such relationships, impacting the health and well-being of all living things in the process, not just by Indian and Social Policy of course. We have as Indigenous Peoples been kept from those relationships and responsibilities over generations but that does not mean we and they cease to exist or lose vitality and significance.
Back in 2010, the UN Convention on Biodiversity held in Aichi Japan, came up with targets that would impact biodiversity intentionally across the whole of the UN structure. By then of course the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed, which is a story in itself, and together with Aichi Biodiversity Target 11 of “Strategic Goal C: To improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity”, Canada was given an opportunity to do something unique. “Indigenous Protected, Conservation Area” (IPCAs) are a means towards meeting the target Canada signed onto, of conserving 17% of water and landscapes by 2020, with ALOT of help from Indigenous Peoples. A LOT.
These IPCAs are acts of reconciliation that could provide Indigenous Peoples attachments and relationships previously removed and then told to prove their inherent value and existence. The UN model provides an approach to IPCAs that recognizes power of place as more than just lands based ‘conservation’.
To people like myself, a Ktunaxa human being, it means relearning place, revitalizing ways of being, doing and knowing, with my children, and their children’s children in mind and heart and body. It means reconnecting to places my ancestors walked, that I never had the proper shoes or gear to venture into, purposefully. taxa
Michele Sam (www.michelesam.com) focuses upon active Truth and Reconciliation including workshops, seminars and invited presentations and lectures guided by principles of: Nation Rebuilding, Good Governance, Restoration of Peoplehood, Cultural Continuity, (Re) Attachment to Lands and Waterscapes, Intellectual Sovereignty and Cognitive Justice for Indigenous Peoples ways of being, doing and knowing. She has over 25 years of active research with Indigenous Peoples across Canada, and across disciplines including fields of
Health, Governance, Education, Human Development and Social Work. She has institutional experience teaching First Nations Studies, Social Work and as a researcher. She currently sits as a Social Advisory Committee member providing an Indigenous Perspective, with the Columbia Basin Trust and as a Board Representative for the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of British Columbia (until July 2019). Michele holds earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. Through her undergraduate studies she regained an understanding of her and her ancestors lived experiences of genocide but also of cultural continuity. Her graduate degrees have focused upon appreciating the unique Ktunaxa knowledge and experience inherent to raising up of human beings from the early years onwards. She has gained an appreciation for both the theory of Intractable Conflict and its resolution as well as the role research has played within Indigenous Peoples’ self-development.
Michele is a single sole-supporting and grateful parent of two amazing kids —one of whom has started her own life in Vancouver and the other finding his way through relationships with lands and waters after recently graduating from high school. She is both a dog and cat parent. She is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share her experiences and knowledge with you.