Aboriginal Journey: Coast Salish Elder George Harris

Coast Salish elder George Harris

Coast Salish elder George Harris wears his traditional woven cedar hat on a beach in the territory of the Stzuminus First Nation on Vancouver Island. Photo by Liam Moriarty

The term “Salish Sea” recognizes the original inhabitants of the lands that surround the inland waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Georgia Strait. In Canada, those people are known as the First Nations. This week in our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty stands on a beach on the east side of Vancouver Island with Coast Salish elder George Harris.

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GEORGE HARRIS: I’d like to welcome you, Liam, to the shores of the Salish Sea, the shores of the Stzuminus First Nation.

LIAM: Could you talk about – describe where we are sitting and what we are looking at?

GEORGE: Across the water we have the Gulf Islands. That’s the Lyackson right here in front of us. That’s Penelakut Nation over to our right. And the Halalt up the channel at south, and north of us is the Snuneymuhw First Nation. We’re all Coast Salish people. The kinship ties throughout Coast Salish territory are such that they’ve existed for countless thousands of years, actually. Our elders used to tell us, we never put the border in that divides Canada and USA. Our relatives at Lummi, Tulalip, Swinomish, LaConnor, are all our relatives and we’re related. Kinship ties with aunties, uncles, cousins that are down in the States.

Coast Salish men circa 1930s play a traditional gambling game using bones and specially carved tally sticks. (Courtesy Royal BC Museum archives)

LIAM: You’re wearing a hat right now that I’m imagining is a traditional sort of hat and it looks like it’s woven out of some sort of natural fiber.

GEORGE: I wore this hat today because it’s a cedar hat. Cedar is really a strong tree for us. Most parts of the cedar tree are used for different purposes. This hat I’m wearing now is the bark of the cedar tree, and it’s woven into a hat.

LIAM: You were raised in a somewhat more traditional way, I think, than a lot of Native folks were; more in touch with the traditions and the values.     Could you talk about that?

GEORGE: I spent lots of time listening to my grandmother who never spoke any English at all. She spoke only Hul’q’umi’num’. She would teach me different things about our culture and traditional ways of our people; teach me how to follow the disciplines and the teachings.

LIAM: What are some of the principles that she imparted to you growing up?

GEORGE: One of the things she always said is be proud of who you are as a person. But never be proud at the expense of another person. Be humble as you walk on this Earth. She said we’re poor people. On the face of the Earth we’re living among our fellow human beings and our creatures, sea, the oceans, our environment. She said respect everything. Respect your neighbor. Respect your wildlife. Don’t take any more than you need. Put back as much as you can. Help out other people when you can to take care of them. It’s called Tsetswu’ut – that’s helping each other. And she taught me when I was a very young age, how to be respectful to the women, ladies in my life; my wife. I have daughters and grandkids.

A traditional potlatch ceremony, circa 1920s. The hosts stand on a platform (upper left) and shower their guests with blankets and other gifts. (Courtesy Royal BC Museum archives)

LIAM: Now, you’ve been working to make the young people aware of traditions, and you’ve been working in the prisons to do that too.

GEORGE: Yes, we are very much so disproportionately represented in the prisons. We represented probably five percent in the province of B.C. in population but we’re up to 20-25% of our inmates inside the prisons are First Nations.

I know that lots of the problems that exist within each of the individuals that are there is because they are disconnected from their family; disconnected from their community; disconnected from their nation and they don’t have the value sets or the teachings – what we call Snuw’uy’ulh —  that’s the traditional teachings of our ancestors that helps to guide them as they live in the outside world in the communities. So they end up doing wrong things and they end up in prisons.

LIAM: What do you do with these guys in the prison?

Sailing boat races held on Kuper Island by the Penelakut First Nations, circa 1930s. (Courtesy Royal BC Museum archive)

GEORGE: I sing songs to them. I say prayers. I tell them stories. I always keep saying to them, “I’m not trying to change you if you’re not acceptable to that change; you have to give yourself permission to make that change but I’ll tell you who I am and the things I was taught and how we live here in Stzuminus Nation.”

LIAM: How was that message received — when you’re working with the young men who are incarcerated?

GEORGE: I give one example. One person who is very aggressive and strong and really made up his mind how he is as a person; that’s the way he is going to be. Nothing’s going to change his life. I said listen to me. And after 20 minutes of talking to him, I stopped and he looked up at me and he said, “I wish that I heard all those things that you told me now when I was a child. I never heard any of those things.” And today, I have more hope for him that I did when I first seen him.

You know, I’m really proud to be Coast Salish. My ancestral name is Whul-qul-latza. It comes from that island right there. And that’s where my great great grandfather came from and that’s the name I carry. I have a sacred inheritance that came from him and I hope to pass that on to my son.

LIAM: Thanks for inviting me to your country, George. Thanks for sitting and talking with me this morning.

GEORGE: Thanks, Liam. Thank you for making the journey here. Huy’ch’qa cmsiem.

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