"Eye of the Storm" sculpture by Coast Salish artist Chris Paul. Photo © Bill Smith (CC BY-SA 4.0).

CANADA: Sacred Lessons from the Matriarchy

As an indigenous Cowichan woman caught between dueling cultures, Sharon Lewis strives to fulfill the hopes of the strong women who raised her.

As the last baby to gain the teachings of the longhouse, I hold the knowledge of a way of life that is quickly being lost.

When I was born I was given to my grandmother Ellen of Clem Clem Longhouse of Coast Salish Territory. I was breastfed and raised by five longhouse mothers according to matriarchal traditions of our indigenous Cowichan Nation. My grandmother was a clan mother, a matriarch of the longhouse and nation. She and the many mothers of the longhouse filled me with care, teachings, and love. Who could ask for anything more?

When I was three years old I was named "Tzouhalem" in a huge naming ceremony. Twelve mask dancers, a whole team of singers and drummers, dancers, guests, and witnesses participated in my naming. I wore a red shawl during the long, beautiful ceremony. Three pit fires burned all at once in the middle of the longhouse. The drumming and singing lasted for hours. My grandmother prepared a whole feast for the peoples after the ceremony and gave away money, blankets, shawls, rice, and sugar for the occasion.

I was given an old name going back over 10,000 years that belonged to my grandfather Chief Tzouhalem. I carry his name with honor! I also have an English Name, a reminder that I live in two cultures and two worlds that oppose one another greatly.

I had a wonderful childhood, but as I grew older, I began to see my peoples of Coast Salish Territory losing our culture, our language, and our way of life. My upbringing was in conflict with the laws of Canada and patriarchal Canadian societal rules.

The Indian Act of Canada has been taking away the voice of Native women ever since it first passed in 1876. This legal framework denies women of Coast Salish Territory the right to a living cultural identity and practice.

Our longhouse cultural ceremonies and dances were outlawed until 1951. My family members had to keep them alive in secret during those years. When I was raised in the longhouse, my brothers and sisters and nation of children were sent to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or participate in cultural spiritual ceremonies. I have watched my nation disappearing from the genocide of Coast Salish peoples under Canadian laws.

Canadian marriage and family laws are part of a continuous cycle of legal oppression and abuses. Under Canadian laws, we take our father’s last name; in the longhouse Coast Salish way, we take a name our grandmother gave us. Under the child welfare system, raising children in the longhouse with our traditional customs is not acceptable. Today, children raised the way I was can be removed from their parents or households.

The Indian Act marginalizes Native people through Canadian jails, schools, and healthcare systems. The Indian Act is supposed to provide for Native people’s health care, but our health care is delivered in a framework of discrimination. The legacy of Canadian healthcare includes a dark history of forced sterilization of many Native women through 1970s. Today, doctors may choose not to accept Aboriginal Affairs health insurance.

As a clan mother, my grandmother had the ability to address the nation on all socio-economic issues. The clan mother decides who is the next chief of the nation; the chief is not elected. Today the foreign influence of the Indian Act imposes an election process that takes away clan mothers’ duty. The laws of Canada deny Native women from playing a key role in policy making and they impose poverty on women by ignoring our traditional voice in our economy.

When I was in my 30's, after I had children and became a mother myself, I sat down for tea with my mother and I asked her, "Mom, did you love me when I was born? How come I grew up in the longhouse with five mothers and a clan mother?" She replied, "Honey, it’s not that I did not love you. I loved you the most. You were the last baby born to our family and longhouse and you were the last hope." I interpreted that 100 different ways for years to come. But I realized that as the last baby to gain the teachings of the longhouse, I hold the knowledge of a way of life that is quickly being lost.

I was the daughter of chieftains on both sides and it was important for my family to raise me with sacred teachings so our culture would not disappear under the Indian Act. In our custom, the clan mother carries the word of laws of the nation. One granddaughter is picked to learn everything—from lands, water, environmental, health, economy, and justice of the nation. I was that child. I was raised to understand that I was one with my nation, and my nation is one with me. I am one with the land; it is one with me!

I learned to walk through the mountains without shoes on. I learned to listen and speak to the animals of the forest and understand that the forest speaks to us. I was put into the ocean as a baby to become one with the water, learning to swim before I learned to walk.

I learned our language and the social protocols of the longhouse and community. I learned each step of longhouse ceremonies. Nothing is written and all teachings must be remembered. The training comes from walking through it, actively participating in those teachings, and listening to the women of the longhouse.

I learned respect; listening without speaking to the elder women and family members as a child. I learned where food comes from, and the nutrition of each food group. I grew up eating something good from the earth, river, ocean, or air that carries a cultural diet for my peoples: salmon, clams, oysters, berries, deer, elk, potatoes, vegetables, and duck. I was not allowed to drink sugary juices or eat cake. No cookies, pop, or junk food was allowed to go through my body; my body is a medicine wheel! I learned to drink slowly and carefully, never wasting a single drop. I learned to never want for anything but what is on my plate and to leave one bite on the plate for our ancestors that passed over the rainbow, to always remember them.

I was taught the belief that water is sacred, children are sacred, and a strong family means strong medicine. I was taught that women carry the economic development of our nation when it comes to decision making, lands, and naming.

I learned that the interconnection of all living things is fragile. If one of the components of that medicine wheel is broken, it has a huge negative impact on all living things. If our water is poisoned by toxic waste and dies, human life will die too. If we don't respect animals, if we take more than we need, animals will become extinct. I was trained to become a whole human being and to understand the world around me.

These teachings are still with me. Today I see our matriarchal society dominated and oppressed under the Indian Act, but the sacred teachings from the longhouse mothers have shown me an alternative way of life. I speak out for my people, seeking reconciliation for Coast Salish Territory and Native Women of Canada. We seek a voice on all social and economic policies that pertain to our way of life—before it is completely wiped out.

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Comments

Dear Sharon,

This is the true history of this land we live on, and it is the Indigenous women in Canada whose voices continue to speak so strongly that another way of being together is not only possible, it still exists, in the perspectives, the courage and the determination to hold onto and describe tradition that was intentionally not taught in Canadian schools, not covered in news, and actively fought against in what can only be described as intentional genocide. What a special position you hold. What a precious beginning, what a treasure of knowledge. Thanks to your sending us all your story, we all have proof that there is a different way, and that the control being so cruelly and selfishly imposed by men in so many countries has not managed to stop the Salish People from keeping Matriarchal traditions alive.

With deep respect in Sisterhood,

Tam

Dear Sharon,

You have shared your story with passion nd depth you have shown the history, your present and gave an insight into the future which you hope for. May your voice continue to rise and may your vision be realised and your culture preserved. 

Sherna Alexander Benjamin

"Whenever the human rights of one is violated the human rights of all are in jeopardy." - Sherna Alexander Benjamin

Dear Sharon,

I love your passion for your history and traditional values handed down by the longhouse mothers, which are harmless by the way. I learned so much from them just now and have even decided to imbibe them. And I love that you are so firmly upholding all that. I pray you continue to find strength until you win these battles. And you shall win. You were born for such a time as this. Be well, darling.

Dear Sharon

thanks for sharing your beautiful story that is indeed the story of all indigenous people around the world, always the "new" and "occidental" culture clash with the traditional cultural, and this last one tend to lose in time. 

Thanks for keeping the Matriarchal traditions alive through your story and the passion that you share in this, how wonderful the world will be if the Matriarchal system will exist today and how beloved our children will be. 

Thanks again for sharing

 

Enma Marín.

Ekpapalek Mujeres Mentor

Personal Blog: //notthatpinky.blog

Facebook Page for Difusion Of Latino America´s Feminist Actions

Dear Sharon,

Thank you for sharing such beautiful story about your culture. This is the trend around the world, many things are changing and people's way of life is being eroded by so called modernization. Just like your mum told you, continue to remember that you are their hope, and continue to pass on the longhouse culture.

Funmi

Thank you for sharing your story, and your strength in keeping the sacred customs of your culture alive. Your voice and strength are heard and felt and so needed in our world today.

Warmly,

Carrie

Sharon, I am Canadian born and moved to the States at 23. I proudly hold on to my Canadian citizenship. But hearing this story makes me so very disappointed in Canadian Law and reminds me of the dark history of how the indigenous people were so horribly treated. I was never proud of that fact and the small injustices I was aware of while growing up in a fairly sheltered environment. But social justice is my passion; that all people are created equal. First, thank you for the background and education on how things worked and the details about the longhouse women. How incredibly wonderful! If all our societies were built on this wisdom and these values we would have a better world for sure. I do not know all you are doing to work to change this harmful law but if there is any way I may support you please let me know. I am here for you and for all you are working to accomplish. GOOD FOR YOU. You stay strong. You were born for such a time as this....   big hug to you, Colleen 

Colleen Abdoulah

Dear Sharon, thank you for sharing your moving story and giving us insights in to your rich culture... and perhaps more importantly, the values and traditions that will be lost if we cannot open our minds and hearts to marry the old and new.

Hi Sharon,

Thank you for sharing this very moving story and reminding us of the injustices faced by indigenous people in Canada. Your connection with your many mothers was wonderful to read about the day after Mother's Day. I would love to know how we can support your efforts from afar.

Geraldine

 

 

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Sharon. The values and traditions that you are fighting to preserve are reminiscent of the outlook needed in today's day and age. Keep on fighting, your work matters! 

 

Erika 

Thank you for your words of kindness, I really appreciate your comments. Its been a life of pure conflict, and having an education I have the ability to translate both worlds and assess the differences before me, and analyze problematic areas of concern; as like policy and legislation. Though, I have never been considered to work in the area of policy making; I do know how to develop short-term and long-term programs and constantly put forth the voice of women, through talking circles. I thank you, it means a lot to me, that you read my story and commented your support. Aho

Sharon Lewis

Woow Sharon

Thanks for sharing your story. It is quite sad that this community is being marginalized and yet it had very good family values that it instilled in children. Your children are blessed becasue you will be able to teach them all that you learnt from your grandmother. It would be nice if you documented all that you learnt because that will be another way to keep the traditions and lessons alive.

Thanks for sharing your story has been quite enlightening. Stay blessed.

Mrs. Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi Head of Legal and Advocacy Centre for Batwa Minorities a.kiddu@gmail.com cfmlegal@gmail.com Skype: mrs_muhanguzi

Dear Sharon, I am thrilled to know that a woman is still alive who practices the original customs and meanings of her native tribe. This is very exciting that all is not lost! I admire you for owning and possessing these ancient practices and beliefs. Thank you for telling us the story. But I see how there is conflict with the laws of Canada. Perhaps you are the one to work on altering those laws so that your culture is included and not outcast. I wish you well as you take the future journey. This will not be easy. I'm sure you are teaching your own children the Cowhichan ways. Hopefully they will carry on this fine culture, and even make a way to blend some of these very environmentally sound practices into modern society of Canada, as well as the U.S. and around the world. My best to you on your sacred journey.

Sincererly,

WorldCarre