Working for change: Nuu-chah-nulth struggles against sexual violence

8 04 2007

 “The Indigenous women of this land will continue to march to attain what has been suppressed, what has been denied, what has been taken with their lives and liberty. The Indigenous women of this land will again stand where once they have fallen; to feel inside our souls the heartbeat of our ancestors. It is they who fell yesterday, that we base our collective value today. That together, the ancestors will walk along side future generations, guiding the fight for all Indigenous people of this land. Empowering the Indigenous women empowers the Indigenous family. This walk will be a tangible means that those participating can offer towards the collective end. That all Indigenous women may have the power to provide a sustainable future for the Indigenous family.”

Gloria Larocque, Cree

Many thanks to BFP who called my attention to the work of indigenous communities on Vancouver Island to address the issue of sexual violence!  Gloria Larocque is speaking (in the quote above) of a 10-day Stop the Violence March last spring that activists in that area used to raise awareness and act as a catalyst for community-based change.  Below is an interview with another leader from the Nuu-chah-nulth community that explains the issues they are working to overcome, and their approach to addressing them.  There is also lots more information available on the Stop the Violence March here.

Nuu-chah-nulth struggles against sexual violence
INTERVIEW WITH CHIINUUKS (RUTH OGILVIE)
AND NA’CHA’UAHT (CLIFF ATLEO JR)

On May 5th a small delegation of young Nuu-chah-nulth activists visited the community of Pacheedaht, marking the start of a 10-day journey through all 15 Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island. The Stop the Violence March was conceived to focus attention on the issue of domestic violence and to clearly state that it would no longer be tolerated. The intent of the march was to create space for Nuu-chah-nulth women and men to speak the truth about their experiences, space to begin a process of restoring dignity and balance to their communities by taking responsibility and action. In addition to creating space and awareness, the travelling delegation felt it was important to leave something positive in each community. Shawls were presented to a select number of female community members in the spirit of the ayts-tuu-thlaa, a coming of age ceremony meant to honour and hold up young Nuu-chah-nulth women.

Glen Coulthard (GC): Let’s start with a little background information about the Stop the Violence March that you both helped organize. What served as your motivation?

Chiinuuks: The march began with the women of Tla-o-qui-aht, many of whom are my aunts and cousins. About a year ago, Tla-o-qui-aht held an ayts-tuu-thlaa [a coming of age ceremony] for a young woman and two weeks later she was brutally attacked by someone from our community. The Tla-o-qui-aht women were outraged and held a march to demand that the violence be stopped within Tla-o-qui-aht. David Dennis attended the march and was asked to carry the message to all the Nuu-chahnulth territories.

A year later, Dave, Cliff and myself were having lunch together in Victoria and I expressed pain and anger over the fact that not one woman in my family has been unaffected by the violence that occurs regularly within our homes and communities. It disturbed all of us to realize the effect that internalized violence had within indigenous communities when compared to the rest of Canada.

I was also motivated by the gestures of our people once we started organizing the march itself. My older cousin stopped by my house for a visit and expressed his good feelings about us taking on this issue. He reminded us of our haa-huupah [teachings and stories] about the traditional role of women in Nuu-chahnulth society. Traditionally women were to be held up and respected, since they have the ability to give life. He told us the ayts-tuu-thlaa served to publicly acknowledge our young women by lifting them up and placing a beautiful shawl on their shoulders, displaying their family history or teachings. She would also be instructed by aunts, grandmothers and other family members on what it meant to be a young woman, how we need to carry ourselves and live respectfully rooted in our Nuuchah-nulth ways.

Na’cha’uaht: To get things started, we set a date two months out and challenged ourselves to get all the organizing done quickly. We were all feeling a profound need to do something, anything, to start somewhere. For me it was almost a physical ache, an ongoing sense of urgency and feeling of illness that only some sort of action could alleviate. I couldn’t help but ask myself how, as an indigenous man, I could stand by and not do something to stop this violence against our own people.

LOCAL COMMITMENT

GC: How do you see the work you accomplished with the march relating to the previous tactics of decolonization taken on by the West Coast Warrior Society [WCWS]? Was the march meant to address issues that weren’t being addressed within the Warrior movement?

Chiinuuks: I think that one of the fundamental differences between the march and other WCWS tactics was that we realized, through the help of many good women and elders, that we couldn’t simply “drop-in” to communities, expect to adequately address a problem, and then immediately move on to the next “issue” or community. Our intent was to both politicize and provide support in terms of broadening, and in some cases building from scratch, the ability for communities to defend themselves against all forms of violence and oppression.

We knew that in order to be effective we needed to ask ourselves what were the most pressing threats to our people. In doing so we realized that the internalization of violence within our homes and communities had reached staggering proportions. Although fully aware and equipped to defend ourselves against state violence, the WCWS had not addressed the issue of sexual violence occurring at this level.

So basically, I took up my responsibility as an indigenous woman to call a stop to the violence, and challenged the men to do something about it as well. We realized that in many communities and families, the subject of violence is so normalized that no one speaks about it. It then became clear that carrying the initial message of the Tla-o-qui-aht women ought to be one of our biggest initiatives.

STEPPING BACK

Na’cha’uaht: After the disbandment of the WCWS, I began to reflect a lot on the relative effectiveness of our actions. It didn’t take a lot to realize that our approaches were deeply flawed, albeit well intentioned for the most part. Although many of us understood that disbanding was the right thing to do, we also knew that our communities still needed people committed to taking action. So we spent a lot of time sitting with family members and community elders in order to better understand the roles and responsibilities of our Wit-waak [warriors].

Among other teachings, we learned that the primary responsibility of a Wiiuk [warrior] was to ensure the safety of the home and to protect the most vulnerable in our communities from any threat, wherever it may come from. Unfortunately, issues such as suicide and domestic violence top the list of actual threats in our communities. This tends to contrast with the more “sexy” or “glorious” issues of resource access or land protection, but we realized that we couldn’t legitimately call ourselves warriors if our homes are in such a deplorable state.

So essentially the men in the warrior movement backed up and the women stepped forward, and we began to dialogue. It’s important to note, however, that we didn’t “allow” the women to step forward, but for the most part just shut up and vacated some space. It’s a constant struggle not to revert back to paternalistic or chauvinistic positions, but instead be quiet and listen and engage equally. The previous incarnation of the warrior movement mostly excluded or downplayed the roles of women. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why previous initiatives ultimately failed to leave any kind of lasting legacy.

OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM

GC: Could you speak to the importance of organizing outside the colonial-state system?

Chiinuuks: I think it goes without saying that if I want to remain an authentic Kousa [human being, real person], organizing must always fall outside of the colonial system. Everyone knows that the state has always sought to destroy indigenous ways of being in the world. The kind of organizing we began with in this march is rooted in our responsibility as indigenous peoples to our land, home and community. We organize on the basis of the threat of the day. Today this means neo-colonialism and its effects, which includes the systemic rage that has turned inward on ourselves. Since the colonialstate can’t address these issues, we must find solutions that derive from our own communities.

Na’cha’uaht: For me, the colonial-state system was never meant to liberate us or allow us to be ourselves and craft our futures as we see fit. Well intentioned people and efforts get swallowed up by the band councils and government programs to a point where they, at best, simply prop up a corrupt social-safety net, or worse, fundamentally change who we are as indigenous people.

The benefit of organizing outside this system has been the opportunity to show people that we can achieve tangible results without relying on government funding or direction. It has been an awesome experience to see people realize that our ways, Nuu-chah-nulth ways and teachings, are still valid and can guide us in a way that could never be achieved within the colonial-state system.

Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t challenges, which often relate to our own impatience and desire for immediate change. In rejecting government funding we have needed to be more creative in terms of organizing and fundraising. In the long-run, however, this will help us develop greater independence, which adds to our desire to do things right.

ABUSING TRADITION

GC: What relationship do you see between traditionalism and the struggle against sexual violence in your communities? Do you ever see tradition being misused to justify gender violence?

Chiinuuks: The relationship between traditionalism and sexual violence is particularly difficult to confront because of the effect that colonialism has had in the minds and hearts of our people. It’s a daunting task to sort through the debris of colonialism and separate it from the spirit or ethics of our traditions. I guess that’s what decolonizing from an indigenous perspective is all about.

One particularly tragic example has been the silencing of women in the name of tradition. For example, there are hereditary chiefs today who have violated and molested women and children. Often they don’t face any consequences for their behaviour within the communities. This, as I understand it, is not our way. Any violation of women and children was met with severe consequences in previous times, and at the very least these men would be removed from their seat as leaders. My grandfather Cha-chin-sunup met with some elders in Campbell River who are beginning to sort out some of this business. These elders are gravely concerned about what chiefs are getting away with and want to reinstate the ability to remove them from their positions if need be.

I’ve also experienced silencing in the name of tradition. Some so-called “traditionalists” continue to claim that women are not supposed to speak, because we’re apparently too vulnerable to the power of politics [laughter]. However, even if this “tradition” were so, today our sheer lack of numbers requires that I take up my responsibility and pull my weight in terms of this struggle for our people.

Na’cha’auht: I agree; tradition gets misused all the time. This is a constant challenge for any young indigenous person seeking change by using authentic indigenous principles. I find it important to acknowledge that we are struggling at a time when many of our traditional practices and teachings have been corrupted by colonial schools, churches and the whole imperial experience. Fortunately, however, in Nuu-chah-nulth territory, I believe we still have access to many of the important values and principles that can guide us in developing revised practices to meet our modern challenges.

NEXT STEPS

GC: What’s your next move? How do you hope to sustain the effect that you’ve had in your communities over the long haul?

Na’cha’uaht: In each of the communities we visited we established solid connections with people who are equally committed to bringing about the changes we all desire. The mostly urban organizers will be gathering again, this time with our community contacts. We’ll begin developing plans that can support locally driven initiatives. Additionally, many of us feel that we must address the same issues in cities, where more than 65% of Nuu-chah-nulth people actually live. Some preliminary discussions have taken place on the organizing of a similar tour through the urban areas.

Chiinuuks: We’ve also been asked to make the march an annual event, and we intend to do that. We hope to gather the core people that we contacted in each community in order to help each other find solutions that suit the needs of each community. We don’t want to prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Each community experiences different forms of violence and has their own feelings about what their specific needs are.

Na’cha’uaht: Hopefully, in addressing these immediate issues by employing time-tested Nuu-chah-nulth principles and teachings, we will be able to craft a future where our children will grow-up knowing their language and history and be able to lead us out of these dark neocolonial times. I believe that we can all do something of significance, even if our ultimate goals are to be realized generations from now.

Na’cha’uaht is from Ahousaht of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation on his father’s side, and Kitselas of the Tsimshian nation on his mother’s side. He is a former West Coast Warrior, aspiring Wiiuk, and political science student at the University of Victoria. Chiinuuks is from Tla-o-qui-aht and Checlesaht of the Nuu-chah-nulth nation. She is also a former member of the West Coast Warrior Society, an aspiring Wii-uk and currently in the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria.

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One response

3 09 2007
Deborah Simmons

It’s great to see that word is spreading about the important work of the Stop the Violence Movement in Nuu-chah-nulth territory. The interview on this page was originally published in the special Indigenous Resurgence issue of New Socialist magazine (Issue #58, September-October 2006), edited by Taiaiake Alfred, Glen Coulthard and myself. The full magazine is available in the New Socialist magazine archive at http://www.newsocialist.org. And check out our coverage of indigenous struggles in more recent issues!

/in solidarity, Deborah Simmons

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