VIDEO: “In Her Name—Relationships as Law” (Addressing Violence Through Indigenous Teachings and Tradition)
Obviously, the video of that presentation will contain most of the text below but, according to Sarah, the transcript she provided here is “slightly different from the video because it includes the few sections I forgot.” Consider it bonus material from an already stimulating talk.
In the Kwakwala language, Gilaksa’la is a welcome we give at the beginning of any speech or before starting important business. In this same Kwakwaka’wkaw tradition, I am supposed to introduce myself, Sarah Hunt, and tell you that my grandparents Henry and Helen Hunt were from Tsaxis or Fort Rupert on the northern part of Vancouver Island. And that my grandparents on my mom’s side are Jack and Betty Sahaydak, with ancestry from Ukraine and England. In telling you these things, my name reveals not just who I am personally, but tells you about my standing in my community, my cultural and ceremonial rights and how I might be related to you.
But, in truth, this talk should begin with another name: Sheila Hunt.
Sheila Hunt was a name that I saw among dozens of other names of missing and murdered women, written on a banner at a rally in Vancouver’s downtown east side. Now I have a lot of relatives — my grandma had 14 kids after all and I have more than 60 first cousins — but Sheila Hunt was not a name I had heard before.
At the time of this rally, I was twenty years old and in my first few years of university. I had become interested in issues of violence a couple of years earlier when a cousin of mine — Malidi — had taken her own life.
Malidi was close to my age, she was well loved and well connected to her culture. And her death left a deep impression on me. I began to think about the silence left behind after her passing — how would I know her story now that she was gone? I began to see it as my obligation to address that silence. Even though I was only 18, I was a young woman determined on change.
And so after taking some classes and reading books about violence, I became aware of the particular violence faced by native women in Vancouver’s downtown east side. Here, women were disappearing on a regular basis. Or they were showing up dead. And nothing was being done by police or other authorities to take it seriously.
And so, at the age of 20 and in my third year of university, I attended my first march to remember women who had been killed or gone missing from this community.
And it was there, standing amongst the crowd, that I spotted the name “Sheila Hunt.” Suddenly, I became aware of the depth of the silence that had begun to haunt me. Because I realized that if I had a family member living and working in the downtown east side, I would likely never hear about it. The stigma around sex work, the shame around drug use and poverty, these all create even more silence. And further distance between myself and women like Sheila.
Sheila and Malidi have stayed in my mind in the more than 15 years since then, as I worked with communities across BC to address violence. I first started doing education and outreach with young women in Vancouver. I then became a researcher and educator in small communities and cities across the province, talking about violence, sexual exploitation, and intergenerational abuse.
Through all of this, what struck me were the similar ways violence was being talked about. Whether I was in a small northern reserve community, or a town on Vancouver Island, or in a city like Vancouver, I heard young people tell me that violence is just a part of life. It happens and nobody talks about it. Although we know that there are lots of similar problems in wider Canadian society, Indigenous people are much more likely to experience violence, both from within and from outside native communities.
Traveling to northern BC, I learned that the situation in the downtown east side was not unique. In fact, more than a dozen young native girls and women had been found dead or gone missing from along a remote stretch of highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George. Families and community members here had been urging the police to do something for years about these cases. The girls here were not facing the stigma of working in the sex trade or being in an area known for drug use and poverty. They were simply living in remote reserve communities, which are out of sight, out of mind for most Canadians. It was only when a non-native girl, a treeplanter, went missing while hitchhiking into town that the media and the public, that we, paid attention.
Of course, things have changed in the more than 15 years since I first attended the march. The police formed a task force, serial killer Robert Pickton was locked up and the public became aware of “the missing women.” National research was done to try to find out the extent of unsolved murders or disappearances of native girls and women. When the results were released in 2010 more than 600 names were on that list. An inquiry was also held to look in to why the violence in the downtown east side continued for so long before the police took action. And in northern BC, the police compiled a list of young women who have met a similar fate along what is now known as “the Highway of Tears.” The UN wants to investigate the missing women, calling it an issue of human rights. [Editor’s note: Canada has rejected such moves by bodies of the United Nations.]
So family members should be relieved, right? Because the police and the public finally started paying attention, finally put a name to the violence that went unseen for so long.
Despite these changes in public awareness, despite this legal action, despite the poster campaigns, the reports, and the international horror at the discovery of a serial killer… the violence continues. It’s still a part of daily life. Young women continue to go missing from rural reserves. They continue to die under suspicious circumstances. Gay native men (who we call two-spirits) — like Dolan Badger — continue to be killed without any justice. And if these stories show up in the media, they surface for a moment, very rarely to be talked about again.
Well, a few years ago I reached a kind of turning point. These changes were just not enough. Why do we ask for help from a system that doesn’t seem to create real change? What does “justice” really mean?
For me, this change came after I had seen case after case where violence was reported. Sometimes it got to court, and sometimes there were even convictions. But the lives of the young people I was working with did not improve. When the court case was all over, their lives went right back to how they had been before. In fact, through the court process, the victims themselves felt helpless, just waiting to hear what a judge decided. Or, more often, they were told that there wasn’t enough evidence so nothing more could be done.
It is such a helpless feeling, to see people go through such brutality and to know the justice systems has no solutions.
Other responses left me frustrated too. Along the highway of tears, the government contributed money… to erect billboards saying “Friends don’t let friends hitchhike.” What good is a billboard going to do when it’s -20°C and you need to get into town for a doctors’ appointment, and there is simply no bus service to get you there?
Getting more and more fed up with these band-aid solutions, in 2010 I went back to school to get my PhD. And in my research, I started talking to people about what is making a difference, not necessarily in the courts but in the daily lives of the communities I was working with. What might actually prevent violence or help to keep people safer?
Because surely we can do better than billboards telling girls to stay home. Surely we can do better than a thirty-second news clip.
I realized that communities are, in fact, doing lots of things to address violence on their own, without the help of police or the government. They‘re creating solutions that address local problems and are led by local people. And many First Nations are drawing on their own cultural teachings and traditions in these solutions.
One program that stands out for me is the Moosehide Project, started by Paul Lacerte at the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centers. In Paul’s program, boys and men within a community take a pledge not to be violent toward the girls and women in their lives. And they also pledge to keep one another accountable. Often, communities go through traditional hunting processes to harvest the hide and integrate other local cultural practices. It draws on the strengths of the land, the animals and the men’s obligations to their ancestors. This is happening on a small scale in communities all across BC and it’s spreading fast.
Other solutions involve restoring the cultural roles of young people, integrating traditional conflict resolution, calling on elders to settle disputes. Or creating informal safe houses, or training emergency response teams made up of local people.
As I talked to people in native communities all across BC, my view on law started to shift. I started to see these solutions not as just local social changes, but as the operation of a different kind of law: Indigenous law.
Now what do I mean by Indigenous law? Don’t we need the courts to uphold our laws?
Well before the Indian Act turned us into Indians, before Canada became Canada, we native people were Kwagiulth, Haida, and Nuu-Chah-Nulth. We were Skeetchestn, Tsimishian and Nisga’a. We can see on this map that there were, and are, many distinct language groups across BC. Each language represents a distinct Indigenous Nation, with their own set of cultural systems, social norms, ceremonial practices, and yes, laws. These laws governed our lives for thousands of years, not upheld through a court system or police, but by a network of individuals who kept each other accountable.
Canadian law turned all these individual groups, all these distinct cultures, into one thing: Status Indians. And all of us became subject to federal law. This federal law is now supposed to help us to address violence and abuse, but clearly it is failing.
Thinking about these networks, we can see that the laws of Canada that were plunked down on top of native communities have an entirely different geography. One big national law versus local level networks. But what is rarely seen is that those legal relationships, the identities and cultural practices remain alive and active underneath the laws of Canada.
Right now, in many rural areas, if you call the police for help, they may not get there for a day, or two, or, I’ve heard, even a week. So you can see why local solutions, right here and now, might be more effective.
I’ve noticed that local strategies have a different quality than those offered by criminal law. Instead of appealing to some powerful figure like the police or a judge for help, with Indigenous law, all members of a community are actively involved in upholding local laws. This activates our sense of power, our agency.
So what is agency? We might define it as the capacity of a person to act in the world. Or the ability to make choices for yourself. This is a fundamental quality of being a person in society, of feeling like you matter, like you are in control of your own life.
And in many Indigenous teachings, it’s not only people who have agency but also plants, animals, the land and the ocean — every living thing has agency. Each living thing has an important role in the order of the world. The teachings that emerge from our longstanding relationships upon the land and the ocean have allowed us to live with each another for thousands of years. And they have much to teach about creating healthy and strong relationships. Relationships that don’t allow violence.
You may not know about them, but if you take the time to learn about local Indigenous communities, here on the lands we live on, you might be surprised at what we learn.
In my Kwakwaka’wakw community, our laws tell us we are responsible for “raising one another up.” We hold up our hands in recognition of our ancestors, honoring one another and recognizing each other’s gifts. We must look to our neighbors, to ourselves, to “raise one another up.”
We now remember the missing women. But how could we have raised up women like Sheila Hunt, before her name ended up on that banner?
In these teachings, our relationships are what hold us to account. Our relationships become our law. If laws are rules we form to determine how we live with one another, it seems that laws formed from within these local relationships have much to offer. Not just for violence, but so many other issues too.
You might be familiar with seeing native culture and resistance being put to work in political actions like Idle No More, but I think we also need to turn its power toward the smaller, everyday level of our relationships. And how we envision our communities.
We see allies show up at rallies to defend our oceans, our forests, our salmon. But who shows up when we call on people to stand up with our loved ones, to stand up for our very lives?
So what can be learned from this? It’s up to Indigenous people to revitalize our cultural practices. But I think everyone can take something from the principles of Indigenous law.
Instead of expecting criminal law to stop violence, instead of looking for one big solution, we can look to each another. We can look to ourselves and our neighbors to change norms around violence.
The next time we hear a news story about violence and find ourselves tuning out, we can question why that violence feels far off from our reality.
Because it’s not. It’s happening just around the corner from us, to our neighbors. So we can think about how to close the gaps between us, strengthening our relationships.
And second, if we take the time to look underneath and beyond the map of Canada, underneath the cities we now live in, Indigenous knowledge has much to teach us about where we live and how we might better live together in these lands.
Sheila Hunt? I never did find out if she was my auntie. Because the point is she should have mattered whether she was my auntie or not. And she should have mattered before she was put on that list of “the missing women.” As neighbours, as people who create community together, the laws of this land tell me Sheila should have been treated as a valuable member of society. So should Dolan Badger. So should my cousin Malidi. I’ve learned over the past 15 years of talking about violence that it won’t be stopped by a poster campaign. Or a court case. Or a news story. It will only be stopped when those who enact violence, and those who experience it, and those who witness it, are understood as being part of a network of people who are responsible to one another.
The people who live beside us — whether we know them or not — we need to “raise one another up.” Because if we don’t, who will?
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