Last week I went from being politically correct with respect to First Nations, to being personally and emotionally invested in their quest for cultural and educational revival. The change has helped settle something deep in my heart, and this is how it happened.
Before my experience this past week I would have described myself as civil and friendly toward them, calling them First Nations, Aboriginals, or Indigenous Peoples, believing in reconciliatory projects and affirmative action. I have had a friend or two with status cards, but I never understood how deeply their culture has been damaged, and how personal and ongoing a problem it is for today's Aboriginals? My limited exposure to First Nations had painted an unfair image of a native reserve as a place that is poor looking, dirty, littered with garbage, dogs, and unattended children. The word "Aboriginals" primarily brought images of teen moms and old drunks on Vancouver's East Side, or the groups that appear in news coverage of various protests with Aboriginals accompanied by hippies and other anti-establishment types, demanding land rights, social services, autonomy and money. I dare say now that I thought Aboriginals were either irresponsible or irrational, with few exceptions, but that they were owed some help from the government.
I regret not having recognized the error in my ways sooner, but I feel fortunate that my recent experience has sparked such a radical change in my views. And though I have learnt a great deal on my visit to the Heiltsuk Nation, I have not conducted an investigation and I have done little more than scratch the surface of the complex relationship that Aboriginals in Canada have with non-Aboriginals.
As I tell my story, and describe a tiny slice of Heiltsuk life, I hope you will consider that (off the top of my head) 1. Aboriginals are still deeply affected, hurt, and socially disenfranchised, from over 100 years of cultural, and sometimes mortal genocide brought on by the immigrants in power. 2. The information that is delivered to us in the media and on urban streets is not representative of aboriginal life and culture. 3. The history, culture, and society of the Heiltsuk People goes back 10,000 years or more, in the area surrounding Bella Bella.
The Math Catcher Program brings positive experiences with math to First Nations school children in BC. I am the (volunteer) Activity Developer and Coordinator, and this is how our first school visit went.
In April 2012 we visited the Heiltsuk Nation (sounds like "Heltic") in Bella Bella, and the experience affected our team in a powerful and positive way.
This was our second attempt, in fact, since our first was thwarted by the weather last December. Upon our arrival, we made for Alvina's bed and breakfast, where we were greeted outside by a fat, happy, and smelly golden lab, and inside by a welcoming host.
Bella Bella is a quaint village with largish weather beaten houses decorated with friendly dogs, scattered junk, and open drain ditches. The town overlooks a beautiful waterscape, backed by misty coniferous hills, accessible by boats, watertaxi or otherwise, moored at a pier. This commercial centre also provides a post office, smallish market, gift shop, and just up the road is a convenience store and restaurant. Beyond that is the comparatively large community school and somewhere, I'm told, is a hospital.
Nearly everyone we saw on the street greeted us with a smile. From children to elders, including the garbage pickup workers, who you might expect to be too busy. Eating at the local restaurants felt like we had walked into someone else's family dinner, and then kindly shown a table anyway. When we had some trouble reaching our contacts someone noticed immediately and offered whatever help they could.
The first afternoon, we met with several teachers, and our contact, Johanna. She is what I would call the "Experiential Science Coordinator", and is a wonderful human resource in their school. In fact, we were amazed at how rich the school is in good, enthusiastic, and caring teachers. We had an open and honest discussion of the state of math education at their school and for First Nations students in general, and told them about the goals of our program. Math Catcher exists to counteract the fear students have of math, and foster an enthusiasm for it. Our group and the teachers were encouraged by each others' care and dedication, and we were ready to present to the students the next day.
I forgot to introduce our Bella Bella Math Catcher team. The first and foremost player is Dr. Veselin Jungic, a wonderful Professor of Mathematics and Simon Fraser University, deserving more honours and credit than I can take the time to describe. He is a kind hearted, approachable man, from former Yugoslavia, who cares about his teaching and his students more than any other professor I have known in my eight years of university. Veso, as we like to call him, has been the driving force behind Math Catcher since its conception. We were also fortunate to have Jessica Humchitt on our team. Jessica is one of Veso's former students (as am I), a student in health sciences, and a member of the Heiltsuk Nation. She is a passionate and strong proponent of the Aboriginal cause, and cares deeply for the wellness of her people, their struggle for success in today's society, and their public image.
The presentation was partitioned among the three of us. Veso introduced himself as Dr. J, the mathematics professor from SFU, spoke of the merits of higher education, and showed how mathematics is the study of patterns. He then showed an Aboriginal themed movie about an indigenous boy called Small Number, and discussed a related mathematical question with the kids. To see this man bring such abstract topics as university and mathematics into the hands of grade 4-5s is to watch a wizard work his magic. They called out for him to show the movie again, and asked tens of questions about Simon Fraser University; How many rooms does it have? Ho many students? What time does school finish there? How many doors? On and on they keenly asked questions, many of a mathematical nature. Next, Jessica spoke about her experiences with math and university, giving a very personal side to the presentation. In spite of her infrequent visits to Bella Bella, nearly all of the young kids knew her and she was bombarded by a constant stream of huggy squeally children. Math Catcher is a joint effort of aboriginals and non aboriginals, and without direction from ambassadors and role models like Jessica, we risk looking like "another bunch of White People who want something from the Indians".
After Jessica spoke, I showed some geometric sculptures I have made and passed them around. One of them is a bouncy tensegrity ball, another is a ball made from standard binder clips, an icosahedron from skewers, a large hexastix, George Hart's tetraxis. Mathematical toys and children's joys ad infinitum. We came back in the afternoon and built tensegrities with grades 4 to 6, in two sessions, with 15 kids in each class. I have met a few kids who are afraid to try and build a tensegrity, but there is never more than a couple in a group of this size, and this was no exception. The great majority stepped up to the challenge, with all levels of ability to read or follow instructions, and wrap elastics around small sticks. My helpers and I were bombarded with, "I did it, is this right!?!" over and over again at each step, until a final "I DID IT. Wow this is so COOL!", from each participant.
One girl came in late, having apparently avoided the tensegrities for fear of failing to construct one. I asked if she would let me help her build one and she shook her head, looking down and hiding in her hair. I asked if she wanted to have my own demonstration tensegrity when I was finished. She nodded without looking at me, and I gave it to her.
At the end of the day we debriefed in Johanna's office, and no sooner than the bell went, four or five boys came running in to find us so that we could help them rebuild their tensegrities, for which I left extra elastics.
That night we celebrated our success, measured by the students' and teacher's enthusiasm, with Johanna and the high school math teacher. I listened intently as someone, a Heiltsuk, shared a story about a white person who was outspoken about irresponsible natives squandering hand outs from the government. The story teller was so enraged and deeply saddened about this man's sentiment that they were brought to tears retelling the story. The Heiltsuk invited him to coffee and the two of them shared their experiences. After an emotive conversation the man said that something had changed in him, and that he could no longer reconcile his old attitudes with this new, very credible perspective he was shown. This story touched my heart too, because I feel that the troubles that some Aboriginals experience are used as a tool to frame them all as traitors in the public eye, while members of their culture and race watch helplessly as their credibility evaporates. Perhaps if someone speaks against latinos - a group I count myself a part of - I might turn my head, after all, I needn't waste my time arguing with fools. But to this Aboriginal, the issue hurts so deeply that they rose to defend their people through dialogue, and succeeded!
We also had the fortune to speak with a councillor who helps people that were in residential schools, and their children. Our conversations with her helped us understand how deeply the culture and personal lives of aboriginals was cut by this institutionalized cultural genocide, and how much it still hurts. Three examples I have gathered are, some of the last few speakers of certain languages are embarrassed or afraid to speak their native tongue because they were beaten for it in school, there are children who have never been hugged because their parents never learned how or did not want to, having grown up in residential school, and there are aboriginals whose first experience with dentists were with the infrequent visits by the "Indian Agent", a racist white man sent from the government who would forcibly pull all their baby teeth out.
During this trip I saw a vibrant community, full of caring people, and rich with over 10,000 years of local culture. That alone is truly valuable to me, and it is in stark contrast to what I might have imagined. But I was also exposed to a sliver of the hurt they are recovering from. Before this experience I would have called myself a friend and proponent of social justice. Aboriginal rights certainly do fall under this umbrella, but now it is personal. I am a friend and proponent of First Nations.