Sovereign to the Bone: Culture, Memory, and Indigenous Children

By Halie (Kwanxwa’Loga) Bruce


Testify. When I first heard the title of this exhibit, I was immediately struck by how appropriate it is in the context of child welfare laws, policies and practices forced upon Indigenous children across generations and the persistence of our cultures in spite of these efforts to assimilate and destroy our identities. It brought to mind what N. Scott Momaday called Blood/Memory:
Although my grandmother lived out her long life in the shadow of Rainy Mountain, the immense landscape of the continental interior lay like memory in her blood.” – N. Scott Momaday, The Way To Rainy Mountain (1969)

It reminded me of the time one of my favorite leaders called my spouse “Sovereign to the bone” as they discussed a particularly contentious political issue.

The thought that culture persists regardless of how aggressively disconnected one has become resonates with me as an Indigenous woman, mother, lawyer, and former “Ward of the court.” The thought accords with my lived experience that somewhere in my bones lives the love and laws of my grandmother and ancestors; It helps to me to understand how this transgenerational connection, even if interrupted by radical disconnection – can provide the core of resistance needed to defy others’ categorizations, and to withstand the fear, confusion, and uncertainty of being “in care”; And it guides my own understanding of how Indigenous laws can be reawakened to improve the lives and outcomes of Indigenous children who continue to bear the brunt of laws, policies and practices that offer little protection for their right to their Indigenous identity.

I look at Testify as an opportunity to challenge the notion that “culture abates over time” which continues in one form or another to influence many family law and child protection court decisions about the “best interests of the child” (not necessarily the “best interests of the Indigenous child”). Despite 20 years of child welfare reform and legislation where the best interests of the aboriginal child are supposed to guide equally the protection and maintenance of the child’s right to their identity and culture, Indigenous children continue to be disproportionately apprehended and remain “in care,” disconnected from their families and communities. In BC, Indigenous children make up about 54% of all children in care, and these numbers continue unabated, and in fact rising, not decreasing, regardless of changes to the Child, Family and Community Services Act or the creation of delegated aboriginal agencies.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (2015), and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) before that, found that Indigenous children taken into care are far more likely to age out of care, and become involved in the youth and adult criminal justice systems than to graduate high school or attain a post-secondary education. These outcomes reflect the cultural ethnocentricities, and biases that persist in non-Indigenous approaches to interpreting the best interests of the child. Testify offers each of us the opportunity to reexamine this situation and to support new/old ways of caring for and protecting Indigenous children that upholds their right to remain within and connected to their culture.

In my own experience, it was not until I was much older that I understood my own upbringing to be in alignment with many of the traditional laws of my people. For example, as a Kwakwaka’wakw, my mother’s brother is probably one of the most important cultural connections in my life; and he would likely be the person with responsibility to care for me after my grandparents if my mother could not. I, unlike my many of my siblings, had the great fortune to end up living with him and his family – my cultural sisters and brother – at a time in 1960’s and early 1970’s when Indigenous children were massively “scooped” and placed in non-Indigenous homes for care and adoption. In some measure, I believe this was because I “voted with my feet” by running to my grandmother’s house in Vancouver at every opportunity, and who later was allowed to take me to our traditional community of Yalis (Alert Bay) where I ended up living with this uncle.

And it was there, amongst my relatives and community in Yalis, that my grandmother’s teachings about family, responsibility, identity, and community were given added meaning and started to heal my spirit. I recognize how fortunate I was, while many others, my own biological sisters among them, remained lost in the child welfare system without benefit of these relationships, laws and traditions.

The practice of bearing witness is a long-held tradition and law amongst my people, the Kwakwaka’wakw. As a child I bore witness to the strength of Indigenous people in the city – struggling to find work, to maintain ties and connections strained by the distractions of the City. As an Indigenous lawyer and Gladue report writer, I have observed the despair, culture and identity loss which is legacy of often multigenerational involvement in the child welfare system; and I have borne witness to the hope that is ignited when the survivor of the child welfare system learns even one word in their Indigenous language that speaks directly to their spirit. Blood/Memory. I share the belief that we need all the witnesses we can get both to give and receive this testimony, and to ensure that Indigenous laws in the area of child welfare are reconstituted in the best interest of Indigenous children.

I. łaxwala (Loved One)

One of the first and most enduring Kwakwaka’wakw laws I learned was the love of family and community. My cradle years in the 1960’s and early 1970’s were spent in the East End of Vancouver – beginning in the Trout Lake and Commercial Drive area, and the Downtown Eastside (DTES) bordered by Commercial Drive to the east, Carrall Street to the west, Cordova to the north and Venables to the south. Within its core exist Stratchona with two “Projects” – Raymur and MacLean’s, where people from all nationalities coexisted in our shared poverty. I did not know then as now that it was known as one of poorest neighbourhoods in Canada; to me it was the world I was born into, populated by numerous characters, like “Auntie Alice” – a Blackfoot woman/activist who was always fighting for “Indian Rights” and who would round up all of the “Indian” kids at MacLean Projects to take us to the Friendship Centre where we would play games, do arts and crafts, and sometimes dance to Powwow music; There was “Hoss” – a guy who wore a ten gallon hat and except for the fact that he was a little person, really did look a lot like the guy from Gunsmoke, and who would sometimes give my brother and I a fifty-cent piece so we could catch a matinee at the Lux theatre.

There was my granny and Papa, Jane and Chris, who lived on the other side of Raymur Projects on Frances Street, and numerous “aunts” and “uncles” – my mother’s cousins who I understood in our tradition were her siblings, and therefore culturally my aunts and uncles. Among these relatives I remember in particular Uncle Bipsy who it seemed always had a broken leg and was in and out of the hospital, and my Auntie Ganadzi, who lived in a rooming house near Gore Avenue, and Auntie Edie whose kids were about the same age as me and my brother and sister. There were cousins and extended family who would show up at all hours needing a place to stay.

Some of my earliest memories were the hours I spent with my granny Jane telling me stories about our people, the Kwakwaka’wakw and of the places we would go and people we would meet. I did not know it then, but her love and teaching about our laws by example inoculated me from the harshest aspects of dislocation that was to come in the years ahead. Images of her preparing fish with a Xwa’tła’yu (carved knife) – “you must not be afraid of it (fish). You see? Just move your wrist like this….”, of her softening the K’a’was (dried fish) for me with her teeth, and her trading and bartering with people we met – including with the neighbours across the lane in the Project – frybread for Naan bread. She was well loved by many; She was called “Anitsa” (“Auntie of Our Nation”) by Kwakwaka’wakw family and friends alike, and others from various backgrounds often eventually called her “Auntie Jane.”

My gran would collect boxes and boxes of clothes, shoes, dishes, cutlery… “in case someone needs it. We’ll potlatch it to them, honey.” It was at my grandmother’s apron strings that I learned who I was – “łaxwa̱la” (Loved One) – and how to walk in the world as Kwakwaka’wakw. And it would be to her that I would run to every chance I could once I was in foster care… I would look for my mother, but it was my gran who I would always find, no matter where in the city I or she was. My cognitive map was made up of alleys and lanes, and side and main streets, using Grouse Mountain as my anchor point. It was my gran who would tell me “This will not be forever….” Or later, when I was struggling with looking fair but growing up entirely Indigenous to “remember, we’re Ravens… we’re Tricksters. That’s what you are. That’s who you are.”

The Law of Generosity | Kindness | Reciprocity

Culture is more than singing, dancing, or language. These are important features of culture– like one’s hearing, sight, or speaking – but culture is much more than this… It is the connections, relationships, and acts of love, support, kindness where we find our sense of belonging in the world, our sense of identity, self-esteem and confidence to walk through the world knowing we have the love and support of our people.

My earliest memories of my culture was hearing my grandmother and my mother speak Kwa’kwa’la, and watching my grandmother clean fish, cut deer or moose, pluck feathers from the duck, chop kindling and tend the smokehouse where racks of carefully prepared trips of fish or oolichans (depending on the season) were hanging from the rafters. I could watch her for hours as she crocheted thunderbird tablecloths or salmon doilies. Equally, I could watch my mother cooking or getting dressed to go out

Law of Connections

Culture was bearing witness to the endless connections and relationships my grandparents maintained, often welcoming people into their home for a meal or visit. Watching and listening to my great-grandparents, Odi and Abusa, when they visited from Tsakis (Fort Rupert). Listening to my Papa and his brothers, and their numerous nieces and nephews, as they visited and shared stories about fishing, relatives and people “back home.”

My grandmother was a gatherer of people as well as things to potlatch and made friends with diverse peoples all over Vancouver: She would often take me around to all the neighbourhood shops – “two-handing” at the Salvation Army where she and Mrs. Bonner would chat endlessly while my sister and I rummaged throughout the store; Cruising through to “Japantown” near Oppenheimer Park to get new crochet or knitting books and Ichiban noodles; and stopping at “Honest Joe’s” on Hastings & Carrall where she and Honest Joe would talk about the latest wares in stock and we’d eat butterscotch candies, then checking out the sales at the Army and Navy for wool, or potlatch items or other sundries before going to the Little Spot Café for hamburgers and fries and floats and where we could always be sure to run into a relative or two (or three or four).

Culture was my grandmother seeing an inebriated relative, clicking her tongue and, no matter what state they were in, checking to see if she or he was needed help – food, a place to clean up, coffee to sober up – “Remember, we don’t walk past our relatives, honey. It’s not our way…” And learning this care and attention, this always looking after one another, was one of the reasons why she was revered up and down the coast, and to this day, as “Anitsa” … Auntie Jane.

Many years later, as a lawyer I had the great honour of interviewing elders from my grandmother’s village about an Aboriginal Rights case. Inevitably these interviews began with “Who’s your grandmother? Oh Anitsa! Jane was my auntie | cousin | best friend | like a sister to me…. Oh she was…” To this day, people tell me of her kindness, her generosity, her connection to them, and I am reminded of the laws that held me steady when all else would be out of my reach.

Culture was my mother following this same law in her own way – welcoming and speaking Kwa’kwa’la with my great-grandfather, her uncles, cousins, and extended family when they visited our “house” (a small 3-bedroom townhouse in McLean Projects). Yes, some of these would lead to drunken soirees where my brother and I would set up a “beer stand” blocking our kitchen door so our “patrons” would have to pay us (5 cents was a lot of money in those days) to get their own beer back. My Mom was a rye drinker, so she never minded our efforts to extort/exploit her guests.

Though there was little apparent “culture” during these times, I bore witness to family ties, loyalties, enduring arguments, feuds, connections in good times and bad, which I would later recall and ache for when I was placed in care.

II. gananamGas (Unfortunate child)

The image of granny Jane’s hands remained the predominant picture in my mind as my sister and I were engulfed together, then separated as if by a squall, in foster care/custody, until I was just floating – disembodied – but not acquiescent. Resistant: running whenever I saw an opportunity — my feet touched the ground and no matter where in the City I was, I would look to the mountains which formed so much of my cognitive map and I would search – run towards my mom, my gran, my people…

I experienced no law of culture or love in this home. The first night was blurred by so much fear I could only hear white noise and my sisters muted cries. My sister would outright resist and fight – until we were separated, and the feeling of loss – of family, culture, identity – weighed heavily, interspersed by two bright moments when my brother and I met accidentally during our school field trips. Then back into the abyss, until my own spirit had had enough, and I would run…

Search the Downtown Eastside for Mom, follow Main to 13th Avenue, keep the mountains to my right, then Manitoba street and my gran, who would make me tea and pilot biscuits with lots of butter, and listen as my 8-year-old self would try to explain how lost I was – “we don’t even eat fish! No one talks there. I’m not their family really. No one loves me, Gran…” She’d listen as I told her about the psychiatrist the social worker made me see, the tests they’d run, the labels/identity they’d hang on me (“Underachiever”, “anxious”, “defiant”); and she would gently remind me of who I was, where I came from, and that this would not always be so.

Then they would come and get me and I would have to return. School became more difficult. Fear, anxiety, depression, white noise… Wait. Wait. Wait for it. Now. Run. And so it goes.
Until one day, the war was over… I was allowed to go with Gran to Yalis/Alert Bay – truly home.

iii. ne’nakw (return home)

To be clear, I had only visited my mother’s home community – the village of my grandfather – twice before going there the Summer of my 9th year. I was still and would remain a “ward of the court”, and there was no intention of me staying there except for the summer with my gran, but in a very profound way, this felt like I had returned home.

The laws of my grandparents and ancestors were alive and everywhere to be witnessed: Laws of kindness, generosity, acceptance (mostly – but that’s a different story), and yes, there was Kwa’kwa’la being spoken, dancing being taught, the laws of the Bighouse being practiced at family potlatches, identity recognized in family crests, masks, song, stories (“It is a strict law that bids us dance”)… It was a time of reinvigoration and repatriation, and activism. I was immersed in the laws of our people, the lands, and waters. These were not taught through books, but through relationships and every day actions.

My Uncle and his family welcomed me, as is our law, and I did not leave again until I was almost 16. I longed for my mother and my siblings, but the world came into focus. I was among my people and the laws resonated around me and in me. I would spend hours at the beach in front of my grandparents’ house, and grew to know my cousins as my sisters and brother. These relationships and connections continue to this day, and I would come to understand the Law of Place | Home that would inform my choices in life:

Namgis Origin Story

When the Transformer (or Creator), Ḵaniḵiʼlakw, travelled around the world, he was eventually returned to the place where Gwaʼnalalis lived. In an earlier encounter, the Transformer had beaten Gwaʼnalalis, who was ready for his return. Ḵaniḵiʼlakw asked, “Would you like to become a cedar tree?” Gwaʼnalalis replied, “No, cedar trees, when struck by lightning, split and fall. Then they rot away for as long as the days dawn in the world.” Ḵaniḵiʼlakw asked again, “Would you like to become a mountain?” “No,” Gwaʼnalalis answered, “For mountains have slides and crumble away for as long as the days dawn in the world.” The Transformer asked a third question. “Would you like to become a large boulder?” Again, Gwaʼnalalis answered, “No. Do not let me become a boulder, for I may crack in half and crumble away as long as the days dawn in the world.”

Finally, Ḵaniḵiʼlakw asked,” Would you like to become a river?” “Yes, let me become a river that I may flow for as long as the days shall dawn in the world,” Gwaʼnalalis replied. Putting his hand on Gwaʼnalalis’ forehead and pushing him down prone, Ḵaniḵiʼlakw said, “There, friend, you will be a river and many kinds of salmon will come to you to provide food for your descendants for as long as the days shall dawn in the world. And so the man Gwaʼnalalis became the river, Gwaʼni.

Pal’nakwalagalis Wa’kas
(Dan Cranmer) 1930

The first time I heard this origin story, I understood that Gwa’ni is my ancestor. I understood that as descendants, we have a responsibility under our laws to care for and protect this ancestor who continues to provide food for our people, as we would our family and friends who walk among us. I understood that Gwa’ni is the source of my identity, my roots, and my connections, which I would likely not have known had I remained in care. I understood that, just as my grandmother taught me our laws in her actions, that no matter where I go in the world, no matter where I was born, it is the strength of this place and these connections and laws that run through me – What Momaday called Blood/Memory.

In thinking about Kwakwaka’wakw laws, I recall my grandmother telling me about burial islands where our ancestors were laid to rest, and islands where a baby’s umbilical cord was placed in crevices along the rocky shores so that they might always have a connection to our lands and people. I remember the hereditary chief who cut the ties of the fishfarm anchored to one these sacred places. And I hear the words of another Chief at a meeting describe the sacredness of children “because they are closest to the earth,” and the words of the late Philip Paul who told me at another meeting “you’re Indigenous. You cannot help but be political to the bone.” I recall the laws in the story of the young woman who returned to her village broken by the child welfare system and the exploitation and violence of years on the streets, and her elders telling her despite her protests “You must have a feast and give away all of your possessions, because all these things you carry weigh heavy on you with memories of the pain you suffered. It’s time for you to come home and give that burden to us to carry with you. Then you can start to heal.”

I look to the laws I learned later in life, as a Kwakwaka’wakw woman, policy coordinator and then Indigenous lawyer, when I asked my mother and elders about Kwakwaka’wakw laws as they relate to child welfare. Many of them related stories similar to what I have conveyed about my own grandparents and my mother’s teachings by example – essentially that we are each part of a greater web of relations who form the core our identity; That our laws call on us to care for our children as precious loved ones who carry the future of our Nations, and we must make decisions to ensure that they are healthy, strong, and know Kwakwaka’wakw no matter where they may travel in the world. When I ask more in-depth questions about what would happen, for example, if someone harmed a child – some of these elders would be too traumatized by their own experiences in residential school to get into such dialogue, while still others would look at me with puzzlement because “justice would be firm and swift,” ranging from digita (a feast to wipe away the shame brought to the family), to adoptions within the family, to banishment from the community and, in severe cases, death.

Today, most if not all Indigenous Peoples struggle to find a way to reconstitute our laws in a way that protects our children’s right to their place and identity within our Nations. So we turn our efforts to this task, and we draw on our laws and traditions reflected in our clan systems, our stories, dances, art, and relationships to guide us in creating and maintaining relationships and resolving disputes, and to protect our children into the future so they do not inherit or pass on the legacy of disconnection and loss.

I am reminded in this effort daily that, perhaps if my sisters had the benefit of our laws and these connections, they would not have ended up as one of the thousands of children who were vulnerable to exploitation and died while in care or graduated into the youth and adult criminal justice systems and today are one of the Missing…
Perhaps if the many Indigenous women and men whose Gladue reports I have been entrusted to provide the court had the benefit of their Indigenous laws and connections to their grandmothers, their extended families, their communities and Nations, they too would not have ended up lost and alone in the foster care system and now grossly disproportionately represented in Canadian jails and prisons.

I celebrate and honour those who survived this system of disconnection and who offer proof that culture does not abate over time, rather it continues to grow in importance over the course of one’s lifetime. I invite other Indigenous child welfare survivors to share their burden, to give testimony, in an effort to further the dialogue needed to reconstitute Indigenous laws to displace those that do not serve Indigenous children.

Gilakas’la //