When Smaro Kamboureli suggested that I gather together my speeches and lectures into a book, I thought it was a great idea. Having already written some of them down and published others, I thought it would be an easy book to put together. It turned out that fiction comes easier to me than non-fiction. Early in the revision process, I became aware of how often certain themes and concerns were recurring in the talks that I had presented over the course of many years. It is impossible to give a lecture or speak on any serious issue in the Indigenous world without placing it in the context of colonialism and our need for decolonization. In collecting these speeches together, I was then faced with the challenge of how to maintain the necessary emphasis on colonialism while still attending to its particular aspects in relation to individual talks. Also challenging was revising speeches and oratories that I had presented over twenty years ago. A talk always reflects where I am at in any given moment. We are called upon to continuously grow from the realizations that we come to when we speak. So revisiting the speeches that I gave years back has involved engaging with my growth since then, and fleshing out how I have evolved by travelling more deeply into a subject.
Sometime during the seventies, I was having a conversation with Haida feminist Lavina Lightbown. She told me this story: When we came out of the clam shell, the men got on the back of a shark, who took them to killer whale, who took them to land. The women came out of the clam shell and saw a woman at the bottom of the sea in an ocean river. They went to exchange pleasantries with her. She asked where they were going. They told her they were going up on land to become human. "Here, you might need this," she said, and handed them some brains. It dawned on me that, in order for us to achieve clarity, we had to go back to the bottom of the sea, through all the layers of green to dark, to consult with the mother of thought who lives there.
I love speaking. I love our orality, its rhythm, its ease, the way we can slip into poetry, story, even song and dance, break the tedium with a joke, particularly an anti-colonial joke. I love how the speaker gets to wander around and through a subject with the audience. On paper, though, the words can lose much of the personality of the speaker, jokes don't fit, and the sidebars, the off-the-cuff remarks, detract and can even trivialize the thoughts shared. When you speak you deliver a voice; everyone knows that what you think is also what you feel. In speaking, there is no problem delivering the integrity of your emotionality. But in writing you evoke, instead of expressing, your feelings. When the immediacy that links speaker and audience is absent on the page, you must find other ways of sharing the feelings that give rise to your thoughts.
My elders always called me paxim -- sweetheart; some of them still do. I thought that it was because I was a little sweetheart, until one day my daughter was drifting from the family fold in a direction that was dangerous and ill-disciplined: "Just call her sweetheart," one of my aunt's said, "worked for you. " As a child, I was not disciplined. I have struggled to find the discipline of non-fiction in the course of revising these speeches. I have struggled with order, organization, structure, and clarity without losing my own sense of presentation and orality. Memory Serves reads like a new kind of prose, what is fashioned when oratory is written down.
I have struggled to write these speeches respectfully, without losing my voice in the process. Some complex thoughts are unraveled in the pages of this book. Some of the concepts have not yet been articulated in English or in our original languages. I have struggled to deploy the way we do things, the processes we use to come to a clear understanding so that they can be articulated in writing. This is especially the case with the essay "Oratory on Oratory. " It is difficult enough to write non-fiction without trying to articulate something that is so ordinary for us; it is like breathing, oxygenation and expiration, detoxification. We do it every day, so it should be easy.
Each oratory turned-essay here stands on its own, but read together they create a journey through our world and the underpinning thoughts, theories, and logic that drive that world as I see it. I say "as I see it" because I have gleaned concepts contained in stories, stories that I have interpreted in accordance with the direction we are all obligated to travel in -- toward the good life and the good mind -- and that too requires that I interpret what the good life and good mind are, and map out the direction to determine what will lead us there.
I do not use the word teachings in the same way others might. Teachings are not dictums to be blindly followed. They are meant to be the beginnings of the development of governance or theory, but the individual is expected to interpret them personally. I try hard to use the word sparingly. I prefer words that are co-equivalents to how Europe names itself, rather than the diminished words assigned to us. For instance, our knowledge keepers are referred to as elders, while European knowledge keepers are referred to as intellectuals, academics, professors, teachers, experts, etc. In Halkomelem the word is si'yam, which does not mean elder, so I don't use it. A si'yam is recognized as a knowledge keeper, thinker, law keeper, spiritual logician, historian, and so forth. Si'yams know something, and we recognize their knowledge.
Indigenous people have historically hesitated to create books such as this because they express the views of the individuals presenting thoughts on the whole. The individual cannot represent the whole in that way in our communities. We don't assign anyone that kind of authority. I derive my understanding of social theory, of our logic, our processes for thought, discovery, consultation, and learning from the stories I have heard and from having witnessed thousands of oral discussions with youth, elders, middle-aged people, even children. As a witness I pay attention to how these discussions unfold, how each individual engages the whole, the subject in question, and how they play with it. I have been witnessing for as far back as my memory serves, but this does not make me an expert on our people.
What makes my words valuable is the thousands of Indigenous people who have said to me: You just articulated everything I was thinking. Firstly, this response makes me a witness who has the people's direction and thought at heart. Secondly, it shows that I am recognized as one of our foremost witnesses, si'yam, or, to put this in English, I am recognized by Indigenous people as someone who can capture common thought. This carries both responsibility and honour. I must respect the words I use and articulate what I have learned from what I have witnessed.
I strive in my speaking and writing to articulate my thoughts responsively. I believe my community needs this book just as surely as they need to drink clean water. I also believe Canadians need this book. There is another way to be, to think, to know, and when Canadians witness another way, perhaps the colonial domination can begin to end. I believe, too, that each time any one of us has a thought, others do so as well, and it is in this way that the journey to collective consciousness continues. Writing those thoughts down hastens our journey toward a common consciousness.
Since I started working on this book, many new scholars have begun to articulate thinking that comes directly from our stories. I acknowledge Jo-ann Archibald, whose book, Indigenous Storywork, affirmed so much of my thinking that unfolds here. Though I do not cite Jo-ann directly, I believe that her book picks up some aspects of the same understanding I have acquired over the years of interaction with the si'yams listed at the end of this book and my own struggling with stories I heard as a child, and carries them a step further down our common road. I also acknowledge Sean Kicummah Teuton's Red Land, Red Power: Grounding Knowledge in the American Indian Novel. Again, I do not cite Sean directly, but his book preceded mine and made this one just a little bit easier to write. I am affirmed and informed by the hundreds of conversations I have had with thousands of Indigenous people over the years. I cannot possibly acknowledge everyone. But the works listed at the end of this book name the key people with whom I have engaged under various circumstances and who have become leaders, knowledge keepers in their own right, and with whom I still have a relationship as a West Coast woman.