Indigenous Arts & Stories - The Harbour

The Harbour

2014 - Writing Winner

They have so much to share. Stories of lives spent hunting, fishing, foraging, and flourishing. Though each of them had lived through the tragic relocation and the horror of residential school they always seemed to be smiling.

Read Lucy Hemphill's The Harbour

Lucy Hemphill

Port Hardy, BC
Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw First Nations
Age 26

Author's Statement

I wrote this piece while I was watching camp in Blunden Harbour with my sister. It was winter and we were alone. It had been fourteen years since I had been to Ba’as, and I didn’t know what to expect. It had always been a sacred place for me, so I was determined to do some soul-searching.

This true story takes place while I am walking the beach. I had just spent the majority of the day cooped up inside the cabin because it had been a particularly cold and stormy winters day. I always felt peaceful here, but at the moment I felt fragmented. I noticed I was frightened of the forest. I started thinking about why I was afraid, and when and where the fear developed. I realized the fear was just a symptom of the epidemic of separation that many people are now experiencing. That idea that we that we are all disconnected is the opposite of our traditional ways. This story is what came of that walk and my thoughts. Like the story I wrote for the Aboriginal Arts & Stories Competition last year, this story has helped me to heal. I hope it will help others do the same.


The Harbour

A storm is coming. Seabirds have sheltered in the bay. The wind whips my face and my rubber boots are no barrier to the icy cold that scrabbles at my toes. The evening sky has turned to pewter, but the tide is low and the clamor of life is too intriguing. I cannot turn back to the warmth of the cabin just yet. I am like a child, and I am searching.

This is Ba’as - a sacred place - full of serene, natural beauty, but also sadness. Though it feels a thousand miles from civilization it’s only a forty-five minute boat ride from my home on the Tsulquate Reserve where the Gwa’sala -‘Nakwaxda’xw live. Other than a small cabin and a sign that says “ Respect Nakwaxda’xw Territory,” there are no other indications of civilization in this quiet harbour. It’s hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago over a thousand people lived here. The Canadian Government relocated my people from their villages of Ba’as and Takush in 1964.

I walk along the waters edge, keeping my distance from the forest. I tell myself there is nothing to fear, but it’s getting dark and I feel uneasy near the trees.

Though I’m overcoming it, that fear of the forest is something that’s been instilled in me. Not by my family mind you, they taught me to love nature. My grandfather was a hand-logger, practicing sustainable logging along the rugged BC coastline. He travelled the coast, taking his family and home with him. My mother and her siblings lived a pioneer life, living seasonally off the land and sea. Though I wasn’t raised on a float house I benefited from her up bringing. My parents realized the important role of nature in our lives and our family spent much of our time in the forest or on the ocean.

I was taught that building a relationship with nature is like building a relationship with a loved-one. Like any relationship, you don't take without giving back. If you respect the forest it will nurture you – body, mind, and spirit. My grandmother instilled these values in her children, and it was from her that many of my own teachings came.  She was the matriarch of our family. Strong, wise, loving, and always quick-witted, like a raven. Even now when I hear a raven's croak I smile in memory of my grandmother's infectious laugh and the twinkle in her eye whenever she told a story.

No, it wasn’t my family that taught me to fear the forest. That damage was done by society. As a child I was afraid of many things: clowns, monsters under my bed, and the deep end of the swimming pool. But I was never afraid of the forest. Most kids were afraid of the woods because of the wild things that dwell there. Why did they fear it while I did not? Perhaps it was because I never had TV, or perhaps because I was raised to respect the forest and all that live there. As time went on, though, things began to change, as they do for all who grow up. Fear crept in like an insidious illness. I didn’t realize it was there until it was too late.

As a young adult I entered the forest for recreation from time to time. It was something to be exploited for my entertainment, only to be tossed aside like some unwanted toy when I was done with it. These infrequent visits were always with a group. I never went into the forest alone. I tricked myself into believing I still had a relationship with the forest, but in reality I was only using it.

For years I lived in cities, molding myself into being “something more.” I was taught in school that I should strive to be something more than just me. “To be just you is never good enough. You must try to be a lawyer, a doctor, an accountant, or a CEO. At the very least you can be a cashier, a waitress or nurse, but whatever you are you must contribute to society.” I moved further and further away from myself and in doing so I began to fear many things, including the forest.

Darkness is falling now, the browns, greens and greys of the beach are all fading through indigo to black. I can still make out the glittering, broken shards of china and glass, not smoothed by the waves like most beach glass, but sharp and angular. The ocean here is tranquil, and even on stormy days like today the ocean is calm. There are many of these shards on the beach, reminders of the people who were forced to leave, their homes burned down or pushed into the sea so they couldn't return.

At some point I realized that the further away I got from myself, the further I got from the truth. The more clothes, the more shoes, the more cars I bought, the fancier I talked, the smarter I sounded, the more friends I made, the more parties I went to… the further I got from what felt right. So I came back to Tsulquate.

Coming home, surrounded by sea and forest was like checking myself into a treatment center. I found time to examine my life and redefine myself. I started spending more time with the people of my village, especially the Elders.

They have so much to share. Stories of lives spent hunting, fishing, foraging, and flourishing. Though each of them had lived through the tragic relocation and the horror of residential school they always seemed to be smiling.  Respect is integral to their lives - respect for others and for the land and sea. The underlying message is always that we are not separate from others, the forest or the ocean. We are all connected, and it is the new belief that we are all disconnected that hurts us.

Life on a reserve can be difficult. Drug and alcohol abuse are rampant. High school dropout rates and unemployment rates are high. Diabetes, obesity, suicide and violent deaths are all too common. There is an ongoing housing crisis and even the houses that exist are in disrepair. The streets are littered with garbage. These are the symptoms of a people trying to heal from the deep scars of colonization. I’ve seen the same things in the indigenous communities in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. I don’t believe the damage is irreversible. And while I don’t believe that we can go back to a way of life that existed before Europeans came, I do believe we can heal.

My hands are freezing and I know it’s time to turn back to the cabin, but I sit down on a barnacle-covered rock and close my eyes. As I breathe in the cold salty air. I remember summers spent here with my family. I remember rowing and fishing and crabbing and berry picking. I remember feeling alive.

I think about the past year and what I’ve accomplished, the relationships I’ve built, the connections I made, the people I love. I’ve established a community garden, an outdoor traditional foods classroom; I started a good food box program and traditional food harvesting trips with the Elders. I’ve helped many people feed their families’ healthy food and revitalize traditional foods practices. I’ve facilitated positive change in my community.  How did I do it? Where did the strength or the will or the knowledge come from? It started with a story.

A year ago I wrote a story about the relocation of my people. I didn’t know at the time I wrote it that it was the beginning of something more. But like a rock thrown into the sea, a ripple of change happened. The act of writing it was a journey into myself, and through it I healed - and I helped others to heal. I realized not only did I have the power to help others and myself; I also had the right to. We all have that right.

After awhile I started spending time in the forest again. I was like some timid animal that found itself in a new environment.  First I went to forage for berries, then chanterelle mushrooms, and then medicines like spruce sap or nettles. Always, I gave thanks for the gifts I received. Eventually I started going to the forest just to feel its embrace. The smell, the sound, the stillness, it all soothed me.

I open my eyes. It’s dark but I’m unafraid. I can hear the life all around me. The tide is very low, the gulls are squawking as they feast on clams and mussels. I can see the light on in the cabin. I long for the warmth of the wood fire, and the company of my sister. I stand and turn to go back. I don’t know what I was searching for out here, but it seems that I found it.