Stories from the field

Author Bhiamie Eckford Williamson

Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson – Blog 3: At the journey’s end

Well, I have made it home to Australia in one piece! After almost two years of living in Canada, I returned to the warmth and sunshine of my great southern land. It is a strange feeling of being home again, and as much as this saying is insufficient, my life is not the same since I first embarked on my international studies. This (my final) blog will detail some of the significant learning’s that have impacted me most. By reflecting in this way I will attempt to explain how I feel my outlook to life, work and politics has changed.

Before arriving in Canada, I had almost no experience or education with the resurgence paradigm, as it is generally understood and applied by the Indigenous Governance program at UVic. In Australia, the language used to describe cultural reclamation and improved cultural livelihoods of our peoples is far more passive and obscure. I can confidently say that studying in the Indigenous Governance program has not so much changed, but narrowed and crystallised how I see the world and understand my place within it. Resurgence as a concept remains the significant learning from the course work over my first year. My challenge was then to not only apply this concept, but extend it when I embarked on the second half of the journey with my wife Madeleine, to Williams Lake.

Before leaving Victoria, I was often asked where I would be after my commitments on campus were finished. When I replied that Madeleine and I would be moving to Williams Lake common responses were ‘Really? Why?’ and ‘Where’s that?’ Even now, in Australia when people ask where I have been, I receive much the same reaction. Looking back, I could not have ended up in a more appropriate or opportune place or space. During the field work, I was astounded by the amount of work being done in the community, as well as some of the ambitions the community had for its short and long-term futures. Some of these initiatives included the building of a new school and community gymnasium, the adoption of a cumulative effects natural resource management monitoring program, the scoping and business planning of a tourism venture on Tsilhqot’in lands, as well as the day to day running of the community. These planning and administrative activities were even more significant considering the funding (or lack thereof) that is available to Yunesit’in. So what were the significant learning’s I have taken away from my time in Yunesit’in?

Firstly, I don’t know if I would call it a lesson but living and working with a First Nation Community has been itself, a unique and rich educational experience. Just observing and eventually being apart of the daily coming and going in the community has opened my eyes and provided me with rare insight.

Secondly, the pressures felt by the community are much the same that are felt by Indigenous communities at home. Whilst this is alluded to and generally acknowledged (that Indigenous people share common experiences throughout the colonized world), seeing it in a real life context is a strange yet affirming thing. Some of these include the many social harms and hazards that are all too common in Indigenous communities. However, the major commonalities that I observed were the everyday acts of living in the world as an Indigenous person. In Yunesit’in, smudging was a daily sight, whether in the home or someone smudging at their front door to ward off harmful spirits. At home, smoking occurs at every major community event. These are two closely related activities that are undertaken for the same reasons. Another observation is the centrality of fish in peoples lives. In Yunesit’in it is salmon while at home, it is yellow-belly. Fish continues to define in a large and meaningful way, peoples cultural identities. This is not a far-off obscure link to culture, it is a daily practice whether fishing, preparing or eating salmon or yellow-belly. From daily acts such as these emanates a strength and satisfaction that is seldom found in the many cities and towns in Australia and Canada. As I observed these daily acts in Yunesit’in and linking these with my own experiences in Australia I continue to ask myself: how do people see this (being Indigenous) as disadvantage?

Finally, First Nations communities occupy a complex and unique socio-political space, much the same as Indigenous communities in Australia. Central to this complexity is the centrality of land. To understand this complexity you need only ask one question: ‘Who owns the land?’ Whilst this isn’t a question often asked by many non-Indigenous Canadian’s and Australian’s, it is often asked and firmly answered by Indigenous peoples – ‘We own the land’. Every social, cultural and political interaction comes from this certainty.

Suffice to say that my life has irreversibly changed. It has been enriched in a way seldom experienced. Whilst this road has been long, arduous and at times, tough, it has been one worth travelling.

So, where to from here? Well at the moment it is nice being home around family and friends and working again. 2017 has been designated for both Madeleine and I as a time to re-group, re-asses and re-energise. Formulating a plan for the next chapter following this year is our priority however, we have time and space to think about our options. Importantly, we are factoring in how we can make Canada part of our plans once again. As we sit back and reflect on our time in the true north, we both have a distinct feeling of having unfinished business there. We have made some wonderful life-long friends and are actively seeking to make sure that the fire that was lit within us in Canada does not burn out. Watch out Canada, we may be back before you know it!

Bhiamie Williamson – Blog 2: New Perspectives and Fresh Approaches

Recently, I have been reflecting on my time in Yunesit’in. Specifically, I have been thinking deeply about some of the core issues at the heart of my project and how I have and continue to engage with these. This blog will remain consistent with the approach I adopted in my previous blogs, acting as a sort of canvas where I can organise my experiences and consider my thoughts in order to arrive at a heightened sense of awareness of what I am doing (questioning what I am doing is something I struggle with from time to time during research). In doing so, this blog captures where I am at and where I hope to go with this work, giving extra purpose to this exercise and making it extremely useful.

To re-cap, the purpose of my collaboration with Yunesit’in is to design an Aboriginal Guardianship program. This program is to be used by the community to guide their work and activities throughout Dasiqox Tribal Park, as well as the wider Aboriginal Title Lands and Tsilhqot’in Caretaker Area. At first glance, it is easy to think that a ‘Guardianship’ program speaks specifically to land and water management. Being here and working with the community however, it has become plainly obvious that this program is as much, if not more, a social and cultural resource for the community. Having this slight change in consciousness towards the project alters the approach immensely. Whilst I was aware that an Aboriginal Guardianship program would arrive at this space, interacting with this on-the-ground has compelled me to adjust. The following section explains how this change has come about and what it means for the Guardianship program.

Firstly, as an Aboriginal Guardianship program embedded in the community, it is necessary to understand the core social issues that influence the inner workings and day-to-day lives of community members. During my time talking with community members and participating in activities at the local community school, it is obvious that the core social issues differ between generations.

I first encountered these experiences from an Elders perspective during a field-trip on to a part of the Tsilhqot’in Caretaker Area which had recently been logged. I learnt on this trip that many Elders in the community grew up and experienced first-hand the horrors of residential schools. Many were sent or taken away and forced to board in these institutions. Whilst the individual experiences of residential schools differ greatly, one commonality that is shared is the opportunity lost by not growing up surrounded by and actively participating in Tsilhqot’in culture. For many Elders in the community, being on the land, practicing and participating in cultural activities is seen as a vital component of the ongoing healing of residential school survivors. The dark shadow of residential schooling hangs over Yunesit’in, as it does with every Native community. This healing is something that I immediately realised I not only had to account for but embed in the fabric of the Guardianship program. The legacy of residential schooling influences every person in Yunesit’in. But how people interact with and feel the effects of this history differs between generations.

During a cultural exchange held at the local community school, I was able to engage with the perspectives of young people in the community including their hopes and desires for a Guardianship program, and their general views on being connected to the land. To start, many young people in the community have expressed they do not feel culturally strong. Whether not being able to speak fluent Tsilhqot’in or not knowing traditional hunting or gathering practices, young people feel disconnected form their cultural roots. Many young people identified that they love being on the land and participating in cultural activities such as fishing, hunting, trapping, berry picking etc. When pressed on why they enjoyed these activities, some young people expressed that they enjoyed being connected to the landscape as their ancestors were. But when asked to reflect deeper on why they enjoyed these things and where those feelings of happiness and joy come from, it became plainly evident that what the vast majority of young people enjoy is being on the land with their parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents. They expressed that they thoroughly enjoy spending time on the land, free from the distractions of town and all that goes along with it (such as tv, games, driving in cars, shopping etc.). Children shared freely and openly the times that they spent with the elders on the land, and how they felt when learning from and with their elders. In this way, experiencing culture is not a far off abstract or romantic notion; it is real and can be experienced in these interactions.

Understanding these views that are shared between people in these generations is vital to making the Guardianship program successful. Without accounting for and building in ways to engage with these perspectives, any program will not be as successful as it could be or should be. The challenge as it has appeared to me is how to design a program that can simultaneously account for the healing component so important to may elders in the community, whilst facilitating on-the-land opportunities for young people. But Native communities in north-America, I have learnt, share common philosophies of connectedness that we (Aboriginal groups) have at home in Australia. It is easy to view the ambitions of these generations as differently however, I see them as the same.

The common interaction between these very different ambitions is being on the land. Thus, the Aboriginal Guardianship program is now being designed to act as a facilitator of on-the-land activities. In particular, it aims to facilitate the on-the-ground learning component between generations and families. Through these activities, whether conservation work, cultural activities, building cabins, restoring tracks or monitoring cultural sites, the healing and family bonding takes place at the same time in the same place. The different generations may be interacting with these experiences differently and take away different feelings, but both are being benefited culturally and socially.

This is only one component of the research that has arisen however, it is a vital one. To design a Guardianship Program that understands the needs and supports the ambitions of community member from diverse experiences builds rigor into the both the research and outcomes. Most of all though, I feel that in doing so, it has the real ability to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of community members whilst simultaneously achieving positive environmental outcomes.

Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson – Blog 2: Research, Resilience and Longing

My mind feels like a clogged drain lately. Information and ideas are trickling through slowly, yet the process is slow and arduous. Even though the ideas eventually make their way through, the length of time it takes causes frustration, worsening the blockage and compounding the effect. I am hoping the process of writing this Blog acts as ‘draino’, clearing the blockage, releasing the flow of information in a steady and reliable manner once gain. Approaching it this way makes this exercise useful to me, as well as (I hope) enhancing my reflections which I hope will have a positive effective on the work. Most of all however, it makes this exercise extremely meaningful.

I have been in Williams Lake for almost three months now. My work is with the Yunesit’in First Nation, located an hour drive from Williams Lake on the Chilcotin Plateau in central interior BC. This distance has made it difficult to engage fully and in a sustained manner with the Yunesit’in First Nation community. But the work has been valuable and has progressed steadily.

I have been making regular (at least once a week) trips to Yunesit’in. The people have been some of the most welcoming, wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They continue to be curious about how an Aboriginal Man from Australia lands in their community, working on their Tribal Park. A great conversation for another time. I have had some opportunities also to get onto the land (the real reason I do this work). Travelling through such a unique and beautiful landscape are cherished memories I will take with me from this place. I have gained valuable insight into the working and lived realities of many community members, especially with regards to accessing and utilising their lands, waters and resources. This has shed light on the opportunities and threats to any Guardianship program that may be implemented by the community.

But being in and learning about the community evokes familiar feelings of home. Growing up much of my life in a small community about the same size of Yunesit’in (Goodooga) has had an unexpected effect on me personally. It has produced a sense of longing and homesickness that I have and continue to struggle with. Watching families interact and kids play make me realise that which awaits me at home. But knowing it awaits me does not placate its absence right now.

I have been away from my home now for 1 year and 4 months. In this time my nieces and nephews have learnt to walk, to talk, they have graduated primary school, attended high school, family have bought new houses and lived in them for more than a year now, I have missed many cultural events, not to mention countless coffees and meals with family. Whilst this time of my life (being an International student) has been one of immense personal growth, it has also been and continues to be, one of immense personal hardship.

Without the presence of my wife, Madeleine, I fear this hardship would have become too difficult already. She has been a pillar of strength and I am indebted for her support over this time. But the struggle remains and lately, it has become difficult to control.

I am not someone whom believes that feelings such as homesickness should be ‘overcome’. The only true way to overcome them is to return home! I believe that these are powerful feelings and if utilised in an effective manner, can be a powerful fuel to power my work. I constantly remind myself of why I am here, how I came to be here, what we (Madeleine and I) have sacrificed to be here, and the rare opportunity we now have. But knowing and feeling are two vastly different things. This feeling is what has, and continues, to block my mind.

As stated previously, this Blog (I am hopping) acts as a catalyst to re-focus my mind and bring forth information that over the previous few weeks, has not been forthcoming. My attempt here is to understand complexity of the project and if/how my feelings of homesickness are hampering or promoting the quality of the work. By reflecting in this way, I hope to utilise that which has been hampering me and move it from being a debilitative feeling to an enabling force.

The project itself requires me to design a cultural and environmental Guardianship model for the Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in communities. My strategies for approaching this work have been equally influenced by my time in the Indigenous Governance program (IGOV) at UVic, and working with Aboriginal Ranger groups back home in Australia. There are many similarities in the historical experiences of colonisation between these First Nations communities (Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in) and Aboriginal communities in Australia. There are also however, key differences in our current circumstances. As such, my approach has been to adopt the guiding philosophies of Aboriginal Ranger groups in Australia whilst building innovative governance models based on my education in IGOV. This governance model is tailored specifically for the circumstances and ambitions of Yunesit’in and Xeni Gwet’in.

This process has required me to engage deeply with material from Aboriginal Ranger groups at home (triggering a negative emotional response). The real complexity in this process for me is in the communication. Whilst I see clear linkages in the work, weaving these together has and continues to prove difficult.

One of these difficulties include navigating the different vocabulary of Aboriginal groups from Australia and Canada. One example is the use of the term ‘Guardianship’ versus ‘Caring for Country’. Whilst this is clear to me, uncovering ways to communicate nuanceddifferences is an ongoing struggle.

Another difficulty is accounting for the varying political circumstances in our communities. One of the most notable is the influence of ‘Treaty’ in British Columbia. This complicates the utilisation of ideas from Australia, as there is no such process at home.

There is much more to these difficulties that is beyond the scope or purpose of this Blog. Suffice to say, that there are key differences in the lived realities of our communities that require me to constantly reflect and question my own assumptions.

This ongoing reflection is a critical part of the success of my project. Lately though, this reflection has become inseparable from the longing and homesickness that has paralysed my work. I am not sure if this process of writing and recording these feelings will help me to overcome my current dilemma. I am sure however, that framing and writing a reflection this way will prove invaluable as an historical record of my time here and the hardships I encountered.

Bhiamie Eckford Williamson – Blog1: Introductions

Hi I am Bhiamie. I am from Australia and this Podcast is an introduction of myself and the research I will be undertaking this year.

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