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Urban aboriginals keep old cultures alive in city

While separated a million strokes of the cedar paddle and a dozen sunsets and sunrises away from their homeland in…

By Wawmeesh G. Hamilton , in City Feature story , on November 24, 2014 Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Vancouver Nisga'a display their culture as part of a November protest
Vancouver Nisga’a display their culture as part of a November protest

While separated a million strokes of the cedar paddle and a dozen sunsets and sunrises away from their homeland in northern B.C., Tsimshian peoples living in Vancouver still gather once a week to practice their culture.

Figures from Statistics Canada show that more than 60 per cent of aboriginal people live off reserve and in cities. Vancouver is home to more than 40,000 aboriginal people, according to the Urban Aboriginal People’s Study.

“The city can be a lonely place for some people, especially if they come from close, family-oriented nations,”  said Vancouver Nisga’a resident Ginger Gosnell-Myers, who co-authored a study on urban aboriginal people in 2012.

“Cultural nights give people from home a familiar place to be, to visit and to express who they are.”

Tsimshian culture in Vancouver

“You always feel that deep connection to home no matter how long you live here,” said Vancouver Tsimshian Christine Martin, who leads the group that meets weekly in Vancouver.

Martin grew up in the tight-knit village of Lax Kw’alaams before moving to Prince Rupert at age 13. Culture was a constant influence, she said.

“My mother instilled teachings in me from my Haida side of my family and my father taught me about my Tsimshian side,” she said.

Martin came to Vancouver from Prince Rupert in 1994 to pursue post-secondary studies.

Upon arriving, she never felt cultural isolation after leaving her close-knit community.

Her mother, who already lived in Vancouver, had helped found the weekly West Coast Family Night at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

Anywhere from 120 to 450 urban aboriginal people from Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, Gitxsan, Lil’wat and Nisga’a and other coastal First Nations attend and perform songs.

Martin and other urban Tsimshian people sing and dance once every week. This is a long-standing cultural tradition. Culture may be practiced more often in the city than back home, Martin said. “But I still miss cultural gatherings and being with our clans and our own people.”

Cultural expression doesn’t just involve singing and dancing, Martin said. “Gathering and being together is important. And something as small like being taught by your aunties and grandmothers is also part of practicing culture.”

Martin’s four children grew up participating in culture nights. Attending is important for their identities, she said. “It instills the teaching that you belong somewhere and that you come from somewhere,” she said. “That you’re not just all alone in this world.”

A Vancouver Tsimshian member participates in a weekly culture night.
A Vancouver Tsimshian member participates in a weekly culture night.

Urban aboriginal population growing

According to the Urban Aboriginal People’s Study, the thousands of aboriginal people in Vancouver participate in cultural activities at a higher rate than in any other Canadian city beside Toronto.

The study also found that seven in 10 aboriginal people in Vancouver think aboriginal culture has become stronger in the last five years. And  six in 10 urban aboriginal people feel closely connected to home.

Ernie Crey is a Cheam tribe member from the Fraser Valley who has lived in the Lower Mainland for more than 30 years. He has watched aboriginal people flock to Vancouver in ever-larger numbers, he said.

“They largely come from small remote nations that are struggling with economic and social hardships,” he said. “They come to cities such as Vancouver to find what they feel is a better life.”

Culture underpins Nisga’a protest

Nisga’a people living in Vancouver also practice their culture at dance practices and culture nights.

Nisga’a trace their ancestry from four villages in the Nass Valley in Northern B.C. Today, more than 1,500 Nisga’a call Vancouver home.

Cultural expression by Vancouver Nisga’a was an undercurrent at a recent protest in Vancouver around a controversial LNG project slated for their homeland.

The pipeline is 1,300 kilometres away from Vancouver, but Nisga’a culture is bred in the bone, Gosnell-Myers said.

Singers from several tribes participate in West Coast Family Night at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.
Singers from several tribes participate in West Coast Family Night at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

“We were taught that this area is sacred. You’re not even supposed to take a rock from here. We weren’t raised like that,” she said.

Aboriginal culture ‘like an umbilical cord’

Living far from home makes aboriginal people embrace their cultures more tightly, Crey said.

“They often maintain links to their home cultures because it’s a strong part of their identities,” Crey said. “Aboriginal people can live far away from their home nations for years and they’ll still be fiercely proud of who they are.”

Crey compared practicing culture far from home to an umbilical chord between mother and child. “It sustains, nourishes and keeps your identity alive.”

Some aboriginal people in Vancouver have never visited their home nations, but they still want to know where they come from, Crey said. “Knowing this is the missing piece of their life’s puzzle.”

Cultural practice is a powerful part of aboriginal people’s personalities that won’t wane with time or distance from home.

“It will only stop being ours when we forget it,” Crey said. “We’ll hang onto it for all time and it will never die.”