Grieving the Coast Salish economy

The time has finally come when the weight of the work hangs heavy. I have been waiting for it, but unsure how it was going to feel. I have experienced different iterations of the energy and emotion that comes with lifting this dark blanket before. The energy appears from nowhere and seems to absorb itself into my body like hurtling into a cloud of curling smoke that disappears into your skin. The force hit hard and sparked a reactive momentum—movement into the unknown, yet familiar space, and my rational brain says, oh this cold place, let’s move…any direction to get out. Suddenly, I am in a forest running downhill succumbing to gravity and trying to control the propulsion of my feet down the slippery slope. I know this is the steepest part and I am torn between trusting my footing enough to embrace the rush and gallop to the bottom, or slow down and navigate carefully, trying to find my footing in mud and damp leaves but then having to endure the sharp chill of the silent mountains.

Normally, I am comfortable here, untroubled by the vast and ancient presence of these mountains; open to their wisdom. Especially since I have emerged from a beautiful phase of research that draws me closer to the voices of warmth, telling me about Coast Salish metaphysics and the relational ties that keep us together.

But now I am in a phase of the research process where I am allowing the voices of unfreedom to come into view.

In this instance, these are in the form of letters “written” by Coast Salish chiefs back to 1864 petitioning the encroaching changes, at first to land, fishing, and eventually to the ceremonies at the heart of my research phenomena, Coast Salish gatherings (Blomfield et al., 2001, pp. 170-191). They were written from collective rather than individual points of view and as I read the letters, I see the signed names of chiefs from the two Coast Salish tribes that I carry in my blood: Sts’ailes and Leq’á:mel.

I didn’t get very far before being struck by the circumstances of these letters. At the beginning, they are in legible, but broken English which tells me that not only are these Coast Salish leaders communicating in a foreign language, but there was no written language prior to the work of linguists who created a lexicon for the Halq’eméylem language. At this point in time, to file their grievances, they were instructed to set out linear, written arguments transcribed by someone else, in another language, pleading for the livelihood of their communities to remain intact. One letter reads:

The white men tell many things about taking our lands: our hearts become very sick. We wish to say to Governor Seymour: please protect our lands….We do not like to pay money to carry lumber and many other things in our canoes on the river of our ancestors. We like to fish where our fathers fished.

Another one reads:

Our hearts are full of grief day and night, and in fact we have been many days without being able to sleep…

As the letters carry on, the grievances become more specific and illustrate the exact impact of encroachment and legislation that signal of unraveling relationships within Coast Salish communities. The following excerpts below highlight the crisis of not being able to host gathering ceremonies after legislation takes effect—disruption to long-standing gift economies. As a descendant, I cannot help but pay attention to the shame and humiliation that sits at the forefront of the letters. In them are voices of people without the freedom to fulfill their reciprocal obligations, and knowing that the consequences impact their sense of selves as Coast Salish people:

It cannot be wrong to pay what we owe this is the only way to do it we are not yet like white people and it is one of our laws that these payments shall be done in public. If I am not allowed to hold a gathering the disgrace will be greater than I can bear.

And what must I do with the property that I owe. I owe 140 Indians goods, some of them as much as 100 blankets how can I pay my debts unless they are all here to witness! Tell me what I must do.

These letters create great sadness for me to read the desperation, helplessness and worst of all, humiliation in their voices; and it was only the beginning of what would become a tragic history of dispossession. The Coast Salish gathering economy is one embedded in a complex network of relationships around which all aspects of spiritual, socio-cultural, economic and environmental life come together. The impact of the Potlatch Ban to which they reacted was devastating and the effects were felt deep in the heart of the people. We still practise gatherings today, but rarely are they acknowledged as central to the Coast Salish economy in this way.

I am grateful for being able to access these letters and acknowledge that in them are the voices of people whose economic institutions not only held power, but they also held the people together. In other contexts where the weight of colonial violence is more often discussed, such as the devastation from Indian residential schools, it is known that shame and humiliation are incredibly powerful and the journey through Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however flawed, has begun to address that. Recognizing that while these letters are the voices of my ancestors grieving the loss of relationships and connectedness, at that time, their grief fell on deaf ears.

As the smoke clears out of my skin, reflecting back on the voices of my ancestors 130 years ago, I wonder, did we ever really have the opportunity to grieve the loss of the economy itself, and the freedom to practice our ceremonies? In dealing with the grief and shame from residential schools, Niezen comments on the process, “The ritual offering of tears to the Creator….elaborate on the Creator’s power to heal, to comfort, to release the weight of sorrow.” (Niezen, 2013, p. 65)

In the hugely popular TED talk by Brene Brown on shame and vulnerability, she says there are three things that allow shame to exist:




The voices of my ancestors are no longer secret or silent.

On judgement, I have the privilege of sharing my perspective having listened to their voices, and my conclusion is that while no economic system is perfect, the system that replaced gatherings has left us further disconnected and grieving for the broken heart of our communities. I believe our heart is the gatherings and it is time to acknowledge that what we lost can, and must be rebuilt.


**The image for this blog is taken from the cover of Neizen’s book below and is from a bentwood box carved by Luke Marston, a Coast Salish artist. You can find out more about his work at his website,

Blomfield, K., Boxberger, D. L., Carlson, K. T., Duffield, C., Hancock, R. L., Lutz, J., . . . Woods, J. R. (2001). A Stó:lō Coast Salish historical atlas (K. T. Carlson, C. Duffield, S. McHalsie, L. L. Rhodes, D. M. Schaepe, & D. A. Smith Eds.). Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.

Niezen, R. (2013). Truth and indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press.


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