Growing up as a second-generation Asian-Canadian in Montreal, I do not recall learning much about Indigenous Peoples in school. I remember visiting my grandma in Vancouver when I was in university and she took me to Stanley Park where I saw totem poles for the first time. My first “formal” education was around 10 years ago, taking the San’yas training program that was aimed at improving cultural safety for Indigenous people accessing health services.
Fortunately, Providence Research’s new strategic plan, aptly named Discovery Forward, has provided an opportunity for further learning with the plan’s inclusion of the foundational principle of “Reconciliation” and strategic direction of “Build”, which includes strengthening Indigenous research knowledge.
I learn best through two methods: reading and relationships. Suzanne Methot’s book Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing impacted me so strongly that I emailed her last summer to thank her for sharing her personal experiences while including the history of Indigenous culture, the importance of elders, the land and spiritual well-being.
In July, I had the privilege to be introduced to Sulksun (Shane Pointe), a Salish Knowledge Keeper who will open Providence Research’s inaugural Skunkworks event focused on pain in November. Sulksun is a facilitator, advisor, traditional speaker and artist. Over the past 40 years, he has provided advice and guidance on ceremonial protocols for local, national and international governmental events.
As we have worked together on this event, I have been grateful Sulksun has generously shared his knowledge about his ancestry, and Coast Salish culture. I learned that understanding Coast Salish values, traditions and ways of living highlight the importance of why reconciliation needs to be embedded in health care and research. I also realize that I have much to learn in order to improve my general cultural awareness of Indigenous healing practices.
It all starts with language: “What does your name mean?”
When we first met, he taught me the word “Slaxin,” the Salish word for herbal plant medicine, and explained that medicine is not just about pharmaceutical treatments. He also said that in the Salish belief system, human beings are medicine for each other as well. In healing, Sulksun said, “We need to bring back the humanity in medicine, and remember how human beings are medicine for each other.” I reflect on these words often as pharmaceutical treatments are still the primary treatment for pain.
When I asked about the origin of his name, he explained that Sulksun was a nickname and that, in fact, he has four names. Te’ta-in (Nuu-chah-nulth) means “Sound of Thunder” and it comes from his great grand uncle, a healer. Xwhopokeltun (Salish) was given to him by his grandfather when he was 14 years old. The name references protecting the family. Shutsiiacum (Nuu-chah-nulth) means “holds the world in one hand,” and Qwasmlanox (Bella Coola) from the grizzly bear clan means “smoothes everything out.” This last name is his favourite.
Sulksun also shared with me the term “family” extends beyond the European traditional definition, and represents the entire network of friends, family and community.
Indigenous learning comes from family first
“I am most happy that 80 per cent of my teachings are from my family,” Sulksun said proudly. His mother was especially influential, encouraging him to hone his skills in diplomacy starting as a young boy.
His aunt explained to him how history, not stories, are about finding the truths and facts. Sulksun explained, “She taught me about how to burn for our ancestors as a way to heal emotional and spiritual pain. Burning food is a ritual that gets us ready and this practice helps connect us to the four realms.”
One of Sulksun’s other important teachings came from his 93-year old uncle – There are unseen things in the ocean that are the source of healing power. Bathing in creeks and lakes will bring stamina, and wisdom and true strength come from the ocean. Sulksun added, “When you are immersed in the ocean and your feet are on the ocean floor, that is the only time human beings are truly connected to Mother Earth fully.”
I started to appreciate there are deep spiritual, cultural, social connections that Salish peoples have to the geography and ecosystem they are part of.
“We are each other’s medicine”
Health and healing are recurring themes in our conversations. Sulksun’s educational background comes from Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Western educational systems, and started at an early age. Sulksun continues to use his vast experiences, education, and knowledge to help others, which reinforces his personal motto, “Nutsamaht!” (We are one).”
He connected the Skunkworks event to a recent grief workshop at the Metro Vancouver Indigenous Services Society, which highlighted for me how important culturally safe care is in our health care system. He shared his experiences with the participants at the workshop: “As health care providers, we need to adapt to the patients, and be positive and supportive. Ask deeper questions to understand the patients, to get personal insights. Having tools to understand language, culture, and ceremony are an important part of healing.”
To apply this to research, Sulksun emphasized that understanding the roots of Indigenous Peoples can provide insights for researchers. In B.C. alone, there are more than 22 language groups, reflecting the diversity in Indigenous languages, geography and ecosystem. Understanding a person’s history and ancestors can give insights into their language, culture and ceremony.
“Nutsamaht!” (We are one)
Sulksun also authored the “Knowledge Keeper’s Message” in the In Plain Sight Report: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care (November 2020).The paragraph below particularly resonated with me:
“The Truth is, to be happy and balanced, we must know both the positive and negative aspects of our lives and the systems within which we co-exist. When pain and suffering have been inflicted on us, it is necessary to take the time to heal, assess and recover our strength. Positive healing energy will move us forward hand in hand with those who have hurt us. It is this collective energy that will bring true healing to the perpetrator and victim alike.”
The report highlights the significant work we have ahead of us in improving equity in health care. Sulksun shared a metaphor with me: “The health care system is like a one-inch stream. It needs to be an ocean.”
As I start my own journey of cultural humility, I am very grateful for Sulksun’s teachings. It has provoked self-reflection, and encouraged me to examine my own beliefs. I plan to keep being curious, and to continue applying my learnings in my workplace and at home. Unlike my primary school education, my son’s first recollection of learning about Indigenous People was in Grade 4 when he was taught about residential schools. With a teenage son, I recognize that cross-generational teaching and learning is so important to creating family and community, as well as growing the next generation of leaders and change-makers.