Every self-respecting Nisga’a woman has, at the ready, a cutting board, an apron, and a sharp knife. Every event is a community event, and every community event involves a feast, and every feast involves the preparation of Nisga’a stew. The recipe begins like this: “Cut 400 to 600 pounds of beef into bite-sized pieces….” Chop and add several hundred pounds of vegetables – enough to fill a long row of 18-gallon Rubber Maid tote bins - and cook outside (in gigantic pots) for most of a day, until tender.
When the call is issued, the knives come out. As a novice member of the Nisga’a community, I was eager to do my part. I tied on my apron and picked up my knife, ready for one of the endlessly circling Nisga’a men to dump a pile of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips or celery in front of me. No instructions were given. It was up to me to look around and figure out what size to chop the vegetables, and where to put them.
It was a finely tuned operation. Each time I heaved a sigh of relief and picked up my final potato, a man with bulging muscles would magically appear with his hundred pound sack and dump another pile in front of me. It went on for hours….
As a distraction, I watched a little girl of about four years old as she picked up a knife and a potato and studied the women working around her. No one jumped in to tell her ‘be careful’ or ‘don’t cut yourself’ or ‘this is how you do it.’ She was left to figure things out for herself, and to ask for help if she wanted it.
That image stuck with me, and I mused on it a couple of years ago when I joined the Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a dance group. Again, no instructions were given. I lined up with the rest of the dancers, some of whom had been part of the group since they were in utero, and I studied their moves and tried to turn myself into a Killer Whale or a Wolf or a Raven or an Eagle, as the dance demanded. I felt like that four year old potato-peeler, trying to figure things out for myself.
At first I felt lost, wanting desperately for someone to jump in and tell me ‘this is how you do it.’ But gradually I came to understand and appreciate the Nisga’a approach to learning. For a start, it is devoid of external judgement. As a potato-peeler or a dancer, you are serving your community and honouring your ancestors by simply showing up and doing your best, regardless of your age or ability. You need never feel that you aren’t ‘good enough.’ You are always good enough, just because you care enough to be there.
In the Nisga’a way of learning, I also found that personal autonomy is greatly respected. No one rushes in to offer help that isn’t asked for. It was up to me to find satisfaction with my own dance performance, and if I wasn’t happy, then it was up to me to ask my fellow dancers for guidance. When I finally did, I found that help was gladly and freely given, and that my ‘mistakes’ were viewed as learning opportunities.
Often they were a great source of humor. Several months after I joined the dance group, I overheard one of the children at our weekly practice asking to sing the song “Halli no.” Astonished, I blurted out that all along I had been singing not “Halli no” but “Tally-Ho!” With much laughter and generosity of spirit, the dancers adopted “Tally-Ho!” as the group’s new rallying cry.
There is always more to learn. I now know that a big part of me has gone through life expecting to be taught. The Nisga’a culture showed me a model of taking responsibility for my own learning. I learned to peel potatoes – for hours - and to dance….who knows what might come next?
Give it a try - ‘This spud’s for you!’