WINNIPEG, Manitoba – In “Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview” – from
“heshook-ish tsawalk”, or “everything is one” – Dr. Richard Atleo recounts
and analyzes origin stories, traditional practices and ceremonies from his
community on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Just published by the University of British Columbia Press, the book would
be a useful text for various secondary school and university Humanities
courses, ranging from Native Studies to philosophy, anthropology and
literature. In addition, its Creator-centered worldview offers interesting
challenges for today’s science students. Atleo, whose Nuu-chah-nulth name
is Umeek, is a hereditary chief and professor of First Nations Studies.
Written in a style that’s both erudite and conversational, with plenty of
contemporary examples, “Tsawalk” offers what Atleo called “an insider’s
view of stories that have primarily been interpreted by others, such as
anthropologists.” It’s also his attempt to mitigate the influence of
reason, which the author sees as the overwhelming theme of the last 500
years of Western civilization – which has itself swamped many indigenous
cultures, along with their gifts for understanding heart, soul and spirit.
Atleo does not, however, suggest that reason and its child, science, be
tossed overboard. “Let’s combine it with the indigenous perspective,” he
said. Indeed, his traditions show him how. “If I were to ask my ancestors
the way to do this, they’d respond with queries about my world,” said
Atleo. “They’d ask, ‘Where are you living? What’s going on? Who’s living
around you?’ The best indigenous systems embraced whatever was found in
reality. Similarly, the best of science fearlessly faces up to reality.
When we all harmonize with what we find in our world, we’ll have a more
complete perspective on reality.”
“Tsawalk” opens with the report of a whale hunt that went temporarily awry.
The author’s great-grandmother, thinking the hunt was over, ended her
prayers prematurely and prepared to welcome home her husband, causing the
whale to head for open ocean rather than accept the harpoon, as had been
arranged via the whalers’ prayers and purifications. With the advice of
wise Wren, balance was restored between the physical and spiritual world,
and the whale agreed to be harpooned and die – but not before we readers
learn that creation is purposeful, that the physical and spiritual worlds
are entwined, and that we must work to discern the protocols that enable us
to act properly within this complicated reality.
Atleo’s descriptions of Nuu-chah-nulth life are detailed and personal, with
meticulous accounts of ordinary and ritual activities. Moreover, his
analyses are complex and nuanced. He notes that scholars and other
outsiders may reduce indigenous tales or events to just one obvious
element. For example, Tloo-qua-nah, a Nuu-chah-nulth ceremony that includes
the staged kidnapping of children by participants costumed as a wolves, has
been called a “wolf ceremony.” This, according to Atleo, is as useful as
dubbing the Christian Holy Communion a “bread ritual.” Tloo-qua-nah
features wolves, but more importantly, he said, the event (the name of
which means “we remember reality”) includes a tribute to the creator, who
in Nuu-chah-nulth terms is “the owner of reality.” In addition,
Tloo-qua-nah acknowledges reality’s mortal dangers and the hard work a
community must do to protect its members from peril.
Noting the present-day value of the ceremony, which ends with the return of
the stolen children, Atleo wrote: “A strong outside force stole our
children, who, over a few generations … became lost to their people’s
teachings. However, if the community works together, it is possible to
rescue these children.”
Though “Tsawalk” elucidates the Nuu-chah-nulth world, reading it would be
useful for members of other indigenous communities, according to Atleo. Its
explanations of the relevance of time-tested ceremonies will inspire them
as they labor to adjust their lifeways to today’s demands – a process about
which Atleo is optimistic. “It’s going to take hard work and struggle, but
the communities will find a way that’s consistent with the original design
of creation,” he said.
Other indigenous people will also recognize his description of the
relationship of the physical world to the spirit world: “The Creator is in
control, but not in the way an earthly power might be. Reality is such that
we have to figure out for ourselves how things work, though we are provided
tools and information.”
In these confusing times – with natural disasters, war and terrorism
providing ample evidence of a world out of balance – Richard Atleo’s wise
book will console readers with its vision of a purposeful universe.