Who has the right to tell Aboriginal peoples' stories?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 12, 2006

"I wish to be a coffee companion," read the e-mailed response via my website, www.coffeewithwarren.com. "Your weekly column comes highly recommended by a friend, so please add me to your distribution list."

He went on briefly to wonder whether books I've referred to recently on First Nations themes were themselves written by First Nations authors. (Some were, some weren't, but all were written with appropriate permissions.)

The writer of the e-mail caught my attention immediately with his concern over the controversial topic of appropriation of voice and who has the right to tell Aboriginal peoples' stories.

The writer's name caught my attention, too. He was someone whose opinions I should take seriously.

Darryl Klassen, of Langley, B.C., is the Aboriginal Neighbours program co-ordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee British Columbia (MCCBC), a position he has held since 1989. But of himself he wrote in a follow-up e-mail, "I'm just an average Joe trying to get people to talk to each other."

Well, "average Joe" or not, Darryl – a former Calgarian with a taste for friendliness and "fond memories of driving out to Cochrane for ice cream on Sunday afternoons" – has done extraordinary things in getting Canadians in general to listen well to the words and wisdom of First Nations people.

The MCC has a fine reputation for humanitarian outreach. The Aboriginal Neighbours program is no exception. According to its website (www.mcc.org/bc/Aboriginalneighbours), the program's mandate is to foster "respectful understanding with Aboriginal people by creating opportunities for dialogue and placing MCC service workers in Aboriginal communities."

Through this program Darryl has sought to increase public awareness of First Nations views on such matters as natural resources, the Nisga'a treaty, and cross-cultural misunderstandings in day-to-day life.

"Our program has three essentials," Darryl wrote me: "(1) build bridges of understanding and friendship between our respective people and communities; (2) explore and facilitate the placement of professional volunteers from our constituency into Aboriginal settings where they are invited; and (3) advocate to governments and corporations towards real change in the political, economic and social fabric of our relationships to Aboriginal people."

One of his favourite sayings, Darryl said, is from Plato: "Equality and justice are not guaranteed by law, but by friendship."

This involves him in bringing in speakers, hanging out in communities, going fishing, taking people camping where they can rub shoulders, writing submissions to governments, and, as he put it, making a nuisance of himself to corporate head offices.

"Right now I'm wondering if there is an Aboriginal community that could use a bunch of used, but very good, softball equipment," Darryl said. "How can I make the connection without it being a gift that takes away in dignity as much as it gives in resources? Gift giving is a wonderful thing, but we have a lot to learn from our Aboriginal neighbours about open handed, humble giving."

In all of this, Darryl has one overriding concern: that First Nations people themselves be heard, and that their authentic voice not be distorted or tainted by others who would appropriate the Aboriginal voice to their own ends.

"What impresses me is that we need to always be conscious of who is telling the story, and why," he wrote me at some length. "If the narrator is from outside of the culture of the story, what may the narrator be missing, misunderstanding, or explaining in a way that a person from within that culture would understand and explain very differently?

"Who owns a people's story? The people as a group, the story tellers, the historians? Every culture might answer this differently.

"What is the distinction between 'history' and 'story'? The late elder Mary Johnson, a Gitksan hereditary chief, spent most of an afternoon telling a small group of us stories in the cool basement of a church in the village of Kispiox. I was puzzled that her story seemed to ramble between what I would call myth, and history, and not be particularly chronological. I asked her about this. Her response was that it was all the story of her people. There was no distinction. The distinction was mine, not hers. That person who was transformed into a rock was still there. You know, that big rock on the east side of the river, just upstream from the bridge? That's him.

"The story is who we are. The story is the people, the people are the story."

Thanks, Darryl, for this important reminder. And welcome to our table.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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