“In the course of my lifetime I have lived in two distinct cultures. I was born into a culture that lived in communal houses. My grandfather’s house was eighty feet long. It was called a smoke house, and it stood down by the beach along the inlet. All my grandfather’s sons and their families lived in this dwelling. Their sleeping apartments were separated by blankets made of bull rush weeds, but one open fire in the middle served the cooking needs of all.
In houses like these, throughout the tribe, people learned to live with one another; learned to respect the rights of one another. And children shared the thoughts of the adult world and found themselves surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins who loved them and did not threaten them. My father was born in such a house and learned from infancy how to love people and be at home with them.
And beyond this acceptance of one another there was a deep respect for everything in Nature that surrounded them. My father loved the Earth and all its creatures. The Earth was his second mother. The Earth and everything it contained was a gift from See-see-am… and the way to thank this Great Spirit was to use his gifts with respect.
I remember, as a little boy, fishing with him up Indian River and I can still see him as the sun rose above the mountain top in the early morning…I can see him standing by the water’s edge with his arms raised above his head while he softly moaned…”Thank you, thank you.” It left a deep impression on my young mind.
And I shall never forget his disappointment when once he caught me gaffing for fish “just for the fun of it.” “My son” he said, “The Great Spirit gave you those fish to be your brothers, to feed you when you are hungry. You must respect them. You must not kill them just for the fun of it.”
This then was the culture I was born into and for some years the only one I really knew or tasted. This is why I find it hard to accept many of the things I see around me.
I see people living in smoke houses hundreds of times bigger than the one I knew. But the people in one apartment do not even know the people in the next and care less about them.
It is also difficult for me to understand the deep hate that exists among people. It is hard to understand a culture that justifies the killing of millions in past wars, and it at this very moment preparing bombs to kill even greater numbers. It is hard for me to understand a culture that spends more on wars and weapons to kill, than it does on education and welfare to help and develop.
It is hard for me to understand a culture that not only hates and fights his brothers but even attacks Nature and abuses her. I see my white brothers going about blotting out Nature from his cities. I see him strip the hills bare, leaving ugly wounds on the face of mountains. I see him tearing things from the bosom of Mother Earth as though she were a monster, who refused to share her treasures with him. I see him throw poison in the waters, indifferent to the life he kills there; as he chokes the air with deadly fumes.
My white brother does many things well for he is more clever than my people but I wonder if he has ever really learned to love at all. Perhaps he only loves the things that are his own but never learned to love the things that are outside and beyond him. And this is, of course, not love at all, for man must love all creation or he will love none of it. Man must love fully or he will become the lowest of the animals. It is the power to love that makes him the greatest of them all… for he alone of all animals is capable of [a deeper] love.
My friends, how desperately do we need to be loved and to love. When Christ said man does not live by bread alone, he spoke of a hunger. This hunger was not the hunger of the body.. He spoke of a hunger that begins in the very depths of man… a hunger for love. Love is something you and I must have. We must have it because our spirit feeds upon it. We must have it because without it we become weak and faint. Without love our self esteem weakens. Without it our courage fails. Without love we can no longer look out confidently at the world. Instead we turn inwardly and begin to feed upon our own personalities and little by little we destroy ourselves.
You and I need the strength and joy that comes from knowing that we are loved. With it we are creative. With it we march tirelessly. With it, and with it alone, we are able to sacrifice for others. There have been times when we all wanted so desperately to feel a reassuring hand upon us… there have been lonely times when we so wanted a strong arm around us… I cannot tell you how deeply I miss my wife’s presence when I return from a trip. Her love was my greatest joy, my strength, my greatest blessing.
I am afraid my culture has little to offer yours. But my culture did prize friendship and companionship. It did not look on privacy as a thing to be clung to, for privacy builds walls and walls promote distrust. My culture lived in big family communities, and from infancy people learned to live with others.
My culture did not prize the hoarding of private possessions, in fact, to hoard was a shameful thing to do among my people. The Indian looked on all things in Nature as belonging to him and he expected to share them with others and to take only what he needed.
Everyone likes to give as well as receive. No one wishes only to receive all the time. We have taken something from your culture… I wish you had taken something from our culture, for there were some beautiful and good things in it.
Soon it will be too late to know my culture, for integration is upon us and soon we will have no values but yours. Already many of our young people have forgotten the old ways. And many have been shamed of their Indian ways by scorn and ridicule. My culture is like a wounded deer that has crawled away into the forest to bleed and die alone.
The only thing that can truly help us is genuine love. You must truly love, be patient with us and share with us. And we must love you—with a genuine love that forgives and forgets… a love that forgives the terrible sufferings your culture brought ours when it swept over us like a wave crashing along a beach… with a love that forgets and lifts up its head and sees in your eyes an answering love of trust and acceptance…”
~Chief Dan George was a leader of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation as well as a beloved actor, musician, poet and author. He was born in North Vancouver in 1899 and died in 1981. This column first appeared in the North Shore Free Press on March 1, 1972. https://www.nsnews.com/nsn-50th/from-the-archives-chief-dan-george-teaches-understanding-1.23925435