Conversation with J,SIṈTEN John Elliott
A respected Elder shares important teachings that are intrinsic to his people’s language and way of life.
“Our languages are a part of the winds, the rain, the mountains, and all life as it was given. These are our original laws and our sacred connections to the natural world. Each sound, each vibration of the ancient languages of these lands has a meaning in the spiritual realm. Our languages enliven the natural world when spoken. Our original languages echo an ancient past. Each plant, each lake and river, has a natural name as it was presented to our ancestors in a sacred time of the world. When our children think, pray, and sing in those ancient languages, the natural world awakens and becomes well. It’s a long road to full recovery and earth wellness. I feel hopeful when I hear the young teachers of this generation teaching and passing along important worldviews. Maybe one day these understandings will affect the future development of more respectful government policies that see Mother Earth as one that cares for all Nations.”
— J,SIṈTEN John Elliott
These powerful words came to me in November 2020 in an email message from J,SIṈTEN, a respected Elder of the Tsartlip (W̱SÁNEĆ, Coast Salish) First Nation of southern British Columbia, Canada. I had known J,SIṈTEN for a decade and had witnessed firsthand his exceptional devotion to the mission he had embraced, inspired by his visionary father, David Elliott: revitalizing his SENĆOŦEN language and nurturing and training new generations of Language Apprentices. For that tireless work J,SIṈTEN has been recognized with honorary doctorates and awards.
At Terralingua, we have been privileged to collaborate with J,SIṈTEN and the Apprentices on documenting their oral traditions. When he wrote those words to me, sharing his wisdom, he had just graciously accepted to join the Terralingua Board. Those words stayed with me for a whole year, until I was able to learn more from J,SIṈTEN in a conversation on the theme for this Langscape Magazine issue.
On a very rainy day in November 2021, the world still in the throes of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, we met across the water from each other, courtesy of Zoom: he in the Tsartlip community on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island; I on Salt Spring Island in the Southern Gulf Islands, which the W̱SÁNEĆ count as part of their traditional territory and know as their ṮEṮÁĆES, or “Relatives of the Deep” — a name that refers to a creation myth about people’s kinship with the islands and their obligation to care for their kin. Something that, I mused as I got ready for our conversation, many of us living here as “settlers” (or better said, “displacers”) sadly seem to have all but forgotten, if we ever even knew.
What follows is a much condensed, edited excerpt of my wide-ranging conversation with J,SIṈTEN.
LUISA MAFFI: Thank you so much, J,SIṈTEN, for agreeing to have this chat with me today! I was deeply inspired by the words you wrote to me just about a year ago — your thoughts on the relationship between people and the land, people and Mother Earth, and the role of language in all that. Ever since then I’ve been wanting to hear more from you on this topic. So, I put together some questions for you, but it’s free flow — you can go wherever you wish with it!
J,SIṈTEN JOHN ELLIOTT: I will try to answer them all at once.
LUISA: [laughs] One by one . . . In these times of deepening environmental and social crises around the world, it is often said that the fundamental cause of our predicament is that people have become disconnected from nature, that we have come to see ourselves as apart from the natural world instead of as a part of it. And we tend to consider ourselves as dominant over nature, to think of nature as a resource instead of as a giver of life. It is also said that this self-destructive way of thinking has much to do with a loss of reverence and respect for and reciprocity with the natural world and that we have a lot to learn from Indigenous worldviews, in which these principles are still very much alive. What can you tell me about reverence, respect, and reciprocity from within the W̱SÁNEĆ worldview?
J,SIṈTEN: You know, I remember when I didn’t have the language, and I first started learning it from the Elders. I learned it as an adult because although I heard my parents speaking to each other, and they spoke to our aunts and uncles, they didn’t speak too much to us [in the language]. But as I was learning as an adult, the more I learned of our language — how to say words and understand what the words are meaning and saying — [the more I was] inspired by that, because it was like a pretty deep connection to our whole understanding of how we’re supposed to live in this world, how we’re supposed to take care of the natural world, whether it’s plants, animals, or fish. In our worldview, everything around us is like a human spirit, as long as we understand it through the laws that were given to us on how to live in the world and take care of this place. So, we have a responsibility to maintain that.
LUISA: You’re saying that a sense of reverence, respect, and reciprocity is built into the words and the stories that people told and tell, even today?
J,SIṈTEN: One of the first things I learned was that the first human being was lowered down from the sky on a dark rainy night and was the human spirit of rain. Water is very, very important to our people. And it’s like an ancestor to our people, and our people always go to the water to strengthen themselves. And we speak to the water like an ancestor, and say, “Ancestor Rain, wash me, wake me, strengthen me today.” That connection is something that we do daily.
Then we were told that there are sacred parts of the day, like before the sun rises, which is a good time to reflect on what the day will bring to our loved ones, and it’s a good time to speak to the dawn of the day. You have prayers that we use for the dawn of the day and the morning star, and we speak to the sun like he can hear us. We don’t really write those words down; we just learn them from one generation to the next. You see that it’s a deeper understanding, a deeper connection to the environment that I was learning as I was learning more and more of the language. So, we would take this understanding and start to use it within our hearts and minds. And I believe that when we do these things we continue what we’re asked to do by the Creator. If we walk the land with the ancestors, if we continue to do that as we were asked to, then I think it enlivens the world around us with that connection. Without that human connection, I think we lose something — and not just for us, but the environment loses that important connection to the human race, who we are.
LUISA: People today don’t tend to think of language that way! We have this idea that language is just an information tool, a means to exchange information . . . That language may emanate from the land, and that it may be a carrier of these deep meanings, of these teachings, [is a foreign idea to most people]. [As I understand it], traditional knowledge, and the language by which it is conveyed, is not just what to know about a place you live in, but how to live in a place you know — so there are those moral teachings that are deeply embedded in the language, and people just don’t think about that.
J,SIṈTEN: When I think about the modern world’s concept and our own concept of understanding our relationship to the places where we live, I see a huge difference. It’s as if the scientific world, the technological world has walked away from the natural connections to our homelands and territories. And my late father used to say, our language is the voice of the land. Our language is the voice of the land. And I believe that, because it comes out of how the different parts of nature came to be.
When the first Europeans arrived to this land, it was like a virtual paradise here, because the rivers were full of fish, and the streams were full of fish, and there were all kinds of old-growth trees everywhere, this beautiful rainforest here. And it didn’t get to be that way by mistake: it was a careful, careful, respecting and acknowledging those parts of nature that we were asked to look after.
LUISA: I know . . . If I could get on a time machine, I’d like to go back to a time when people were connected to the natural world! There was a world of abundance — abundance in the natural world and abundance for humans, which is very different from whatever concept of material prosperity we have now. It was a fullness of life. That abundance was fulfilling for people while at the same time being respectful of the natural world . . . I think we really need to learn so much more about that worldview, that way of thinking, of feeling, of being, if we are to overcome the environmental and social crises that we’re facing today!
J,SIṈTEN: [Some of our stories seem] very simple, almost childlike. But you know, it’s these very, very basic, simple understandings that we have to bring ourselves to acknowledge — those things that Creator was trying to teach us that are important in looking after this place. So, these are the kinds of stories we tell our children, talking about how we should think of not just ourselves, but the future generations.
LUISA: Instead, it seems that as settlers on these islands we haven’t taken care of them as well as we should have. There has been a lot of deforestation. The coastline has been built over and polluted. Our streams and lakes are also polluted, and in many the salmon are not coming back. That’s why, several decades ago, the government of British Columbia created the Islands Trust, with this mandate to preserve and protect the natural environment and rural character of the islands. But it hasn’t worked well, and the government might as well have given the leadership to Coast Salish people to do that job because that’s what you had been doing all along!
J,SIṈTEN: I wondered about that . . . No matter which island you go to, what a beautiful place to have a home! And you know what? If you want to live in this beautiful place by the water, then be responsible! I think there should always be consultation with our First Nations people on how we should look after these places, and how we should just share these places as well.
LUISA: That’s right! It’s not like people shouldn’t or couldn’t live here; it’s rather a matter of living here with humility and respect and a sense of care. And that’s what you and your ancestors were doing. We can’t keep promoting the Gulf Islands as “own your little piece of paradise” and at the same time carry out activities that destroy the very paradise that we came here for! I see it as a sign of the disconnect that we have come to between people and the natural world: if we don’t see ourselves as part of nature, in that reciprocal relationship with the natural world, then we’ll continue to engage in destructive activities and ultimately self-destroy.
J,SIṈTEN: You know, living in this world is a wonderful gift. And each day is a gift, and the way we teach the generation we’re in and the coming generation how to look after this place is so important. And so that educational part of things is so important, passing those teachings from one generation to the next is so important. It should be in all our ways of educating our children, so that they can understand that there’s life there that’s meant to be there. . . . People would take just what they needed and leave some for others, and they would use what they took. It’s built in since you’re just a baby until you grow up, and you learn these things when you’re learning the language.
I do believe that our people have a good understanding of the natural world around us through our language and those laws that were originally given for us to follow. We can’t put those aside; as a people we can’t just say forget it. Because it will mean that, when we give that up, our identity will be gone with it. And we shouldn’t be asked to do that. It should be against human rights to be asked to do such a thing because this is our natural belief about the origins. Our language, all of our cultural beliefs are involved in it. We just can’t put that aside.
LUISA: In spite of horrendous efforts to get the language out of First Nations, to get their culture out of them through the horrors of residential schools, well, First Nations are still here. And those beliefs and ethical principles are still here. It probably was so much in people’s blood that it couldn’t be taken away even so! And we all could learn and benefit from it. I think there is a very bright light in the resurgence and reaffirmation of Indigenous Peoples here and around the world. It’s a long way and it’s not an easy way, but with people like you and other wise Elders and the young people in your communities who are rising and embracing your identities, relearning your languages, and getting engaged in such a forceful way, it gives me hope.
J,SIṈTEN: You know, those things that were done to our parents, our aunts and uncles, our families before us — we have generations before us: that was wrong. People who are not First Nations need to understand, admit the truth of that one. That was wrong. But where are we going to go from here, with that truth that all those terrible things were done? Because there is a form of guilt that colonizers carry with them over this. And we could say, let’s put that behind us. But in putting that behind us there should be fair and just ways of moving forward together, with respect. And respect and the rights of others doesn’t just mean for human beings; it means for anything that has life. So, I think those are important things we have to look after when we’re moving forward. We can’t just say, “OK, we’re gonna reconcile.”
LUISA: Right, it’s not just a matter of saying, “Oh, we’re so sorry,” and then continue with business as usual! It takes perseverance, and First Nations have persevered and endured through generations, and you will continue to do so and to show the way. So, I’m really grateful to you for your time, and I’m very deeply grateful to you and to your community and to your ancestors for continuing to show the way — a better way. Thank you.
J,SIṈTEN: Thank you so much, Luisa. You know, I wouldn’t have the understanding if the older ones before me hadn’t been strong people! There were very strong, beautiful people who really lived that way of living out on the land and with the land within nature, and left it nice. They left it nice for us. How can we do that too, and bring hope to the people? I think that’s the question we have to answer.
Relatives of the Deep: Conversation with J,SIṈTEN John Elliott. Video: Terralingua
Luisa Maffi is co-founder and director of Terralingua and editor of Langscape Magazine. A linguist and anthropologist, she is a pioneer and leader in the field of biocultural diversity and a strong advocate for the vital value of diversity in all its forms for the survival and thriving of life on earth.