In Langscape Magazine Articles

Repairing the Broken Arrow: Rebuilding Cultural Identity through Art and Language

July 14, 2017

Text and artwork by Barbara Derrick

“At the heart of every culture is its language. One of the main structural pillars for communicating values, beliefs and customs and its importance to the connection to all our relations.” — CrossCulturalTrainingAustralia


New Life. A child is born with many gifts, as seen in this painting: she comes with ancestral knowledge from the wolf protector, bear courage, horse stamina, eagle’s love, and the generosity of Mother Earth. Acrylic painting, 1999


Countering the effect of language loss on the connection with nature may be likened to repairing a “broken arrow.” Tsilhqot’in blood runs through my veins, and as an artist, speaker, and writer, I have struggled with my own personal and cultural identity. I was raised off reserve in a small logging community called Quesnel, in British Columbia, Canada. My mother, who had little patience for passing our language on to me, still managed to teach me some words. I moved to my late mother’s homeland of Xeni Gwet’in First Nation in 1994 with a passion to learn everything there was about “traditional medicines.” In my quest, my family would do the translations for me. I would pick up a word here and there, and soon I did discover why language is important to one’s “whole-person identity.”

As a child growing up in an English-speaking environment, I intellectually knew I was Tsilhqot’in but did not understand the language’s connection to the earth and what my ancestors had passed down to me. My cousin Linda Smith gives an excellent example of a whole-person identity in one paragraph: “I am Tsilhqot’in, or Tŝi- (Rock) -qu- (River) -t’in (people of). I am also a Nenqayni, or Nen- (Earth, land) -qay- (surface) -ni (deni or person).” As you hear the language, you can feel the pulse or the heartbeat, a musical rhythm created by the words as they roll off the tongue.

The pulse or connection to “our relations” is found in the four directions: east, south, west, and north. East — Earth — represents new life, a direction where spirit is born, where we come into this world as a baby. It is also a place where the sun comes up, first light in the morning. The South depicts Air — a direction for the youth, a time when the summer season brings new growth and when our emotions develop. In the West, the element is Water — a place for adulthood and where our physical body is personified. Finally, the North — Fire — is a place for the intellect, characterized by its reference to the mental. It also corresponds to the place of the elders. The four directions move clockwise like the sun and are a living eco-teacher for our growth and wellness.

Language has always embodied storytelling by the elders. I recall one of our late elders, Henry Solomon, who would begin telling his stories with “Chungh… Chungh.” It meant “once again.” When we asked him why he started his stories off in this manner, he said, “I am the carrier of others’ stories, I respect them when I start out my stories with ‘Chungh… Chungh.’” Answers to my questions always came when I had a translator travel with me, to help me understand what was said. When I was a child, my mother took me to the reserve to visit twice a year. On one such visit, I recall an uncle showing us how to make an arrow. I was perplexed: I had only seen Indians in a movie use bows and arrows! The experience remained with me. I heard the term “broken arrow” used by a Prairie elder in talking about the health of our future youth. In my vision, I saw the broken arrow as an analogy representing the loss of language and culture — a way of life in need of repair. Learning the language might give communities direction in repairing damage or breaks caused by assimilation, acculturation, and the genocide of First Nations people.

After our late elder Henry Solomon brought us into the spirit of his story, he continued: “Two men who went hunting in the mountains brought down this big animal, they said. In order to keep warm, after they cleaned it they both crawled inside it.” My uncle and I asked: could it be a mastodon? Henry said that he had seen a picture of one in a magazine once and that it was indeed a mastodon. There were no rifles in that faraway time when those big animals roamed the earth. According to family knowledge, obsidian used for flint and arrowheads was harvested on Anaham Mountain in our homeland. Can you imagine what a mastodon hunt might have looked like in the days of the ancestors? Did they use spears? Or did they pack heavier bows and arrows?

Learning the language might give communities direction in repairing damage or breaks caused by assimilation, acculturation, and the genocide of First Nations people.

Creating the obsidian arrowhead represents “language” within the culture. One must have the knowledge to create a pointed tip through the curved breakage that resembles gradual curves in the shape of a mussel shell. An arrowhead maker had to know where to harvest the material, its preparation, and the techniques to perfect a very sharp missile for hunting. If you were hunting a mastodon, failure of the projectile to kill the animal could mean the difference between the hunter’s life and death. The obsidian arrowhead sits to the North because the material was forged by the Earth’s heat, “fire,” through volcanic activity.

In the North, men were given the ability to provide for their families, and it is here that they formed societies to strengthen the male role. Creator had given them “council” and the gift of “discipline” for themselves and their family. A fracture in the teachings resulted when men were taught to apply “force” by the Churches. A man was taught the “Rule of Thumb,” whereby he was directed to beat his wife or children with a rod no bigger than his thumb as a form of “discipline.” Today, the rule of “force” is considered “abuse,” far from its original interpretation of discipline. To discipline someone is to provide guidance. A once “matriarchal society” is now “patriarchal,” and has created sickness in relationships between men and women. Men need to go back to council with one another. In the North, the healing for men is called the “Sundance.” The Tshilqot’in men didn’t have a Sundance, but there are stories on this topic to be recorded for the future.


Warrior. At dawn the Warrior awaits quietly for game to appear at first morning light. Acrylic painting, 1999


The part of the women’s arrowhead recognizes the “water” in the lava, whose rapid evaporation helped solidify the molten rock erupting from the earth in the creation of obsidian. Woman, as a warrior, is brought to the sacredness of earth’s waters within her own body. Through the teachings passed down in the language, she learns her connection to the water and its influence by the moon. When her Moon Cycle is off, it is because she has not rested her eyes on the light of the Moon when it is full. In the women’s circle, she knows a gift that is foreign to the men — one of menstrual or menopausal cycles, birthing, fertility, pregnancy, and the honoring of the grandmother. The Full Moon Circle is a ceremony for women: a place of serenity, a place to heal from sexual, physical, emotional, or mental abuse that is led by women and, in most places where it is celebrated around the world, is for women only.

The shaft of the arrow is likened to “culture,” where our beliefs, customs, and values are associated to our personal identity. In the making of the shaft for the arrow, the wood requires someone with knowledge of the best type to use, curing time, and preparation. An arrow maker might say, “Douglas Fir is too heavy because of its granular structure,” or “Ash is an indestructible material, yet Ash might also make the arrow sail in the air too slowly.” Culture is a way of thinking, behavior related to our upbringing. Without the language, we may feel displaced.

Once I asked how I would find “balsam” to make my salve. Normally, the Tshilqot’in make a jack pine pitch salve called chendi dzax, but I had learned a non-traditional salve called the “Balm of Gilead,” made from the spring buds of young balsam tree saplings. In our family, every good medicine is called “balsam.” Since I had very little Tshilqot’in to ask the right question, I spent five years learning all the different plants described as “balsam.” Plants such as xilh dilh or Indian Hellebore, tsi guns or Hair on the Rock, or dedeben, which is a tea made from roots, bark, and leaves from different berry bushes. There was another balsam found in white spruce called ts’u. When I think back, I laugh because they were all right! The English language causes confusion and misunderstanding on many different subjects when one translates from Tshilqot’in into English.


Water Woman. Vision: the spirit of the water emerges from its depths to the surface. Acrylic painting, 1999


The feathers that get attached to the shaft are iconic of “family,” where trust and faith are built. It takes the traditional eye of a teacher to guide us in the right selection of feathers, their attachment to the shaft, and techniques to keep them from detaching. Like parenting, a soft sturdy downy feather will determine in which direction the arrow will spin once released from the bow. The heaviness and anger from generational abuses have created burdens for our future generations. Lack of parenting and overprotection have taught children self-entitlement. When an eagle makes a nest for its young, it lines the nest with the soft down from its underwing. The type of parenting will foster the direction of the arrows (children) when they leave the bundle (home).

Culture is a way of thinking, behavior related to our upbringing. Without the language, we may feel displaced.

The most integral part of the arrow is the nock or bottom node. This part of the arrow is often dismissed and gets forgotten because it is so small in relation to the whole. The nock is representative of “self-identity” because it is essential in the community-building process. It can be the difference between a win and a loss in hunting. A good bowman knows that if an arrow requires excessive force to release, then the arrow will not be carried by the wind. In the past, said an elder, clan houses gave everyone importance. Every family had a particular gift: the Bear clan policed the community and/or were medicine healers; Sturgeon became mediators; hoofed clans were warriors; the small four-legged clans held the position of councilors.

Language shapes culture and the way we understand our relationship to the community and the earth. Since the four directions embody “spirit,” words from a language become distorted when translated into English. Later in 1994, I wanted to complete my drum song about the four directions. In my sleep, I could hear the ancestors singing this song, and it held such beauty. I knew I had to bring it to life. I visited my family and asked, “How do you say East, West, North, and South?”

A family member said, “We don’t know about those ones. But we say gu?en for up there (North), gunes for down there (South), gu’nish for over there (West), and gudah for go that way (East).” While conversing with my cousin, I was shown the words for the four directions. I began to laugh.


Four Directions. The warrior’s arrows become a teaching handed down from the strength of the elders’ wisdom, used to guide the younger generation in growing and learning about their culture. Acrylic painting, 2016


Just before a rain, when the clouds are low, the white spruce trees emit an intense aroma into the atmosphere. There is one word to denote that process in our language. There is a word for a “moose wattle,” the fleshy lobe that hangs below a moose’s neck, which is used to foretell the success in hunting, weather, and such. Everything about our culture and the words of our language connects us to the earth. When we don’t know our language, it causes disconnection. The elders say, “I don’t understand what all the whining about losing our culture and language is about. Why don’t you learn your language then?”

Without the language, it is difficult to learn and understand cultural practices and ways of doing things. When I worked with plants, the first value was to respect the plants and not over-pick them. Information about identification I found in books, but not the sacred knowledge held by Tshilqot’in practitioners.

And with this I thank spirit for the sake of my readers, “All my relations.”

About the Artwork: I depict Tsilhqot’in stories, myths, beliefs, and culture as they are, life as it is for my people. When I was four or five years old, I was fascinated by my mom’s hands, always running my fingers over them! She was the first person I loved, the first person who told me her favorite color was blue. What I didn’t count on was that it would become a landmark for my art. Blue is the peace we seek at night…

Barbara Derrick is a Tsilhqot’in First Nation artist and writer. She taught in a Native Cultural Arts college for over a decade and now runs Native Studio Art in Edmonton, Canada. Her book Walking in Your Power draws from her life experience and the teachings of empowerment. Her writing is also included in the collection First Lady Nation, Vol. IV. Read more from Barbara Derrick:


Further Reading

Barrett, T. (2002). The Four Directions. Retrieved from

CrossCulturalTrainingAustralia. (2014). What is Culture? [Online course]. 

First Voices. (n.d.). Tsilhqot’in (Xeni Gwet’in) Community Portal. Retrieved from

Marshall, J. M., III. (2012). The Lakota Way of Strength and Courage: Lessons in Resilience from the Bow and Arrow. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

Smith, L. R. (2016). Nenqayni Ch’ih Yaltɨg / We Speak Nenqayni Ch’ih: Phrase Book. Ms. in preparation. Williams Lake, BC.


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