Respect. It’s such an little word, sitting here on the page, looking all innocent.

Respect – From the Latin “re” meaning back, and “specere” to look at, therefore to look back. It’s a tricky little word; can cause a lot of trouble. It often means to admire, to hold in high regard based on one’s past experience (presumably good) of  person or place or situation. But often (as in too often) it means to obey authority, follow the rules formed in someone else’s past experience, be that good or bad.

Yah’guudang is a Haida word for respect and it is explained in the Haida Land Use Vision thus:

Our physical and spiritual relationship with the lands and waters of Haida Gwaii, our history of co-existence with all living things over many thousands of years is what makes up Haida culture. Yah’guudang — our respect for all living things — celebrates the ways our lives and spirits are intertwined and honors the responsibility we hold to future generations.

Yah’guudang is about respect and responsibility, about knowing our place in the web of life, and how the fate of our culture runs parallel with the fate of the ocean, sky and forest people.

Yes, these two concepts of “respect” are worlds apart.

And yet they form the basis for all of us getting along together in the communities of Haida Gwaii. And it has everything to do with “looking back into the past” and reconciling it with today.

Like so many others, I barged onto Haida Gwaii years ago,  just full of it – excitement, hopes, dreams, three kids, a lot of energy … and a lot of stuff. It was all about a New Life, the romance of the wild, life on the edge, pioneers on the frontier, back-to-the-land … and a fair number of other enthusiasms that were “trending” at the time.

And I thought I was full of “respect”  because that’s how I’d been raised.

As Peggy McIntosh points out in her famous essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege”:

I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern … whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them“ to be more like “us.”

Yep, there were a few problems with where I was coming from!

And then … began the long and often painful learning, the dis-assembly of my own apparatus of opinions, notions, preconceptions, misconceptions, assumptions and presumptions. And I had a boatload-full trailing after me. And I didn’t even know it. And I can’t say that I’ve sent that boatload back where it came from, even yet.

This is  Haida Gwaii, homeland of the Haida people. It is not Ontario and I am not Haida.

As communities of people here, we look back on very different experiences; so profoundly different that it would take lifetimes and lifetimes to explore all that is revealed in those interstitial spaces between cultures. In history, there is so much pain and loss that sometimes it can hardly be borne. There are long, long passages of anger and grief to be witnessed and survived. It’s a deep, often harrowing, journey.

The glory in the end, if you make it far enough down the forest path, is this: that in encountering and dismantling the colonial perspectives here (an ongoing daily necessity), we become acutely aware of each others experiences. And there is so much to learn!

Even when I stumble over my own clumsy assumptions, and get it wrong, which I often do, I am reminded in the finest, often funniest and cleverest way of my folly, and helped to put my foot right on the path, again and again.

All of us in our own way are able to seek, understand, and enact with integrity a reconciliation of crucial cultural identities, rights and title, as a matter of responsibility. And here on Haida Gwaii, we do so within and sustained by a very particular landscape full of beauty, history and meaning.


About blue sea sky

By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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