Métis elder encourages holiday discourse

·4 min read

By Breanne Massey Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In an effort to reframe traditional knowledge sharing amidst the ever-growing list of emerging technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Métis woman in southeastern B.C. is encouraging the Columbia Valley community to draw inspiration from their ancestors.

Wilmer resident Sharon Wass, who is a member of the Métis Nation of B.C. (MNBC), has been raising awareness about the art of storytelling in the Columbia Valley this winter.

“It’s not just at Christmas, but it is a time when family and community usually gets together, there’s a lot of meal prep and laughter in the kitchen. It’s very much a family activity and there’s so many ways for everyone to participate,” explained Wass. “In many First Nations winters, it’s a time for storytelling and that’s when legends are told. When it’s stormy, that’s usually when legends were shared… it was a time when you could take the time to talk for hours and hours.”

She hopes to encourage the community to take a lesson from their Indigenous roots over the holidays to reconnect with loved ones and for all nations to practice resiliency during the holidays.

“Christmas is a big time for getting together to celebrate,” she said, “because history was largely an oral tradition, it was very important, historically, to respect elders and history through oral storytelling… The meal prep and everything is wonderful, but the most important time (of being together) was after the meal, where there was an extended period of time to catch up. It was a very jovial time.”

At the root of every subject, there’s a story that’s close to someone’s heart. For Wass, the importance of telling stories about life-lessons, current events, language and culture and safety messages remains an investment for all nations — especially during a global healthcare crisis.

“(Historically), it wasn’t always about laughing,” said Wass. “Sometimes it was a lesson about don’t go on the ice like auntie Sharon did… Along with that, came being respectful and listening politely.”

While Wass recognizes that many families today may be distracted, or may opt to eat meals at different times in the day based on the demands of their schedules, she believes that emerging technologies could help educate younger generations about lessons from the past.

“Today many families don’t sit together and enjoy a meal. I’ve lost track of the number of people I know who sit in front of the TV and have dinner, so I think it’s really important to sit together and talk rather than disappearing down the rabbit hole on your phone or your gaming,” she said. “It’s an important tradition, I think, to resurrect. Even when we can’t do it together with family, like now, we can use Facetime or Zoom to connect with our extended family, and it’s way easier than it used to be.”

She noted how some of the virtual platforms that can be used to connect with physically distant friends and family are geared toward having a host, or one speaker talking at the same time, which can be advantageous when reframed as the sharing of traditional knowledge and manners for all ages.

“I think it’s almost ironic I’m talking about not disappearing down our own rabbit hole of technology, but at the same time, to take that technology to connect with one another over the holidays,” said Wass. “The technology actually forces us to be respectful and wait your turn to speak, which is a lesson that would have been taught through oral storytelling in the past.”

This winter, Wass plans to celebrate the holidays with friends and family by restricting Christmas Eve celebrations to three guests from her immediate family and safely scheduling virtual phone calls with others throughout the week. That way, she can maintain a relationship with many members of her family.

“There will be only three of us here for Christmas. My younger son and I,” she said, noting her children will talk virtually on Christmas Eve. “I’m trying to connect with families at different times. It’s important to connect with our loved ones over the holidays. I’m very glad my youngest son is home.”

Wass explained that historically, storytelling and discussions in Indigenous communities often ran late into the night due to the challenges of travelling to be together during harsh winters. She praised the staff at Columbia House for helping seniors from the Columbia Valley connect with their loved ones on tablets through FaceTime this year.

“It’s an important time to remember your loved ones because the holidays are a time when people tend to be a bit more melancholy, so if (your loved ones) are at home so it’s a good time to reach out and make sure they’re not alone,” she said. “I hope that families take this time to connect by telephone or (through the) internet. It’s a time to be with family and friends by using technology. It’s an important lesson of COVID-19 because we may not see people again, so it’s important to connect. I think it’s important to have meaningful family connections.”

Breanne Massey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer