Remembering teachings: Snuneymuxw storyteller learned from Elders to raise her son culturally

·3 min read

When Celestine Aleck (Sahiltiniye)’s son Eli was a baby, she would carry him through forest trails in Snuneymuxw territory — pointing out plant medicines and sharing legends about where he’s from.

Having received rich cultural teachings from her Elders when she was a child, the Snuneymuxw author and artist was determined to pass down this knowledge to her son, who’s now 18, at an early age.

Aleck brings teachings to children in schools across Vancouver Island, and shares Snuneymuxw stories in her books, articles and even through the art of dance.

“We should make every effort possible to raise our children with the teachings that our ancestors fought so hard to keep alive,” Aleck says.

Her grandfather Ronald Aleck trained her to be a historian starting when she was four years old until he passed away when she was 12, she says.

Aleck always got along better with Elders than her own peers — as she got older, she chose to spend time with her great-grandmother Hazel Good and her Elder friends, rather than people her own age.

“I love being around Elders and just learned a lot,” she says.

When she was pregnant, she relied on the wisdom she learned from Elders to do things in a cultural way, she remembers. She and her sister RobinLee followed protocol together, as they were pregnant at the same time and even gave birth on the same day.

“I couldn’t be angry or lay around or that would show in my son,” she says. “There were certain things that we had to follow, a lot of rules actually.”

Aleck was told when she was pregnant that she couldn’t knit or chop wood, because it could affect the umbilical cord. And when she was in labour, she was taught to stay quiet and calm.

“I wasn’t allowed to cry, or swear, or scream, or anything like that, because the Elders said you don’t want your baby to hear this when they’re born,” she says.

In Snuneymuxw culture, when a child is born, the placenta is “planted in the mountain” with items that signify what the community wants the child to become, Aleck says.

“[For example] If we want them to be traditional and have knowledge in medicines we would bury [medicines] with the placenta to keep them strong in how we want them to be,” Aleck says.

Newborns are given a snow bath during a first snow in order to keep them healthy and strong — which is something she did with her son. “He’s only been sick a few times in his life,” she says.

IMAGE: IMAGE LINK: https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/1ivdNUlVjqVwXMuNkIJdVeNIaPhAsdnSmIMAGE CAPTION: Aleck's son Eli before losing his first tooth which Aleck says is to be thrown in the river while saying the word "Qwa'ats" out loud to give a child strong teeth like a dog fish.

Another important teaching Aleck shares is the importance of consuming bone marrow while pregnant to help the fetus grow strong.

She says she wishes she had remembered the physical and mental healing attributes of bone marrow after her son was born too.

“It would have helped to heal my insides much quicker and replenish any chemical imbalances,” she says.

Aleck understands the importance of teaching women about how to care for themselves during pregnancy and how to care for their children as they grow.

She says she wants to share her knowledge with other mothers, especially as many teachings have been lost through the intergenerational impacts of residential schools.

New moms often ask her questions.

Aleck says she has gone through dark periods in her life where the teachings she learned from her Elders, particularly her grandfather, have brought her back.

He would always tell her: “If ever life gets hard, you look at the whole picture.”

“It’s just remembering all those teachings we heard over and over growing up,” she says, and they are words she intends to share with those who might need a way back.

Catherine Lafferty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse