Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guest Post- Where Are the Berries?

Please welcome a guest post today from Starleigh Grass, a friend and colleague of mine.  Her blog is Twinkle's Happy Place.


I'm Starleigh and I'm Rob's virtual friend (we connect using multiple platforms) and fleshy friend (I've met the man in person!).

I'm your guest blogger for today. This post is about berries, which might seem random, but I promise that if you keep reading it will all make sense in the end.

As a youth I spent much of my life in the Okanagan Valley. My mother grew up in the Chilcotin, but left for social and economic reasons so we grew up away from our traditional territory. In the Okanagan we lived across the road from a ravine, and a few Saskatoon berry bushes grew on the edge of the ravine. My mother loathed those berries.

She said that they were dry and seedy and not good and warned us that if we ate too many we would get sick.

Nevertheless, we'd rush any berry bush we could and grope that the homely branches, first clearing out the dark purple berries, then the light purple ones, and finally we'd eat a few of the pink ones with purple botches just to confirm that they were, in fact, inedible.

She scorned those berries for their shortcomings. They had no flavour, they were mealy. We were kids, though, and we didn't care. We just thought that it was cool that you could go outside and voila, food was there waiting on a bush.

Then one year we went berry picking on the Chilcotin plateau, on my traditional territory, with my grandmother and all of a sudden I got it. Those berries... they were like blueberries but better. They were moist and soft and practically seedless. They were smaller than the berries across the road from our house but they had a hundred times more flavour.

In the valley we'd swarm a stand of berry bushes like locusts, emptying the few scrawny plants in minutes and leaving nothing for the birds. On the plateau there was full bush after full bush and you could pick dark purple bucket after bucket for hours on end.

When I reflect back to my mother's scorn for the valley berries and joy over the plateau berries I wonder what the berries represented to her. The home territory that she did not live in? A childhood gone? The break between traditional life and modern life?

When I first moved to Lillooet I experienced something similar in a literal sense, but wholly different in a philosophical sense. As I was driving during berry season I kept seeing bunches of purple along the side of the road. I needed to stop and experience the berries, not just for the visceral experience of holding the deep purple orbs of softness in my hands, but also for the spiritual experience of connecting to something bigger than myself. There is a tapestry of culture and history and by harvesting those berries I could be part of it. I wanted to integrate a traditional activity into my life and my diet. I wanted my son to feel the joy of sustaining himself through the territory which we resided upon.

I went home, grabbed a tupperware container, and returned to the bushes I saw on the side of the road. I got out and surveyed the bushes. I knew before I tasted them, but I tasted them anyhow. Valley berries. Disgusted, I went further up the road to the bank of a river. Valley berries. I went up in elevation, my heart full of hope. Valley berries. I went to the other side of a river and walked through a field. Valley berries. I went into the forest. Valley berries. Finally I gave up and harvested the valley berries. I took them home and tried to eat them plain but they were unpalatable. I put them in oatmeal and the seeds bothered my teeth.

I ate them all, grudgingly, because I don't like to waste food. Valley berries.

This wasn't just about their woody seeds or dry texture. This was about a set of values that I aspired to. I remembered tasting the good berries at a community event in St'at'imc territory. I knew they existed, I just needed to find them.

On a field trip to look at pictographs I shared my experience with the St'at'imc language teacher. "I just don't know where to find the real berries," I said, "the soft ones with small seeds that taste good." She laughed and told me that she wasn't going to tell me where her berry patch was because I'd have to find my own.

Since then I've reflected deeply on the experience of the valley berries. For my mother the berries represented something that she had left but could return to. As an urban Indian, the berries represent something that I have literally only had a taste of, but that I had never really possessed.

I've spent the winter working on finding the real berries. I've started learning the songs of the territory that I live in. I've been trying to pick up bits of the language here and there. I've been exploring the land a bit more than I did last year. I've been working hard to participate in the community. The berries are only part of the worldview. Perhaps, if I work at it, someday I will find my berries.

I read Rob's post awhile back about the title of his blog, where are the sheep, and it got me thinking, where are my sheep? I am Chilcotin, so it seems reasonable that my sheep would be the salmon. Farwell Canyon was historically one of the most productive areas on the Fraser River for salmon fishing and we were able to maintain a healthy economy and population based on plentiful fish and a mountain of obsidian.

However, while I love salmon and being on site during dipnetting, I don't really feel like they are my sheep. The berries are my sheep. My journey towards that satisfaction, though, is not as simple as going out by myself and discovering a berry patch. It is about being part of something larger than myself and learning from others and rejoicing in the culture around me.

I've spent most of my life as an urban Indian and more and more I'm realizing that that means participating in the community around me as a resident. I once said that I was a guest, but that's not quite right. As a resident I have responsibilities. I am responsible for learning about my impact on the land that I live on. I am responsible for learning about protocols. I am responsible for honoring the traditions that were here long before I came. As an educator I am responsible for learning about what the community values and transforming my classroom practices accordingly. I am responsible for helping students find their berries.

Next year I will go out again in search of the berries. Until then I will prepare myself, as a social and cultural entity, for berry picking season.

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