We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia

By Katherine Palmer Gordon

May 7, 2014

Review By Sarah Nickel

We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us is an important and long overdue book about contemporary First Nations’ experiences in British Columbia. Using narrative interviews with almost two dozen First Nations peoples, Katherine Palmer Gordon seeks to break down dominant discourses of tragedy and despair that often punctuate literature on First Nations peoples by offering alternate stories of cultural strength, empowerment, and humour.

To bring coherence to this multi-vocal work, Gordon begins by creating an analogy of First Nations historio-cultural experience by referencing a presentation on birds by Salt Spring Island naturalist John Neville. Neville argued that while birds are “born with a song inside them,” young birds must hear their songs from their fathers in order to fully learn them. Noticing parallels to First Nations’ lives and histories, Gordon argues that many First Nations peoples were disconnected from their culture through government policies and projects and, like the young birds, many were unable to learn from their parents. Rather than focusing on settler colonial oppression and culture loss, however, Gordon’s work shares and celebrates accounts of First Nations peoples who have reconnected with or preserved their cultural identity or their “songs.”

This book is organized into sixteen chapters, each dedicated to an individual’s story. Through their interviews, narrators speak about their work as artists, educators, or lawyers, as well as about family and culture. Many use their interviews to comment on and dismantle prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about Aboriginal identity and culture, Indian Act benefits, substance abuse, and First Nations’ government corruption. In the text, Gordon expertly weaves together her own voice with those of the narrators, allowing the reader to experience both the conversations between the author and narrator as well as the personal reflections of each person. While Gordon leaves large pieces of the interviews intact, she also interjects at key moments to provide important historical or political context and to note personal or thematic connections between chapters and individuals. For example, Gordon includes a short summary of the Tsawwassen treaty alongside the story of former Tsawwassen Chief and treaty negotiator Kim Baird (Kwuntiltunaat), which deepens the reader’s understanding of treaty issues and Baird’s experiences (118-120).

Gordon achieves a nice balance by proposing this work as a counter narrative to the abundant stories of Aboriginal oppression without obscuring the impact and legacy of the colonial experience. Many of the stories are steeped in the histories of culture loss and abuse caused by the residential school system and Canadian Indian policy, as well by as the pervasive racism that continues today. The focus, however, remains on how First Nations peoples in BC are grappling with these continued legacies and using their cultural strength to achieve personal and collective success. Despite addressing both positive and negative experiences, however, my only criticism of this work is its failure to truly engage with some of the most pertinent and controversial political questions facing First Nations peoples in BC today. For example, while many of these stories address treaty negotiations, they provide little direct engagement with the continued opposition to the treaty process in many First Nations communities. In this sense, some of the descriptions of Aboriginal politics seem one-sided or oversimplified.

While this book will appeal to multiple audiences, many First Nations readers will see glimpses, if not mirror images, of themselves and their experiences. For instance, as a non-status First Nations person of Secwepemc ancestry, I was immediately struck by how Lisa Webster-Gibson, a woman of Mohawk and Scottish descent, experienced the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ hiring process. At her interview for an environmental assessment position some years ago, Webster-Gibson was shocked when the Human Resources person exclaimed that there were only three native women in her professional field and the Department had now hired two of them (23). I had a similar experience at an academic conference whereby my “Indianness” seemed more important than my professional qualifications or abilities. This book, then, truly captures the messy and at times contradictory experiences facing Aboriginal peoples in their daily lives, while concurrently creating a shared sense of community and delighting the reader with rich, multilayered, and important narratives.

We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia
Katherine Palmer Gordon
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2013. 248 pp. $24.95 paper