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Review

What Was Said to Me: The Life of Sti’tum’atul’wut, a Cowichan Woman

By Ruby Peter, in collaboration with Helene Demers

February 24, 2022

Review By Georgia Sitara

Stories are a gift. When someone shares their story with us, it is an offering to know them, to know what it means to be them, to know ourselves and our society. Ruby Peter’s book What Was Said to Me is such an offering and so much more. As an insider’s history, it tells us what cannot be known through “official” written records. It talks back to power and it does so using its own conventions, narrative style and cultural teachings. This book is a gift to all of us.

Born in 1932, Ruby Peter (Sti’tum’atul’wut) is Cowichan from the Quamichan Reserve in Duncan, British Columbia.  As a descendant of people who “dropped from the sky full grown,” (p.17) Peter was trained by her mother, Cecilia Leo, to remember who she came from (p.78). Through the book, Peter is passing along her mother’s teachings about medicines and plants, about ritual, ceremony, and prayer, about how to look after and care for others.  By recounting her training, Peter trains the reader and gifts her mother’s teachings to younger generations (p.41).

Although Peter attended Day School, her life’s work is a response to all that was lost (language, cultural teachings including how to raise children and how to care for oneself) because of Residential Schools. As most Canadians might know by now, Indigenous children were punished in Day and Residential Schools for speaking their languages.  In Day School, in a hushed voice so that the sisters could not hear her, as a child herself, Peter recounted her grandfather’s stories in “Indian” to younger children (p.60). As an adult, Ruby continued this legacy to restore and teach the Hulq’umi’num language. What the state and church tried to destroy is brought to life and shared on paper, immortalized in this book. With her testimony, Sti’tum’atul’wut ensures the stories will not and can never be forgotten.

The importance of teaching children and telling children the truth opens and closes the book.  Echoing her mother’s counsel, Peter tells readers, “You have to start early to teach them things.” Her mother told her, “Remember your child is a human being, your child is somebody.” Peter implores us to honour and love children (p.114), to “study children so that we will know them” (p.118). Taking care of Elders and being taken care of by them in return are also important threads woven throughout the book. “As her mother always said, ‘Someday your caring, your loving the Old People, it will come back’” (p.123).

The book reveals a life of hard work, from berry picking as a family to gather the money necessary for school clothes and shoes and for farm equipment, to cleaning white people’s houses, to working as a Band councillor on committees about land and education, to teaching Hulq’umi’num to researchers, linguists, and professors at the University of Victoria. Recounted in a humble, beautiful, lyrical and circular way, Sti’tum’atul’wut’s life story is a tour de force. It shows the relentless and often unglamorous work required to lead an ethical life, to leave the world better than we found it. To be a hope.

There is also mystery in this book. It does not reveal all.  It is a guide, a treasure map as well as a treasure. As a published oral history, it helps us chart a course to find our way back home. Stories teach us.  Stories help us to know what to do and what not to do (p.76). The stories contained in this book are wonderful reminders about the centrality of care, and of listening, for a life well-lived.  The book tells us how to live. Its lessons are Cowichan and invaluable to all who want to live an honorable, and ethical life.

Huy tseep q’u, Sti’tum’atul’wut. Thank you, Ruby Peter.

Publication Information

Peter, Ruby, in collaboration with Helene Demers. What Was Said to Me: The Life of Sti’tum’atul’wut, a Cowichan Woman. Victoria: Royal BC Museum, 2021. 240 pp. $24.95 paper.