Weaving the Words

"The way Grandpa taught us,” Ellen White begins, gently tapping her forehead, "he always said, ‘What is the thought before it becomes IN you’? And that means, what you think, you will create.” Dark-haired and petite, she radiates both a peaceful calm and a bubbling energy as she sits comfortably at her kitchen table. Slipping easily into storytelling to illustrate her point, vivid word pictures of talking animals and a spiritual natural world spring brilliantly to life, filling the room with a cast of colourful characters in meaningful tableaux. As the stories and their lessons unfold, English spills seamlessly into Coast Salish dialect and back, completing an intrinsic harmony.

At a vibrant and surprising 85, Ellen White is used to living the duality. She’s been both student and teacher all her life. As a much-loved First Nations Elder and linguistics teacher, a respected band Chief’s wife and herbal medicine woman, a trusted healer and midwife from the age of nine, and a sought-after public speaker and book author, she bridges cultures and connects people – all people – native and non-native alike. Using her gifts with the wisdom of a mother and grandmother of today, Ellen ensures the stories and knowledge she learned from her grandparents and ancestors is kept alive. And while she’s spent her lifetime working for change, she’s watched as people have grown increasingly disconnected from the earth and each other.

"We’re like the tree – we have to be anchored, and even if we move, we know where our home is,” she says. "The tree gathers the energies of the universe. When we’re doing healing, we say, ‘Help us, please help us.’ We’re asking for support from the energies of the universe. And it’s not only one type of energy, it’ll be all different, like, energy from the rocks, from Mother Earth, the salt water and fresh water, trees and all the animals.”

A subtle change flashes across her features in a moment, and the voice and face of the grandmother leaning forward in her chair suddenly resembles a wide-eyed young child. "So we used to say, as kids, ‘Do trees die then?’ ‘Oh yes.’ ‘Can you get energy from the dead tree?’ ‘No, because they’re dead, they’re not like us. When we die, then we’re buried, but our soul is still active and we can still support other people when they ask us.’ There were so many things, and then we’d say, ‘I wonder if it’s truth’!” She laughs, and the wise storytelling grandmother is back.

All around her home is the evidence of a long and diverse life. A sunroom, facing the ocean just a stone’s throw away, is filled with natural light and the earthy aromas of drying herbs, wildflowers and grasses. A ‘collection’ of coffee tins she says everyone teases her about holds seeds and leaves and various ingredients which end up in the herbal medicines. Native artwork and detailed wooden carvings decorate the living room walls alongside portraits of her grandchildren at their university graduations. And above the proud photo display of many generations of family members and ceremonial events, rests her Teacher’s certificate and her 2006 Honourary Doctorate of Law presented by Malaspina University-College.

Ellen worked at Malaspina as Elder-in-Residence until her retirement in mid-October of this year. For more than thirty years she taught in public elementary and secondary schools, travelling the province and the country, lecturing, teaching drumming and weaving skills, and going where she was needed as a storyteller and bridge builder. It earned Mrs. Ellen White, or Kwulasulwut (Many Stars) as she’s known in Coast Salish, an additional, affectionate nickname: Auntie Ellen.

"I’ve been called [to go] all over the place with the students. ‘Can Auntie Ellen come?’ I’ve always been Auntie Ellen, all over. When we started the First Nations Indian studies at Malaspina, maybe six or seven years ago we had some people from Kenya. So, I was shopping and my granddaughter was working at the till. One of these guys came in, and he was so happy, ‘Auntie Ellen, Auntie Ellen!’ and he gave me a big hug. ‘Are we going to be seeing you this week? You’re feeling better Auntie Ellen?’ ‘Yeah, I feel better sweetie and I’ll be there.’ He was as black as a spade. So the others asked my granddaughter, ‘Has your grandmother got black relatives?’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah. She’s got Vietnamese, Chinese, white kids, Africans and even some Hawaiians’!”

It has always been about connecting everyone through language, Ellen says. "I got hired at one of the schools in Ladysmith. I went in there, they were all Indian kids. I said where are the other kids?” She decided she couldn’t teach like that, she says. It became the only time she was ever let go from a position.

Over her many years of working in the educational system, she would sometimes teach as many as 16 classes per week and travel to two schools in a day. An injury from a car accident curtailed her driving ability and forced her to quit. But she was encouraged to continue her work with phonetics and linguistics through lectures at Malaspina University-College. Ellen was instrumental in helping to establish The First Nations program there in 1994.

"When I was in university, I wrote a paper saying that the amazing thing is that we’re so similar. Even the white man’s Bible is so similar to the teachings of the old people. Only the dialects and the area where you are, makes your prayer you’re asking a bit different. We’re all the same, and I teach that.”

She also teaches healing and herbology and is continually training her students to be aware of the need to respect themselves. Rising from her chair, she stands, feet slightly apart, arms gently swinging in a circular embrace of her body as she slowly sways from side to side. She explains about feeling the energy of the body, and offering the movements as a gentle and loving caress. "If they [the students] respect themselves, they’ll ask, ‘How am I built like this? Thank you. I love you’, and you’re speaking to yourself. You’re going to look after yourself. And it means you’re going to look after others.”

It’s something Dr. Ellen White continues to do on a daily basis. Although she has officially retired, she is part of a current provincial government panel on First Nations health. And she is often asked to perform ceremonial blessings for various events, including one in September at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new, green co-housing project in Nanaimo. She acknowledges that as an Elder, she holds a very special position.

"[It’s] because of what we do, what my grandmother and grandfather did, always passing on the knowledge. But the more you know – and [when] it’s known that you have that knowledge – then people will come around you.”

Her telephone rings, and there is a health matter to be discussed with Auntie Ellen. Yesterday, she was with students and faculty at Malaspina once again, and this afternoon, she is off to yet another meeting with experts and advisors on the government’s select panel. Tomorrow, there will be more people with which to connect. And Ellen will continue to share her knowledge and the many magical tales of white seagulls and black crows, seal ladies and giant fish, woven skilfully in a timeless tradition and with an enduring and pertinent wisdom.