Indigenous Storytelling Sunday: Skookum John
with intro writing by Anisa Dhanji and artwork by River Miller
Young people (ages 18-30) form Ocean Wise’s Ocean Bridge program, a national team engaged for eleven months in co-creating and delivering ocean and waterway service projects for their home communities. Anisa Dhanji is a 2021 Ocean Bridge Ambassador residing on the Pacific coast.
As the Ocean Wise Youth community begins to learn about Indigenous sciences of place and relationships, we were excited to announce our social media event, Storytelling Sundays. We used our platform to share stories from Indigenous Storytellers on the four Sundays of February.
We’re so thankful that many of you joined us as we made space on Sundays for moments of multi-media learning, contemplation, and agency as we listened to Indigenous Storytellers. As a settler residing and dreaming on the stolen, ancestral, and occupied lands of the Qayqayt First Nation, I was so humbled to share the heart-work of Sara Florence Davidson, Robert Davidson, Janine Gibbons, Skookum John, Nathan Wilson, and Margaret Firlotte. We are also incredibly grateful for the thoughtful dedication from the very talented visual artist, River Miller, who created our beautiful social media posters for this event.
Our second Storytelling Sunday on February 13th featured a Residential School Survivor, Skookum John. We thank him for his oral telling of his story and his partner, Marcie Callewaert, for scribing it for us. Skookum John tells us about his connection to water, whether it’s for food, travel, or income. His story begins from a very painful time in his life that has transformed into purpose; to protect the ocean and all that’s in it.
The Sea that Saved Me
Late at night, when all the nuns and supervisors were asleep, we would sneak down to the beach, strip off our clothes and wade out into the inky black waters of the Pacific Ocean. A short distance away, a rock rose from the sea, covered in traditional delicacies of chitons, seaweed, mussels and more. Anything we could find we would bring back with us to feed the children who had gone to bed hungry.
We were hungry for the simplest of reasons. Eating too loudly, picking the worms out of our meal, talking at the table – something so simple would cause us to be sent to bed without being allowed to finish. I couldn’t let the others starve. My best friend, Jack, would join me on these raids to help fill the tummies of our classmates.
I was only seven years old when I was taken away to Residential School. I wasn’t allowed to see my brothers for the entire five years we were there, despite being in the same school. I wasn’t allowed to go home in the summer to see my parents either.
But these night time forages to find food, particularly seafood, gave me purpose and helped me survive the horror of our daily reality.
Now, some 40 or so years later, that seafood still gives me purpose. My seven years spent in Residential School left me an alcoholic at the age of 12. I was homeless at 13. I struggled to find my way in the world for many years, until the ocean and the resources within it gave me a life again.
Today, I fight to protect our ocean waters from the impact of open net pen salmon farming. These fish feedlots transfer disease and lice to wild fish, and smother the ocean bottom in crud. Our oyster and clam beds, harvested from for centuries, are being choked by the farm waste. Herring are in decline, as the eelgrass beds they prefer for their eggs can’t survive with the farms surrounding them. Wild salmon populations are dwindling as sea lice transfer to juvenile salmon, eating through their delicate skin before their scales have a chance to grow and protect their flesh.
As an Indigenous person, the ocean is my kitchen. We used to say, “when the tide is out, the table is set”. This is no longer true. The nutritious seafoods that kept our coastal Nation alive since time immemorial, that kept me alive as a young boy, are dying out.
Today, I live just a short distance away from where I attended Residential School. I find solace from those dark times in the rise and fall of the tides and the ceaseless ocean swells, along with all of the nature that surrounds me. When I have returned to walk that beach, I am reminded of that which gave me hope at a time when there was so little.
Fighting to protect that which is important to me, started back when I was a young boy. I plan to continue to fight for clean oceans so that my children and grandchildren and all of the generations that come after them will be able to rely on these resources as I have.
Find more from Skookum John here: Skookum John (@skookum_john) • Instagram photos and videos