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Indigenous Elders In Focus

To celebrate National Indigenous People's Day on June 21, Megaphone visual storyteller Priscillia Mays Tait profiles a few community leaders with portraits and stories.

Priscillia Mays Tait
Writer, Visual Storyteller

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Marr Dorvault

Elder Marr Dorvault (traditional name Nii Gaa’mkx, from Ans’paux, Gitxsan territory) was encouraged by her parents when she was young to work in the local community in schools, hospitals, and homes. She left her home over 50 years ago and worked in Vancouver for over 20 years as a professional baker and cook. She describes herself as an outspoken person, and after she won an arbitration case against her employer, she was not welcomed when she looked to fit in elsewhere. Eventually she found the Aboriginal Front Door and Native Health and connected with a like-minded community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She learned drumming and singing and protocol and found her place as a respected elder who continues to help people in the area, sharing her knowledge and experience. She has a wonderful story of an experience in Squamish: 

“So we were stripping cedar. And we scored the sides, the length of your hand, from the tip of your fingers to your wrist, that’s how wide the cedar strip would be. And then you score the bottom, score the sides, and they pry it out. We got it about 50 feet up. And it got stuck up on the 50 feet. We didn’t know what to do. So I asked everybody to go around the cedar. And I asked everyone to pray, whether it’s the ancestors or creator, either one. While we’re doing that, I seen a tunnel, turning. I says ‘Okay everybody, I got the vision.’ I seen what I was supposed to do. I was still holding the cedar strip. I said ‘When I turn with the cedar, when I stop, somebody grab the cedar and keep turning.’ ” The group followed her instructions, and the cedar strip came off the tree. “Whoosh! And I showed all the ones that were there that prayers can help.” 

Louisa Starr

Louisa Starr is from Kitasoo (Klemtu), a community that sits on the east side of Swindle Island, in the Great Bear Rainforest on the coast of B.C., about halfway between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy. Her no nonsense parents got their children (8 sisters, 5 brothers) up at 7AM, and they didn’t get breakfast until morning chores were done. Coming in 10 minutes late in the evening meant being grounded for a month. Besides a once a month treat of “white food”, their diet was native. They ate clams, cockles, herring eggs, seaweed, salmon, seal, and deer. Louisa’s mother did not allow her to be taken to residential school. Her father used to say he grew up “to know who’s looking after you are creator and what he’s doing is helping us.”

Louisa says “When I first moved to Vancouver between 1975 and ’76 I was alcoholic. So I was going on to my 40 years old and I started to know who I am. It says you got to see your family, your children, your grandchildren. So I stopped drinking on my own. I didn’t have to go to detox treatments, enter a meeting and all that.”

She continues “I wanted to learn how to crochet and do some baking and all that. I went on my own. I started going all over wherever I can go to learn.”

Louisa still speaks her native language fluently. You can find her at Carnegie sharing her traditional foods with her friends. She’s part of the lexwst’i:lem drum group and sits on the Carnegie’s Indigenous Advisory Committee. 

Les Nelson

Les Nelson (Tsts-Tsip, “Big Bird”) was born in Nuxalk territory, in his mother’s community of Bella Coola, as were his five older siblings. When Les was about six, the family moved to Quatsino, where his dad is from. He remembers that “as a young little kid I used to go and get ooligans and herring and whatever I did because we were looking after our grandmother, who didn’t speak English, and we helped her because she had a stroke, and we didn’t know that but we were helping her and happily doing.” He remembers going clam digging with two older brothers, “just playing and jumping around in the rocks and doing fun things, and we’d come back home, we should have had a full bag but we’d come back with a quarter bag full and we’d get disciplined, and we still never learned, we still play when we go out and that’s a fun time that we get early in the morning.”

Les started working as a longshoreman at age 13. In 2005, he went back to school, and ended up amazing himself by getting a high school diploma. Les says ” Now that I’ve got the education and what I know now, I know who to respect and who gives me respect back. My dad is the one that taught me respect and that’s the only thing I know of our culture.”

Over the past several years Les has studied many aspects of aboriginal culture and applies his understanding to benefit himself and others in the community. He holds the position of Elder in Residence at Carnegie Community Centre, and enjoys the honour of being authorized to acknowledge the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people at public events. He is also a member of the lexwst”i:lem drum group. 

Deborah Chartrand

Deborah Chartrand’s mom was born in 1906. Her dad was twenty years older, and had already fathered 5 children before his union with her produced 10 more. Deborah was born in Dauphin, Manitoba, about 150 km straight northwest of Winnipeg. When she was 6 years old, her sister introduced her to her mom, who then took her in. “It was good”, says Deb. “She never hit us. She did make us do housework”. 

They spoke Cree and Saulteaux and “We used to speak a bit of French but I lost that when I went to school. And my sisters, they talked to me and all that, but I answered them in English and a little bit what I know.” Deb lived and went to school in Winnipegosis, about 60 km north of her birthplace. She liked the little red one room schoolhouse, but she says, “There was nothing but girls in there. I run away from there and they caught me.” They went 50 miles to church every Sunday, even in wintertime, traveling by horse and coach.

In 1968, Deb moved with her family to Vancouver. Years later she reconnected with her friends Carol and Leslie. When she started going on Carnegie field trips, it brought back memories of powwows with native dress and singing and dancing and especially the fabulous food. “So I liked it. Then learn how to make drums, cedar hat and beading and all that, meet nice people… When they come and play their drumming, I get to play once in a while. Yeah, and I like the songs but what I really like is them to see if they can learn a new song… like you know, writing up a little bit more what’s happening around us.” 

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Priscillia Mays Tait

Priscillia Mays Tait

Writer, Visual Storyteller

Priscillia Mays Tait is a proud Babine, Gitsxan, and mostly Wet'suwet'en mother, as well as a gifted writer, photographer, performer, artist, dancer and community activist. She has been a vendor with Megaphone for nearly 10 years, Her work has been published in Megaphone’s monthly magazine, annual Voices of the Street literary anthology and yearly Hope in Shadows calendar numerous times. Her frequent motto: Hug a tree.

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