Circling Literacy

A poem written and presented by Shelagh Rogers at the Haida Gwaii PGI. This poem was transcribed from her presentation, which can be viewed on youtube at

We are welcomed to Haida Gwaii with a paddle song,
Ancient words sung to the beat of the drum,
Reg and Robert Davidson shared the song and gave us a new memory.
We are fed, in so many ways,
By art and stories,
By kids singing while they drive a two dimensional car.
We are fed by halibut, salmon, crab and soap berries,
By people who put love into their casseroles and cakes.
Mike Stevens, the harmonica player, teacher and great human says,
One of the things he loves about Haida Gwaii is that no one goes hungry here.
You feed each other.
By his words and music, again, we are fed.
There’s a dog at the doorway of the Port Clements Community Hall, watching it all.
He is not fed though, but it’s tempting.
What is it that is making me feel so full here?
I think it is being a witness to generosity and hospitality that is centuries old.
I love the root of the word “witness”.
It comes from the old English word “inwit” which means to have a clean heart.
But what does it mean to actually be a witness?
Being so receptive to the truth that your thinking is altered and your heart is opened.
Maybe this was the very first kind of open heart surgery.
Being a witness to people like Gladys and Terri and James,
Listening deeply to help carry their story,
To be a keeper of their story and to share it so widely it will always stand up for the truth.
Anyone who has heard a survivor speak about residential school becomes a witness.
At the PGI last year here, we heard Chief Ron Wilson, a survivor, say that education is everything,
We witnessed that.
And last night I learned that his sister Barb, also a survivor, is working on her Masters degree.
Education is everything.
And hearing her story, I was fed and honored to carry her good news.
Haida Gwaii is a place that feeds us.
Last year I met a proud Haida grandfather and businessman named Arnie Bellis.
He spoke at an aboriginal business gathering and said,
“My grandchildren will grow up never having heard Queen Charlotte Islands. It will always be Haida Gwaii to them – Islands of the People.”
Words are important. There is so much in a word.
Language is the key to ideas in a culture and there’s magic in the original languages.
I have experienced this even as a waabishikwe,
Which is my ojibwe name and it translates to “white woman”.
Here is a story about that magic.
I am on a conference on depression, something I am very familiar with,
And there was a Blackfoot healer named Leo Bastien.
He says his language gives him access to healing that English does not.
He asks us to close our eyes. He says some words in his language.
I hear an eagle call.
I see my father who had died two weeks before and it bothered me so much that I did not get to say good bye.
But in my closed eye vision, dad said “not to worry about that as I will always be here so why should you say goodbye?”
When I opened my eyes, Leo Bastien was gone.
Later I asked people what happened to them when they closed their eyes.
Everyone I talked to, from neurosurgeons to researchers to lawyers to teachers, had seen someone they had lost.
Powerful medicine right inside the language. The language builds the stories.
Your stories told in song and dance and art and carvings,
Totem poles as Robert Davidson said “that totem was a way of transferring knowledge”.
I will never forget the story and significance that we heard today about the Massett totem and the year 1969.
For telling stories like in the Massett totem igniting memories of stories, songs and dances to be told anew by people like Terri-Lynn and Reg and Ben.
Something beautiful is happening here and you know, I see circles.
There’s a circle that’s getting bigger and stronger.
The circle of stories passed on, from one generation to another and retold around a table or a campfire that is a circle.
The circle of a plate with wonderful food from here, the circle of a drum that welcomed us last night.
The circle of a fishing net, the circumference of a tree that will be a totem pole carved by Ben Davidson.
A hug is a circle.
Elder Delores Davis told me, “we are huggers here on Haida Gwaii and hugging lowers your blood pressure.”
She’s cut her medication in half.
A golf ball is a sphere, so it’s a 3D circle.
The PGI started with a golf ball so it has brought us here together to complete the circle.
You’ve made the circle bigger and stronger and we are fed.