Former Burns Laker Spencer Greening has been helping a First Nations community reclaim its cultural heritage.
After living in Burns Lake until he was 18 years old, Greening decided to connect with his mother’s Gitga’at culture. The home community of the Gitga’at Nation, Hartley Bay, lies about 80 km southwest of Kitimat.
“For too long, our artifacts, knowledge, and culture have been taken and appropriated into western institutions for the sole benefit of those institutions,” he said. “For years, our community has been working in initiatives to protect intellectual and cultural property of our peoples.”
Greening said a part of this process includes “decolonizing academia on an institutional level,” having museums and university courses offered in places where traditional knowledge and culture comes from – within First Nations communities.
“In my eyes, there is a power imbalance when a western institution has the strongest means to convey this knowledge and history to the largest audience,” he said. “Often the portrayal of our history is skewed and coming from a colonial bias.”
Greening recalls an unpleasant visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“It is unnerving when one of the most renowned museums in the world inappropriately displays our artifacts and misrepresents our history,” he said. “How relevant does our history become when people around the world spend a couple minutes glancing at a display that is a misrepresentation of a place they will never visit.”
“The whole idea of it devalues our knowledge,” he added. “Especially when you consider how many of these items were stolen.”
Greening has worked for the Gitga’at Nation doing environmental assessments and cultural studies. The anthropology graduate student is now getting ready to defend his master’s thesis at the University of Northern British Columbia. He plans to begin his PhD at Simon Fraser University this September.
His motivation for preserving and sharing his cultural heritage is based on his belief that cultural knowledge is key in preserving sustainable relationships with the environment.
“On a global level, humans are in drastic place of change and disconnect with the earth,” he said. “Indigenous cultures hold ancestral knowledge that have allowed humans to thrive in complex societies for millennia and give us insight into sustainable living practices with the earth.”
“On a national level, indigenous knowledge plays an increasingly vital role in academic scholarship, Canadian law and policy, and the promotion of environmental awareness,” he added. “It is natural that I look to the knowledge that my roots come from to address these areas I wish to have positive influence in.”