A Calabrese Xwelítem in Stó:lō Téméxw
Updated: May 20, 2022
By Alessandro Tarsia
Alessandro Tarsia, a native of Calabria, is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Indigenous Histories at the University of Saskatchewan and teaching at the University of the Fraser Valley. He is the author of two books on Southern Italy: Perché la ‘ndrangheta. Antropologia dei calabresi [Why the ‘Ndrangheta. Anthropology of Calabrians] Pungitopo, Gioiosa Marea (ME) and Il pane e il fuoco. L’ergotismo nel meridione d’Italia [Bread and Fire. Ergotism in Southern Italy], Aracne, Roma 2011.
I graduated in Historical and Philosophical Sciences at the University of Calabria, choosing to work among and with the Stó:lō in British Columbia because of the introductions my supervisor Professor Keith Thor Carlson, Tier One Canada Research Chair in Indigenous and Community-Engaged History, made for me in the Coast Salish community. Since 2019, I have lived for three years as an xwelítem (white man, literally "starving one" in Halkomelem) in Stó:lō Téméxw (the lands of the Stó:lō). In the lower Fraser Valley watershed, I began my ethnographic research on tobacco in the Nation’s historical consciousness for my Ph.D. dissertation (University of Saskatchewan).
My journey started with the Xwelalámsthóxes Stó:lō Ethnohistory Field School, which promotes cross-cultural and cross-sectional understanding among settlers and Indigenous peoples in North America. According to Albert (Sonny) McHalsie (Naxaxalhts'i), the Shxw'ōwhámel First Nation's cultural advisor and a historian of the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre, non-Indigenous researchers who enrolled in the Community-Engaged Scholarship (CES) are in continuity with the Coast Salish pre-contact habit of inviting outsiders to communicate the history of the hosting family during a potlatch. Naxaxalhts'i is my most important mentor in the Stó:lō Téméxw communities. Many other intellectuals, such as Lee Maracle and Jo-ann Archibald (Q'um Q'um Xiiem), have also pointed out three settler responsibilities in a respectful cross-cultural collaboration.
Firstly, Naxaxalhts'i cautions outsiders not to attempt to research on their own and without the Indigenous community's deep involvement. Indeed, during the Field School, both the Stó:lō Nation and Tribal Council reviewed the settler researchers’ ethnohistorical proposals and investigations, before and after they lived for one month between reserves and longhouses. The Nation and Council directed the planning, content, and scope of the studies. The CES methodology brings the communities' viewpoints into the designing, making, and editorial process of the researchers, enabling intersectional collaboration, reconciliation, dialogue, and alliance among diverse social groups. In addition, non-Stó:lō scholars should not steal traditional stories. Other than Naxaxalhts'i, I had the honour and pleasure of meeting and interviewing eleven Stó:lō Elders and Knowledge Keepers, descendants of 19th centuries families of upper-class (smelá:th), commoners (stexem), or enslaved (sqw’iyéth) people. These are Denise (Iyeselwet), Kelly (Planelmelh), and Lincoln Douglas (Cheam, Xwchíyò:m, First Nation), Yvette John, P'eq sq'oyes Slha':li' (Chawathil), Herbert Joe, T'ixwelátsa (Tzeachten, Ch’íyáqtel), Vange Point, X̱oyetlha (Chehalis, Sts'ailes), Darcy Paul, Cynthia Jim, Shuel-let-qua Qiolosoet (Kwantlen), Rosemary Trehearne (Squiala, Sxwoyehá:la), and Thomas George (Yakweakwioose).
Secondly, according to my consultants, in the Community-Engaged Scholarship experience, the researcher's positionality within the study's methodological framework underscores power asymmetries due to intersectional differences. Consequently, settlers, Euro-Canadians in particular, need to deconstruct, unveil, and denounce the colonial ideological dominance, which is symbolic systemic racism. As a white European heterosexual and atheist man from the southern Italian working class who is in Canada on a study permit, my approach is inevitably a product of a complex set of privileges and challenges, most especially including my settler-colonial benefits and my awareness of the white-supremacist history made (in Italy) of cultural and physical genocides, ethnocides, exploitations, and expropriations, as perpetrated by my ancestors’ colonialist pursuits, worldwide. Being Calabrese, my whiteness is not tied to a scientific notion of racialized ethnicity but to the intersectional privileges attached to my European citizenship (and colonial history). The meanings emerging from my not-so-white skin colour are a tangible sign of my multi-axis methodological approach, which considers peoples’ identities framed by ethnicity, gender, class, and other intersections.
In the end, Naxaxalhts'i, Iyeselwet, and T'ixwelátsa told me that, as a newcomer to Canada, I have accepted the responsibility Elders have placed upon me to ‘keep right’ the Indigenous histories that they and other Knowledge Keepers have shared with me. Therefore, with my time and work, I tried to contribute to the effort of finding a remedy for the cultural effects of Italian diasporic colonialism. In doing so, I helped amplify scholarly and local Indigenous understandings of the presence of flourishing pre-contact civilizations on the Northwest Coast, linked by intertribal proximity trades and legendary cycles founded on permaculture led by high-status women.
I have spent three years living in Stó:lō Téméxw and interacting with the Stó:lō, building trust and engaging in deep and sustained conversations with multiple Knowledge Keepers. Indeed, I additionally had the privilege and honour of being an instructor of the first-year history course examining Stó:lō-colonial relations at the University of the Fraser Valley. I have worked with the Stó:lō Nation, and I am currently employed as a contract historical researcher and video maker/editor for the Matsqui, Seabird Island, and Squiala First Nations. Overall, I aim to find a balance on a scale of engagement between teaching and researching, grounded on a solid partnership with the Indigenous communities surrounding the Chilliwack and Abbotsford campuses.