NisgaPollCeremony-74

A mistake is a gift: decolonizing journalism includes missteps and teachings

How can journalists improve relationships in the Indigenous communities we report on? Step intentionally into uncomfortable spaces when we make mistakes, and do the work to make things right

The Nisg̱a’a word for respect is kwhlihoosa’anskw. 

Driving up to Nisg̱a’a territory to bear witness to a ceremony and take part in a feast, I knew there was going to be a lot of media at the events and I was concerned I might see some extractive or disrespectful behaviour. As a non-Indigenous journalist who lives near Nisg̱a’a lands, I am committed to decolonizing my journalism and know how easy it is to make a mistake.

I was worried there would be a lack of kwhlix̱hoosa’anskw. 

I’d spoken to Sigidimna‘ Nox̱s Ts’aawit, Amy Parent, a couple of weeks prior and she asked me to keep an eye out and gently step in if I saw any examples of that happening. But in the end, it was me.

Luu-giis n̓iiy̓, ts’iwaalhl wiliy̓is. I made a mistake, a bad mistake.

On Sept. 30, the day after the ceremony and feast, photographer Marty Clemens and I were taken inside a temporary structure in the village of Lax̱g̱alts’ap to see the Wilps Ni’isjoohl pts’aan (totem pole) — an ancestor that had been brought back to Nisg̱a’a lands nearly a century after it was stolen from the village of Ank’idaa. Protocol specifies no one but family members of Wilps (House) Ni’isjoohl is allowed to touch the ancestor. 

Standing next to the pts’aan, her hand resting gently on it, Nox̱s Ts’aawit answered a few questions and told me about the crests carved into the pole. Marty did his best to take photos in the confined space.

She was talking about clashing worldviews, settler-colonial impacts and the importance of people being willing to express vulnerability when I heard the sound of a ladder clattering behind me. I later learned that Marty had been standing on a small step ladder to get an overhead angle of the pole when it suddenly gave way under him. Instinctively, he stopped his fall by bracing himself on the pole. We were a team and I feel responsibility for what happened. 

Moments later, everything was done — interview over, cameras away, everyone out. But for Nox̱s Ts’aawit, Sim’oogit (Chief) Ni’isjoohl and family members, it was not over. Protocol had been breached. Ceremony had to be held to cleanse the pole before it could be raised. 

I often tell my kids mistakes are gifts; what comes after a mistake is made, the learning experience, is what matters most. At The Narwhal, we are deeply committed to decolonizing our work, minds and hearts, and this mistake is teaching us that it’s a journey, a process. Journeys are rarely linear and often they include moments of stumbling, faltering, making mistakes. We are still learning.

Reporting in Indigenous communities — especially for non-Indigenous journalists — comes with great responsibility and requires a lot of care. For too long, media has been entrenched in colonial ideas and historically has been used as a tool or weapon that privileges settler-colonial ways of thinking over Indigenous ways of being. Starting to address that imbalance means you need to learn about the people whose land you’re on: protocol, ceremony, expectations. You need to be mindful of who you are and where you’re coming from, and continually question what you might be consciously or unconsciously carrying with you. You need to be patient. And, most of all, you need to be respectful.

As Anishinaabe educator Duncan McCue noted in Decolonizing Journalism, building relationships with the Indigenous communities we report on can be complex and messy. 

“There will be missteps and miscommunication,” he wrote. “But it’s all about building trust. Over time, the benefits will be apparent.”

As we drove away from Nisg̱a’a territory that afternoon, Marty expressed his deep regret and admitted he didn’t know what to do. We’ve since reached out to Nox̱s Ts’aawit to apologize and ask for guidance. We’re waiting to find out the protocol for our next steps. Whatever it takes, we want to make things right — and using this as a teachable moment is part of that process. Nox̱s Ts’aawit said she wants others to learn from this and asked me to share what happened in a public way, to help us all collectively take a step forward. 

What happened was avoidable. I’m left thinking that sometimes it’s best to walk away without getting the beautiful photo or that perfect interview moment. Be patient and accept that building trust takes time. And when mistakes are made — and they are inevitable — sit in the hard and uncomfortable space of apology. Do what’s needed; ask if you don’t know. 

The ancestor was cleansed and blessed and, on Oct. 3, it was successfully raised inside Hli G̱oothl Wilp-Adoḵshl Nisg̱a’a (Heart of Nisg̱a’a House Crests, also known as the Nisg̱a’a Museum) where it now stands in soil gathered from Ank’idaa. 

To Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl, Sigidimna‘ Nox̱s Ts’aawit, and members of Wilps Ni’isjoohl, t’ooyaksiỳ n̓isim̓ (thank you) and gwilks-at’itkws n̓iiy̓ loon (we apologize to you).

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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