British Columbia·First Person

How my daughter is helping me learn First Nations history and culture

As an immigrant and a person of colour in Canada, there is a lot I must learn about and from Indigenous culture and history so that my ideas about my new home as a country are not solely dependent on settler colonial imaginations and perspectives, writes Bicram Rijal.

As a new immigrant, I feel a sense of responsibility to learn about Canada from non-settler perspectives

Bicram Rijal’s daughter, Aahana, reads the message on an orange heart-shaped ornament at Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park in B.C. on June 20, 2021. (Bicram Rijal)

This First Person column is written by Bicram Rijal who immigrated to Canada from Nepal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

"Papa, did First Nations people make diapers out of cedar trees?" my kindergarten daughter asked over breakfast a few years ago. 

My daughter's question left me unsettled. I felt guilty for not knowing basic Indigenous history of Canada, even after having lived in this country for more than seven years. 

After dropping her off at her school, I started researching. On the University of British Columbia's Indigenous Foundations page, I learned about the significance of cedar trees among coastal First Nations in British Columbia. Indigenous women used cedar barks "for baby diapers and bedding, sanitary napkins, and towels" due to their softness and absorbability.

When she returned from school, I was excited to share my answer: "Yes, the First Nations actually made diapers using cedar barks."

"Do you know they also made napkins out of it?" she questioned.

"Yes, I know that now."

She then continued to share what she had learned in school: First Nations people also used cedars to make canoes and totem poles in addition to plates, buckets, baskets, tools, fishing hooks and fishing nets. Turns out her class was studying First Nations history and culture, including some key symbols: raven, bear, salmon, orca, eagle, beaver.

Later, my daughter's teacher told me that Indigenous culture and history were new additions to school curricula, and that she did not get a chance to study much of it when she was an elementary student herself. 

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report recommended the inclusion of "age appropriate curriculum about residential schools, treaties and the lives of Indigenous people past and present mandatory in schools." 

As a graduate student in anthropology at Simon Fraser University, I have had some opportunities to learn about First Nations in Canada — whether through German-American anthropologist Franz Boas' writings about the Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, or by watching CBC's documentary series 8th Fire on the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settler communities, Indigenous identity, land dispossession and reconciliation. 

However, my daughter's question reinforced my need for a better understanding of Indigenous life and history. 

As an immigrant from Nepal and a person of colour in Canada,there is a lot to learn about and from Indigenous culture and history so that my ideas about Canada as a country are not solely dependent on settler colonial imaginations and perspectives.   

But that learning has been a challenge for most of the fellow Nepalis in Canada that I have spoken to, partly due to the lack of institutional resources that are immediately available or obvious to immigrants.

The recent news about the shameful history of Canada's residential schools has only contributed to my increasing interest in Indigenous peoples and perspectives. 

Were I not a parent to a school-aged child, my curiosity and consciousness of Indigenous issues would likely not be at the same level. However, for newcomers without children, learning about Indigenous culture and history may be uncharted territory, potentially due to financial, social and cultural constraints taking priority. That's perhaps a gap that we as a broader society need to fill.

I haven't taken the citizenship test yet, but it's one of the few situations in which all newcomers to Canada have the opportunity to learn about Canadian history. And yet, based on my readings, there appears to be a perfunctory mention of Indigenous people and history with little thought toward challenging colonial perspectives or adding nuance.

My daughter is in Grade 3 now and she has developed a keen interest in First Nations traditions and cultures. It is through her schooling, and the conversations we've since had as a family, that she knows there are different worldviews and ways of life beyond the ones that we as non-Indigenous people are accustomed to.

An Indigenous longhouse and teepees are pictured at the Tuckkwiowhum Heritage Village near Boston Bar in B.C. on June 19, 2021. (Bicram Rijal)

This summer, we spent a night camping at Tuckkwiowhum campground near Boston Bar, B.C., which is owned and operated by Boston Bar First Nation. It was our best summer camping experience. The grassy campground, with a heart-shaped stone firepit and a First Nations Heritage Village only a few hundred metres away, made it a great learning experience about Indigenous history, culture, and heritage. 

The village had artefacts that reflected Indigenous history and material culture: a longhouse, teepees, summer and winter lodges, earth ovens, food cache, cloth-drying racks, and the like — all made from objects found in nature. 

On our way back home, we stopped to see the old Alexandra Bridge over Fraser River canyon. While walking on the trail leading up to the bridge, we saw orange-coloured wooden hearts hanging from the trees with messages in memory of the recently confirmed remains of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops, B.C

Bicram Rijal’s daughter, Aahana, is pictured at the Tuckkwiowhum Heritage Village near Boston Bar in B.C. on June 19, 2021. (Bicram Rijal)

We tried to read all those heartfelt messages, which to me were a reminder that the European "civilizing process" has caused a great deal of damage to Indigenous communities in Canada, and that the recovery from structural violence will be long.

They were also a reminder that there is a lot to learn for each of us — whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous — as we move forward. 

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Bicram Rijal is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Simon Fraser University. He and his wife came to Canada from Nepal in 2011 and they currently live in Burnaby, B.C. with their eight-year-old daughter. Bicram recommends First Peoples’ Cultural Council and First Peoples: A Guide for Newcomers as resources for non-Indigenous people to learn about Indigenous communities and their diverse cultures and histories in British Columbia and Canada.