Items that hang on her living room walls – carved canoe paddles, handmade drums bearing a profile of her face or images of her mother, framed photos of generations of family, a painted image of her frog clan insignia—appear to embody timeless stories, offering silent testaments of love, respect and gratitude for this 89-year-old shíshálh elder.
As the shíshálh Nation’s Rememberer or Knowledge-keeper, xwu’p’a’lich Barbara Higgins (her ancestral name means “she weaves”) is adept at weaving together the past, present and future into a compelling, meaningful whole, drawing on the wisdom and whispers of her ancestors. This was evident in her 2017 self-published book Etched in My Memory: My life as a shíshálh Rememberer, which is in its fourth printing. On the Sunshine Coast alone, she has sold 1,600 copies.
Sitting casually in front of her computer screen, this resolute storyteller, who calls herself “a free thinker,” says she hopes to publish a second book in 2023 with the working title A Time for Yesterday. xwu’p’a’lich is considering adding a poetry section, including one of her poems shared on her Facebook page in late October, roughly three weeks after she suffered a stroke.
I want to live to be
an outrageous old woman
who is never accused of being
an old lady
I want to live to have ten thousand lovers
in one love
there are at least
two of me
I want to get leaner and meaner
colour of the ground
till I discorporate
from sheer joy.
During our conversation, her voice sounds as strong as ever and she recalls distant dates and events with little effort. “Nothing’s changed except I had a stroke,” this grandmother of three says matter-of-factly. Her words flow seamlessly across time, one minute identifying her maternal grandfather Dan Paull, a hereditary chief, in a photo on the wall, and the next, describing herself at age three by the side of her “granny.”
Her family was waiting for her to be born to take on the role of Rememberer, she says. When xwu’p’a’lich was seven, a group of loved ones, including Dan Paull, gathered in a sacred circle on a beach and let her know that she was “selected by the Spirits” and would remember and protect her people’s stories, which she calls “absolute truths.”
xwu’p’a’lich hands me a hard-copy version of her poem, “What does this forest mean to me?” written in 2015, with the opening line, “This epic poem…/Forced me to/Experience numerous/Raw feelings and tears of remorse.” Through 26 stanzas, she bears witness to the knowing power of trees or “Standing People,” to ancestors like her great-grandmother Lomahts, to spiritual rituals and practices dismissed as “pagan gibberish” by the Catholic Church and to the federal government’s destructive authority that “forced Indians to go/Underground.” The layered poem pulls readers through centuries and generations of devastating loss, survival, soulful continuation and hope, reaffirming “this footprint/of shíshálh’s long existence/On this Land.”
This straight-shooter shares a wrenching personal story that brought forth the poem. After returning from work in the Yukon in 2015, she unsuccessfully tried to find her brother George Paull in Vancouver. The family contacted authorities who said they had no information available. Several years later, her niece said that his body had been found. When they received xwu'p'a'lich’s brother’s backpack, his wallet was lying on top of his belongings. It contained family contact information, yet no one had called them.
In response to such disrespect, the humble matriarch says: “It felt like my neck was this wide.” She holds her hands about 15 centimetres away from each side of her neck, as if implying it would burst. “I was so f_____ing angry and I had to get it under control. I wrote this poem and it centred me again.”
Today, xwu’p’a’lich says she feels hopeful, calling Truth and Reconciliation “an important step that needs to be done.” She does not think in terms of Indigenous and non-Indigenous, she adds, but views everyone as “extended family.” In her words: “We’re better off together, giving us both a chance.”
After years of teaching adult education in the Northwest Territories, xwu’p’a’lich moved back to ch’atlich in 1992. Since then, she has appeared and spoken at many local public events and protests, from Idle No More to support for old-growth trees in southwestern Vancouver Island’s Ada’itsx (Fairy Creek) region. Through her poems, stories and activism, she urges us all to protect Mother Earth with reverence. “I’ve got no intention of being a rebel,” she says. “I’m just me.”
The third of nine children, xwu’p’a’lich was born in her grandfather’s house in ch’atlich (Sechelt), but grew up in s-kwél-áwt (Egmont) on a four-hectare waterfront property, learning her people’s traditional ways from her Paull grandparents.
Unlike other Indigenous children, including her mother Sarah Ellen Silvey at age five, she wasn’t forcibly removed from her family to attend residential school. “I’m lucky—they hid me away,” she says.
A headstrong girl, xwu’p’a’lich fished alone for ling and rock cod from her dad’s skiff. By age 12, she was her dad’s deckhand, gillnetting sockeye on the Fraser River.
After marrying at age 20, she fished for years from a 34-foot trawler with her husband Richard “Poopsie” Higgins and children, Robert and HollyAnn. The couple remained married for 51 years, until Richard’s death in 2004. Together, while living in Victoria, they cared for 27 foster children.
As a student at the University of Victoria, xwu’p’a’lich was president of the Native Students Union and later taught math and English at Camosun College. She served as an adult education teacher and principal at a college in Ford Good Hope, a Dene hamlet south of the Arctic Circle, where she was known as “a formidable woman.”
xwu’p’a’lich puts on the red cedar hat she wove that bears an eagle feather and frog clan (tewankw) symbol, dyed with arbutus sap.
She begins another story, then stops and closes her eyes. Her face contracts with painful memory. Tears emerge.
“It’s overwhelming,” she says. We hug.