"Killer whales get up and dance," sings Tsawaysia Spukwus (Alice Guss).
If you have attended an event in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and beyond in the last many years, you have likely heard Guss drum and sing the Chief Jimmy Jimmy Welcome Song. No one can get folks to swim like a sea wolf (orca), soar like an eagle or wag their tail like a wolf like she can.
Guss, 61, is a leader, a junior Elder, an artist, storyteller, mother, an Indigenous cultural programmer at the Museum and Archives of North Vancouver (MONOVA), a businesswoman, and, most of all, an educator.
Her father, Pekultn, was a Hereditary Chief from the Seymour Creek area of the Lower Mainland.
Her mother, Gwen Harry, and father raised a family of strong leaders and talented artists in Squamish.
Guss has over 20 years working with First Nations communities as a director of education and delivering drum-making workshops.
She continues to educate. She has had her own business, offering cultural workshops for over 16 years.
The Squamish Chief caught up with the busy local for a wide-ranging chat about her upbringing, life in Squamish and more.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
You are so busy! What are you up to these days?
We're still doing stuff for Truth and Reconciliation at the museum [MONOVA]. On the 30th, I'm going to be at the museum, and we're going to have a whole bunch of activities for the community, like Colour Me pages, we will have rock painting. And we have two games: one is historical, chronological, First Nations’ history. The other one is who apologized and when. So, participants have to mix and match the year to the organization that apologized.
I love doing this because I learn just as much. I am on the computer doing research, and, like, I didn't even know the RCMP apologized.
[Former RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli apologized to Indigenous Peoples for the RCMP's involvement in the Indian Residential School in May 2004. Former RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson also apologized for the RCMP's involvement in March 2014.]
When you were a little girl in school, what were you like?
Oh, I was quiet. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher called my mom and she goes, "You know what? I don't know if Alice is learning anything. She's so quiet. I don't get a peep out of her — nothing." And then my mom laughed and said, "Oh yeah, she's learning because she comes home every day singing Frere Xhaka in an Australian accent."
Did you grow up knowing the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language?
Yes. Dominic Charlie, he used to teach us when I was maybe five or six years old.
He used to go up to the old Totem Hall. We used to learn the Squamish language there. Because our language wasn't written down, we learned it phonetically.
And now, as of today, as we speak, Squamish Nation has all different anthropologists and linguists working on the language, but, back in the day, we did that phonetically.
Because we didn't get to use the language in the public school system, it kind of faded away [for me]. When I came back from college, that's when I realized what I was missing. So, I worked hard on language and culture. My dad taught us the language and the culture. Even though my dad got the language beaten out of him, he kept it alive. And my mom taught us to build a bridge.
She told us not just to stay comfortable on our own little reserve. She told us to build that bridge, and that bridge is a two-way street.
There were seven of you kids in your family, right? Where did you fall?
I'm the second youngest. Dale (Harry) is the baby.
Were you artistic or crafty as a kid?
I would think so. My brother Xwalacktun (Rick Harry) was an artist. My dad was an artist. My dad carved, my brothers carved and they drew. My sister — we drew cartoons. I didn't start singing until 1991.
What got you started?
Rick was singing in public, all the time, just like I do now. The family would stand beside him and we'd be singing but I didn't know the words, so I would just be lip syncing. My brother Dale or my brother Rick were the lead singers, and we would follow them. I thought, OK, I want to learn to sing. I just listened over and over and over and over.
In 1991, we had a cultural week in all the elementary schools. From Monday to Friday was all Squamish Nation. We would provide all the resources. Me and my worker, her name was Carla, we were singing the Aunt Sally Song. We didn't have a lead singer so we just sang it.
Which schools did you go to?
Stawamus Elementary (Now St'a7mes School- Cultural Journeys and Learning Expeditions) and then I graduated from Howe Sound Secondary and then I went to Langara College and then Capilano University and I took business. Then I ended up being pregnant and took four months off, and then I had to go back to work. I got a job as a tutorial aid. I did that for seven years in the public schools in Squamish and then I got promoted to homeschool co-ordinator, and then the next year, I got promoted to be the director of education. I implemented a lot of language and culture into School District 48. Not only within our own community, but in all the schools.
Things have been changing in terms of the incorporation of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Indigenous teachings, but what was it like for you in school?
When I was a kid, I remember my Christmas concert. We get the alphabet A to Zed, each kid had a letter. Can you guess which letter I was given?
No. I don't want to guess.
It is OK.
Was it "I"?
Yep. And then, when I was in elementary school, I looked forward to studying First Nations. Even though back in the day when I was going, we were studying the Heron and the Mohawk, but I just loved it. And then I always remember the Hollywood Indians. I had really long hair, and I used to put my hair in a little ponytail up on top, and then I would hang an eagle feather because that's what I saw on TV, right? And then my brother, Rick, when he graduated high school, he was wearing a choker, and one of the Elders says, “You know what? That's prairie style.” He goes, "We are Coast Salish people." So the change was slow.
When I was working in the school system, you know, how it is when the principal is behind the desk and the kids are ashamed and bashful and scared, and sitting on the other side of the desk? The first time that happened, I brought the student’s mom, his grandma, myself, my cultural worker, and my support worker, and we all went into the principal's office. And he wasn't expecting that. He said, “Alice, what are you doing?” I said, “Well, I don't like this concept — superior and inferior. We believe in circles. Not any one of us is better than the other.” And I shared the teachings of the circle. There's no beginning and there's no end. And then the Creator has given each and every one of us a gift. After his initial shock, he was OK. And so that's how it began when I started bringing our teachings into the school system.
And you ran for the school board. Would you ever do that again?
I don't think so. I was running because my daughter was in school then. I ran twice, actually and didn't get in, but it was quite the experience.
You have three kids, right?
Yes, two boys and one girl. And I have twin granddaughters. That is awesome. They both got awards already, for being the Number 1 readers in Grade 1. Mom and dad always read to them and now they read to us.
How does it feel to see the Squamish language revived so much now among the young?
It gives me goosebumps. I can feel the electricity go through my body. My mom gets invited to speak in the schools all the time and I would go sit with her.
It almost brings tears to your eyes, because the kids who are so young can understand what has happened. And they are saying it in their own words, speaking from their heart. So, that's awesome.
You're so busy with so much sharing in the community. What keeps you going?
It feels good that I had to share my knowledge; my inward journey, which is my heart and soul. My outward journey is my knowledge and strength — sharing that with the people out there who do not know. I just love it. I love being an ambassador. I love being an educator. I love sharing.
Find out more about the MONOVA) Sept. 30 events Guss is involved with at monova.ca/truth-and-reconciliation-day-at-monova.
Other upcoming events
- Thursday, Oct. 5 from 7 to 8 p.m.
Join the Whistler Writers' Festival and Tsawaysia Spukwus for a free workshop at the Squamish Public Library.
Registration required: RSVP to reserve your spot.
- Tuesday. Oct. 12, 7 to 9 p.m.
Word of Mouth: Telling Our Stories in the Oral Tradition with Tsawaysia Spukwus and Yvonne Wallace (Watch Party)
A free livestream of the Whistler Writers Festival Watch Party at the Squamish Library with Yvonne Wallace (Lil’wat Nation) and Tsawaysia Spukwus sharing stories.
Register in advance on the Squamish library's website.
For residential school survivors who may be triggered by this topic, there is help. Call 1-866-925-4419 for emotional crisis referral services and information on other health supports from the Government of Canada.
Indigenous folks can also go to The Hope for Wellness Help Line 24 hours a day, seven days a week for counselling and crisis intervention.
Call the toll-free Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or connect to the online chat.