- Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview
Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview is written by hereditary chief and scholar E. Richard Atleo, known by his traditional name, Umeek. By retelling and transliterating traditional Nuu-chah-nulth origin stories, Umeek introduces readers to the theoretically rich and conceptually complex Nuu-chah-nulth ontology, epistemology, and intellectual tradition. Heshook-ish tsawalk means 'everything is one' and represents a Nuu-chah-nulth theory of reality that includes both the physical and spiritual worlds. The reader's understanding of this theory deepens as each origin story is retold and we better understand the nature of reality, the relationships between the physical and metaphysical worlds, community, nation, and governance from a Nuu-chah-nulth perspective.
For the Nuu-chah-nulth, whose nation is located on the west side of Vancouver Island in what is now known as British Columbia, origin stories are connected both to the territory and to ancestral storytellers. Told in the Nuu-chah-nulth language and in an appropriate oral setting, origin stories reinforce cultural values, philosophies, and teachings. The context for origin stories is important. The Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge system, like other Indigenous knowledge systems, derives its meaning from highly complex contexts, rather than simply relying on content to convey meaning. When Indigenous origin stories are documented and translated into English text, much of their meaning is lost because their cultural, intellectual, geographical, and spiritual context is lost. Origin stories written in English retain only their content, and this is easily misunderstood by readers and academics unfamiliar with Indigenous languages and intellectual traditions. As an Indigenous language speaker, Atleo spends much of his effort addressing these shortcomings by explaining in detail inherently Nuu-chah-nulth contexts to English readers. One method Atleo relies on is known as 'tying and untying the language' to Anishinaabe people. By breaking Nuu-chah-nulth words into smaller fragments and providing a cultural interpretation of those fragments, Atleo is better able to communicate inherently Nuu-chah-nulth concepts to an English speaking audience because he reveals the stories, histories, geographies, and concepts commonly understood or assumed by Nuu-chah-nulth listeners. While this cannot replace learning these stories in a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth context, this approach deepens cross-cultural understanding and preserves much more of the original meaning and intent of these origin stories than would otherwise be preserved. This is the gift of Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. I cannot think of another Indigenous or non Indigenous scholar who has accomplished this so effectively.
In the later chapters of the book, Atleo makes linkages between Nuu-chah-nulth ontology, Western science, and postmodernism. As an [End Page 179] Indigenous scholar, this is the least interesting part of the book to me. Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge, philosophies, and intellectual traditions are complex, valid, and relevant in their own right, regardless of whether they have any similarities or relevancies to Western intellectual traditions, nor can 'more important' components be drawn out of an Indigenous worldview simply because they complement Western knowledge. At the same time however, Umeek is able to demonstrate that within Nuu-chah-nulth thought mechanisms exist for reconciling different knowledge systems, and he uses these traditions to show how Western science and Indigenous knowledge can coexist in a complementary fashion if both are respected, honoured, and understood.
Tsawalk is part of a new chapter in Indigenist scholarship, one in which the ontologies, epistemologies, and intellectual traditions of Indigenous Nations are placed at the centre of scholarly work rather than remaining at the margins. This book is of critical importance to the process of decolonization and represents a major step forward in Indigenous scholarship.
Leanne Simpson, Department of Indigenous Studies, Trent University