Much of this post was re-posted from “The Canadian Press”
This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site — it has been condensed to meet word parameters.
Authors: Dana Lepofsky, Professor in Archaeology, Simon Fraser University; Alvaro Fernandez-Llamazares, Researcher in Ethnecology, Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS), University of Helsinki, and Oqwilowgwa Kim Recalma-Clutesi, Contributor to the special issue on Ethnobiology Through Song/CEO Ninogaad Knowledge Keepers Foundation/BOD APTN
Academics are just beginning to see the deep significance of traditional songs and the knowledge they carry and some are working with Indigenous collaborators to unlock their teachings.
In many Indigenous cultures, songs recount detailed biocultural knowledge and documents responsibilities.
Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla was a trained Clan Chief, held four pa’sa chieftain seats, and among many other roles, was the keeper of hundreds of songs about the Kwakwaka’wakw people and more.
Potlatching was banned until 1951 and as a result, singing potlatch songs was a source of punishment and fear for many generations.
As one born to nobility and chosen since birth to be a conduit of key cultural knowledge, Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla let us hear the words of his ancestors through the many songs he remembered.
For instance, in 2002, he revealed an ancient ya’a (Dog Children song) that unlocked the mystery of lokiwey (clam gardens) on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Cultivating clams in clam gardens — rock walled terraces in the lower intertidal — is a widespread practice among Coastal First Nations. We now know this practice is at least 3,500 years old.
Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla’s sharing of this clam garden song unleashed a wave of research on traditional management practices and helped not only awaken people’s understanding of indigenous knowledge, but also the foundation for research on how to improve clam management.
Kwaxsistalla Wathl’thla went on to mentor as the primary source on traditional ecological knowledge for over a dozen graduate students in ethnobiology and linguistics until his passing.
Despite the immense global value of traditional songs as libraries of ecological and other cultural knowledge, researchers and the general public have been slow to recognize their social and cultural importance.