Fanny Nelson teaches cedar harvesting to pass down traditional knowledge to students in Prince Rupert. (Keili Bartlett / The Northern View)

Heart of Our City: Bringing back the culture

Through teaching children how to harvest cedar, Fanny Nelson passes on traditional knowledge

Between May and July, you can often find Fanny Nelson standing in the woods and surrounded by kids. She’s teaching them — from scratch — how to harvest cedar.

First, “before you even think of chopping a tree,” Nelson blesses the tree, thanking it for its bark. The 71-year-old will find a good specimen, straight with no knots, and begin to chop.

“If the axe slides up really good and there’s water dripping down, I know that’s a good tree, so I start stripping away,” Nelson said. “Show them how to take the outer bark, and how I roll it up.”

During harvesting season, Nelson takes students from Prince Rupert’s schools to Metlakatla, where she lives, to show them how to harvest. For the students who can’t make it to the trees, like some of the younger students, she’ll take the cedar to them. They’ll sit around and watch her demonstrate how to weave and plait. A lucky onlooker will get to take the finished piece home with them.

“It’s a lot of work harvesting the cedar and getting it ready for the classes. I spent a whole week preparing for this past week,” she said.

Nelson is no stranger to hard work. She learned how to harvest cedar and gather food because it was necessary when she was a kid. Most of the time, she didn’t mind the work, but Nelson remembers a day when she wanted to go out and play instead. She and her father were working on a tub of abalone.

“When it was abalone time, it was really nice weather — sunny, beautiful. I wanted to go with the rest of the kids. Dad saw the look on my face and he said, ‘Do you know what? One day, when you’re as old as I am, you’re going to be teaching those kids out there. They should be home. They have grandma and mom and dad doing the same thing we’re doing. This is how you’re going to learn. This is how we survive.’”

More than 60 years later, Nelson still remembers her father’s message from that day. When she was seven years old, she was taken from her home with no notice. She would spend two years in residential school before she could go back home.

In residential school, the traditional food, celebrations and language she’d grown up with were forbidden.

“All this got taken away. We couldn’t do any of our traditions for a long time,” Nelson said. “It took me a long time to get back into it.”

Years later, Nelson decided to become a counsellor for people in her village who were struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. Once she was certified, she went to the elders and asked what she could do to help.

“My mom said, ‘Bring the culture back. Bring it back in the dancing regalia making, drum making, cedar — show them how to harvest and prepare our traditional foods.’”

Nelson became the community wellness coordinator. Although her father predicted she would teach children their traditions, her first students were actually elders from the community.

READ MORE: Mother in her fifties finishes high school, graduates with daughter

Soon after she began teaching how to harvest, smoke and dry fish, a couple of elders asked her to show them the process. She taught them how to cut the halibut into thin strips to dry it out properly.

“When I got home, I said, ‘Mom, shouldn’t all those old people be teaching me?’ And she looked at me. ‘They were raised in residential school. You only went two years. They went when they were five and came home when they were 16.’

“Now I put that in the past and I want to go on and create a safe place for our kids to learn and dance and sing.”

Nelson has been teaching others ever since — even though she retired four years ago. Now, she also cooks traditional meals for elders twice a week and sits on several committees including the Lands Committee for Metlakatla.

Surrounded by the gentle, earthy smell of cedar, Nelson leads people of all ages in weaving. They’ll make bookmarks, placemats and medicine pouches. Nelson’s oldest daughter, Charlene, is known for making cedar hats. When Nelson was young, they rarely made anything other than the containers they needed for storage. She had a hard time learning how to make roses in particular, and would spend time watching Charlene’s hands working the thin strips of cedar into a beautiful flower.

One day, she finally succeeded, and it was her own daughter who taught her how to make a rose. After all, Nelson is still learning too.

Read more Heart of Our City profiles here.

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