Butch Dick

Wisdom and Welcome: Elder and Artist Butch Dick Shares Lessons of a Life Well-Lived

“Never forget where you're from. You may go to a big city and go to school, but you've still got your feet in your own community. If you can, help those in your community that are struggling also as I have with academics, and show them that they can be overcome.” These are the words of elder Butch Dick who lives on the Songhees Nation where he has spent most of his life except for a few years he spent in Vancouver going to school. He’s done a little bit of everything throughout his life, from digging ditches, chopping bushes, fishing, and hunting, living and working on reserve. He retired from teaching at the age of sixty but still does workshops, talks and territorial welcomes around Victoria.

For the first couple grades of his own school experience at residential school, was in a day school up to grade six, a Catholic private school in grade seven and then went to public school. Much of his early education was not academically focused, it was more religious instruction and many of his peers barely graduated. He was one of the first students in an upgrading program but upon completion, he still had more work to do to become a high school graduate.

In the end, Dick graduated at the age of twenty-one through a program in Vancouver but still struggled with math, something that would later hold him back in the working world. He carried on to the Vancouver School of Art to study Fine Arts. He loved art and studying it but found he wasn’t learning what he wanted to as far as First Nations art or studies. It was the sixties and his classmates were designing psychedelic posters.

Reflecting on the experience of moving away to go to school from a small community, Dick shares how much more distracting city life can be compared to a small nation. Living in residence isn’t always ideal and the ever-present allure of technology can create what is almost an addiction to being online. Adjusting to somewhere new can be challenging though he recalls how students were often sent to bigger cities to be away from the distractions of their own communities to environments where they are even less able to focus. When he went away to school there wasn’t technology, but the big city had its own temptations.

“I think students today, they have to take advantage of our education that is funded and make every minute count. I think nowadays you have to have not only a graduation certificate, but also more than that, in order to survive, otherwise, you're just not going to get the jobs and careers that you really want,” Dick advises, thinking about how education as a First Nations person opens doors not just to jobs but also acceptance and belonging. He’s seeing more Indigenous faculty places like University of Victoria, Camosun College and Royal Roads.

Illustration by Shaikara David

With grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his own, Dick and his wife encourage them to further their education and he’s been delighted to see many of them graduate. He tells them to try hard as far as their education is concerned and to tackle any obstacles firsthand or get help to overcome them. He sees a strong work ethic as a way to overcome barriers and when it came to his own struggles with math, he enlisted the help of a friend to get him through.

Having that support was great, but Dick had a hard time remembering all the things he was taught. He wishes he had all the tutorial support he sees in place for young people now, remembering how he had to rely on relatives at times for help with his school work. Now with a big family, he tries to be there for everyone like his family was, but he also has to remember that he’s not there to solve everything and he can’t control everything. He’s been learning to let go of the things he can’t control to maintain his mental health.

It’s a lesson he hopes young people learn as he watches them return home after graduation eager to solve all the problems of the world. At the same time, he likes to encourage young people to think about climate change, caring for the earth, and to be aware of world events. “We can't solve everything, but we can make ourselves aware of how those things happened in other communities,” he reflects.

About five years ago, Dick was seeing that territorial welcomes were becoming more commonplace before workshops, seminars, conventions, and gatherings. “It's a good thing happening all across Canada that people are recognizing the traditional territories of First Nations people.” He brings his drum and sings a paddle welcome song from the Cowichan Nation where he asks that ancestors come and stand beside you and make sure you’re doing and saying the right thing.

When he needs inspiration day to day Dick looks to his wife for guidance. Now a wheelchair user after an amputation, he’s learned to make things work in new ways. Living with a prosthetic, something he’s grateful for, he was feeling sorry for himself until he encountered a man who was a double amputee who was self-sufficient and doing his own shopping. He learned from the experience and gained strength. His artwork is another source of inspiration and opportunity for escape. Beyond his art school experience, Dick was mentored by the late Tony Hunt, a chief from the north of Vancouver Island, at Camosun College, who taught him First Nations design. Now, he designs logos, puts arts on silk screens and even helped design the Greater Victoria Police Department badge.

Despite the challenges he has faced in his time, Butch Dick is an elder who has not forgotten where he comes from and kept his feet in his own community. Staying busy in semi-retirement, he calls to the ancestors in song and shares the love of his territory with all who gather. Helping others and sharing his wisdom, he’s setting an example for the next generations of his family and community as he makes art and a beautiful life.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    British Columbia
  • Date
    January 23, 2024
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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