Singing The Songs of His People: Peter Charlie Shares His Culture Through Music
“Singing is a really big part of my life,” says Peter Charlie, who is from Ahousaht, BC but was born, raised and lives in Victoria. Other than a few years spent with his grandparents and mom in Ahousaht, he’s spent the majority of his life in the city, a four and a half hour drive and a ferry ride from his home community.
He’s now working as an equipment operator for BC Ferries and for a non profit society. He’s also a cultural singer in a group where his people can express their culture in a safe space that he founded with his cousin over twenty years ago. They have community dinners where they can enjoy their culture and for some people, it’s the only place where they have access to their culture when living in the city. His group recently performed at canoe journeys.
For the past four years he’s been with BC Ferries, something you need to have graduated from high school to do, and it’s a place where you can really build up your career from the bottom, Charlie has found. There are a huge range of jobs, from loading and unloading ships, dealing with customer questions, being a deckhand or a ship's master. His role is based in the terminal."
Thinking about what it took to get where he is, as a kid, he didn’t enjoy school much but his grandma was a role model to him as far as his education. She went to university and graduated and his mom inspired his schooling too. He was one of the first in his family to graduate from high school in his family and he went to work for a while before going back to school for his first and second year automotive. He worked for BMW until he was laid off in the recession as a newer hire.
For five more years he worked elsewhere, then went back to school to do some upgrading and got into the Indigenous Studies program at Camosun College. He got his diploma there and really enjoyed the program and how many Indigenous instructors were involved. Sociology was one of his favourite classes and he loved how the instructor gave options on how they did tests, whether orally or on the computer or another way that worked best for them.
Having Indigenous instructors really made a difference for him in the Indigenous studies program. He remembers being a student In high school social studies, taught by a white person who, if he didn’t know something about Indigenous people, would defer to him and solicit his perspective.
Staying focused was a bit of a struggle for Charlie, whether he was getting ready for midterms or writing essays and in addition, going to school was financially difficult. His late wife helped him ground himself so he could focus more and encouraged him by telling him that the struggle was to accomplish something bigger, to live more comfortably and to improve himself. She would bake cookies or cupcakes or get him to take a break with her to go for a walk and spend time by the ocean. Being by the water was really healing for Charlie, and he felt a strong connection there where he could think things through, pray and do a cleanse if he needed to.
If he could give advice to his younger self it would be to listen to elders, something he didn’t do as much as he should have. Elders are wise with culture and their role isn’t to scold but rather to guide to help you move forward in a good direction. Stern talks come from a good place, he came to realize.
To manage his mental health, Charlie is involved with culture and singing is a big part of his life. Brushings, cleanses and going for walks in the woods are good for him. Waiting for ships to come in, he sings to himself as a way of grounding his spirit. He’s inspired by his elders and those who speak his language. As elders age and pass away, he’s trying to learn what he can from them.
His message to youth is to keep to the grind, stay positive and think positive and then positive things will happen. He suggests spending time by the water and praying there and spending time hiking up somewhere high. Singing is a big part of his life and in sharing his wisdom, Peter Charlie is using his voice so he people can connect with who he is and the beliefs and practices that matter to him.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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