Q̓íx̌itasu Elroy White

Digging Deep to Connect With Culture: Archaeologist Elroy White Finds Treasure Within

“Just remember who you are, where you come from, and who your education is going to benefit in the end,” says Elroy White wisely. He is a Heiltsuk First Nation member from Bella Bella, a father, grandfather, potlatcher, singer, dancer, historian, speaker, researcher and archaeologist. He studied archaeology at SFU, writing a thesis about stone fish traps as a way to share his knowledge on this technology he learned about from his elders. 

Growing up, White struggled with low self-esteem and the impacts of racism which made him less interested and successful in school. During his senior year, he decided to buckle down and block out all the negativity to see what he could accomplish. What he found was that he could not only excel in his studies but also enjoy learning with the support of strong mentors and his family.

He decided he wanted to continue onto university. “I wanted to be an explorer, too. That's why I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to be out on the water with the whales and the killer whales, the porpoises and sea lions,” he recalls. Ultimately, he found that he wasn’t that interested in science. “What I was more interested in was really the relationship between the marine mammals and their environment and with people…. Science wasn't leading me in that direction,” he continues. 

One of his professors noted his interest in his culture and pointed him in the direction of archaeology and anthropology. Feeling stuck academically, he moved back to his home community, met his wife and started a family. He became more involved in his culture, learning to sing and dance and decided that was how he wanted to live his life moving forward. 

"I realized that the way our people govern ourselves is not the way the outside world thinks of us."

Sitting at the drum log and learning how the songs he was singing came from his family and were part of his history led him to see archaeology in a new way. Being part of a close-knit community also helped him see himself in a new way. Growing up away from his village and returning home, he was an outsider when he came back. With city ideals, adjusting to his home community was a challenge, feeling like he was different. Singing, dancing and attending potlatches, he started to leave behind his old beliefs and integrate into his home community. 

What the school in his community needed was resource people, especially people who spoke the language. White could sing the language and speak it in ceremony but not in day-to-day contexts. He started to learn it in school and from the elders, picking it up easily with his experience learning French. As he learned the language, he was teaching it and he got to know how important the language is to his community. Now, kids in his community have the opportunity to learn the language in school so they don’t have to struggle later in life. 

If he could advise his younger self it would be to embrace technology and to not get overwhelmed by the need to serve a whole nation in going off to school, focusing instead on exploring the outside world and working hard to benefit family and self with possible benefit to the nation. He would suggest finding resources on campus and staying connected, something that’s much easier these days with social media. 

Something else he would want to tell his younger self would be, “Our Potlatch ceremonies and our ways are going to continue, whether you're here or not. We're just going to feel your absence.” He would tell himself that while he is away, others will sing or dance, and when he comes home, he can sing and dance again, too. 

"Potlatching is really big here, it's central to our identity as Heiltsuk people. It's our support network."

Being away from home and unable to return for funerals was hard for him, but he knew he was where he was supposed to be. When he did come home, sometimes he would have to go off into his room and study and he would worry people would think he was being elitist but everyone understood.  White learned early on he had to keep up with his studies when he travelled home because otherwise catching up would be impossible. 

To maintain his wellness outside of his cultural activities, White would play basketball and organize recreational activities in the community hall. Walking in the woods to identify culturally modified trees, White would get his steps in along with fishing for cod, halibut, salmon, prawns, crabs and other forms of seafood. He loves to preserve food, sharing any excess with other potlatching families or families in need. When he can afford to, he also likes to travel with his family, learning about local Indigenous people wherever he goes. 

In closing, he wants to encourage Indigenous youth to avoid the trap of tokenism, when academics and developers want to use them for their knowledge and twist it for their own benefit. He encourages understanding this is what they have been taught to do and reflecting on how to teach them differently in a cultural way to engage more meaningfully. 

He also recommends, “If you're planning on going away for school, prepare yourself culturally, financially. academically, do your research… avoid the traps when you go away for school.” He suggests taking things in stride, pacing yourself to enjoy time away and staying in touch with social media to maintain connection. 

Remembering who he is, where he comes from and who his education would benefit in the end took Elroy White somewhere he never expected to be… home to himself and his culture. Reconnecting with his community and his family’s ways, he learned to see himself and archaeology in a new way. Learning new skills and old traditions, he’s found ways to give back and move forward.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
    British Columbia
  • Date
    April 16, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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