Today she's a master weaver, but Debra Sparrow didn't always know who she was or what she would do with her life. It didn't take her long to realize that school meant listening to people who knew little about her Musqueam people, culture and laws tell her who she is and what she should value. Sparrow quit school in Grade 8 and went to the school of life.
“Growing up, I sometimes felt like nothing because I wasn't sure where I fit in society. I didn't want to fit in. I think I was decolonizing before it was cool,” Sparrow told me during a Facebook Live interview on June 10. “I said, 'I'm outta here.'”
Sparrow's father died when she was young. He survived residential school, as did his father, and although her family made sure she never attended, she said she lived with the generational repercussions.
“Everyone in the village had a father they feared,” she said, thinking back to her youth. “There were good times and bad times. He could be Jekyll and Hyde.”
Her dad fought for his people as chief and band manager during the week with a passion so deep it hurt him, she told me. But on weekends, he fought his demons with alcohol.
He died at the age of 40, leaving her mom to raise her and her nine siblings, she said.
When Sparrow told her mother she was finished with the school system halfway through the eighth grade, she was sent out to get a job. She started working at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery on the line, which she loved. It was an abundant time for the coastal fishing industry, and she was pulling in good cash doing work she enjoyed.
“We were making good money,” she remembered. “And then I got into sports.”
“All throughout the world, artists are holding on to why we exist,” Sparrow said during a First Nations Forward Facebook live interview with managing director @emileegilpin @natobserver #FirstNationsForward #COVID19 #coronavirus #IndigenousKnowledge
Musqueam people claim strong athletes who have won medals in track and field around the world. Her father worked hard to help realize a sports facility on the reserve. In competitive basketball, Sparrow found the discipline and pride she hungered for.
She started by watching men and women in her community intently, observing their stamina and abilities, she said. She trained with her team, but the real work happened alone.
“I didn't want to be better than anybody, I wanted to be the best I could be. I trained by myself all the time. I ate, slept and drank this sport,” she said. “I realized later in life, that's what carried me through.”
She would go to the gym and train by herself at night. She competed up and down the coast, building relationships she maintains today.
Sport awakened Sparrow to the strength of her bones, the resilience woven into her DNA. As she trained, she thought of the lives her people traditionally lived with their lands and waters, as great boaters and paddlers, she said.
The more Sparrow learned about her people and the more aware she became of her own vitality, the more she wanted to know how to “get back” to a place of strength and abundance.
“I started thinking, 'How do we come back to who we are?' We've been so busy being assimilated into the colonial world, we've moved away from ourselves, and I wanted to come back to myself,” she said.
Her grandfather always had a story to share, so Sparrow started visiting him, every day, for the last 15 years of his life. She cared for him, took him driving, and listened to his stories.
“He would show me our old village sites. He would tell me what was valuable to our people,” she said. “I was going to school.”
In her grandfather's stories, Sparrow gained back her self-esteem.
At the time, she was trying to figure out which direction to go in and what success meant in an increasingly industrialized and globalized world.
“People think the only way to be successful is to go out and get a university degree,” she said. “When you’re getting the degree, you're being taught by people who have been taught by other people about what's important to them — not about what's important to us as First Nations.”
Sparrow went to museums and started reading every archive she could lay her eyes on. She was curious about the artists in her community and other communities. She would watch jewelry makers, engravers and wood carvers, study their fine designs and sophisticated styles, and wonder about their source of inspiration.
“I was amazed,” Sparrow said.
She spent time living in Alert Bay, attending feasts in what was at the time the only big house on the coast until the historic opening of the Haíłzaqv big house in October. When Sparrow went to her first potlatch in 'Namgis territory, she was taken aback by the beauty and power, she said.
“The regalia, the culture, the history, everything that's going on in there,” she remembered. She stayed as a visitor in Alert Bay for five years. She sharpened her weaving and artistic skills, attended feasts, and recognized herself in the laws and values of other nations.
But she also observed a tense line between what she experienced in the big house and what got left behind at the door.
“We could leave the hurt outside the door,” Sparrow said. “But when we went back out, we picked it up and the hurt continued. It was evident in all villages, not just one or two. It was the effect of residential school that we never talked about.”
Sparrow wanted to know more about her people before the hurt.
“My grandfather left us when he was 100 years old, but before he died, he said, 'Know who you are, know where you come from,'” Sparrow told me. She went to her grandfather, but she went inside herself, too. She spent time collecting her thoughts, speaking with her ancestors and asking for guidance.
“I wasn't going to get guidance from humans, because I didn't think they knew, and we were all being assimilated,” Sparrow said. “I wanted to be guided by my ancestors, that's where I felt drawn to connect with my own spirit.”
Sparrow studied Salish design and taught herself how to make jewelry. She studied materials, form, line, technique, and textiles, which led her to more stories about her people and past.
“Anywhere in the world, people make textiles. Textiles are the base of who we are as all people,” she said.
As Sparrow learned about the materials her people used to make blankets, regalia, jewelry and carvings, she learned about the animals, plants, medicines and the knowledge her people carried through time and space.
In the school of life, Sparrow was guided by many teachers, in a colonial language and the ways of her people, with an eye on the past and one on the future.
She would watch her grandfather harvest cherry bark, boil it on the stove, soak a rag and soak his bad eyes. But she also followed him to court and business meetings as he fought in a victorious precedent-setting court case that would help define fishing rights for First Nations.
Success means knowing who I am
“To me, success is standing on my blankets, knowing who I am,” Sparrow said.
As Sparrow spoke, she was surrounded by a large weaving on her loom behind her. She's in the process of making a blanket for a new healing centre in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, she later told me. The designs in her weaving will be used on the outside walls of the centre, a great honouring of the Salish peoples, she said.
“Blankets are not just something pretty to hang on a wall,” she said. “They are a foundation. That's why we stand on them in ceremony, when we get a name, when we get married, when we send our people off in death. We use them for every part of our lives. They are who we are.”
People are attracted to the beauty of her culture, but when you start to ask questions, study and investigate the patterns, you find mathematical equations, she said.
“Woven into this blanket is education for our children, our families. When people arrived here, they thought we were mindless, worshipping idols, but that was far from the truth, she said.”
Today, Sparrow said she knows what it means to be successful, to have made it.
Sparrow thinks these past months under the pandemic have forced the world to ask some big questions again. People are questioning the value systems that governed their lives, who people thought they were, and what they thought they knew.
“Artists all over the world are holding on to why we exist,” Sparrow said. “That's what I believe. This time, these messages... Humans better slow down and reconnect with the whole reason you exist.”
Sparrow was taught by her grandfather to share the knowledge she carried with those willing to listen. She remains busy weaving, blankets and relationships, connecting with weavers across the world, having her curious mind met with the ancient patterns of the universe, the answer page to the school of life.
“Our roots are planted firmly in the soil that our ancestors are buried in, and that information comes to us,” Sparrow said. “It's in our DNA, and we're holding it, and now we're going to release it.”