Leona Prince is from the Lake Babine Nation and Nak’azdli Whu’ten and belongs to the Likh Tsa Mis Yu (Beaver) Clan. She is a descendant of Chief Kwah and Stiche. Leona is an award-winning educator and is currently the District Principal of Aboriginal Education for School District 91 (Nechako Lakes). She is the co-author of Be A Good Ancestor.
In Be a Good Ancestor, thought-provoking stanzas encourage readers of all ages to consider they ways in which they live in connection to the world around them and to think deeply about their behaviors. Rooted in Indigenous teachings, the message delivered by the authors is universal: Be a good ancestor to the world around you.
Interviewed by Margaret Lonsdale
Margaret Lonsdale (ML): Why is story important?
Leona Prince (LP): I think story plays a pivotal role in my life and in the life of my people. It captures who we are as Indigenous people. Story is incredibly important in my family. Two of the most influential people that introduced me to the oral tradition and storytelling come from both the Indigenous and Irish parts of my life. My Great Auntie Catherine was my first culture and language teacher. She would tell all of our creation stories and our trickster stories. The way she told the stories was so beautiful that from a young age I just drank it in. My second storyteller influence was from my Grandfather John who’s Irish. He would tell me stories about fairies and leprechauns. Both told these stories as if they were history, as if they were factual. I grew up with a very rich sense of both parts of my ancestry through these stories and this has stuck with me throughout my life.
ML: You begin the book with Water. How is this significant to the flow of the narrative that follows?
LP: We very intentionally started with Water because without it, none of us exists. It is the life thread. It is what humans, plants, animals need. Everything begins and ends in water, and so we wanted to solidify that it ought not be taken for granted. That even a drop of water is a blessing and it’s sacred. Starting the book with water is incredibly important to solidify just the importance of water and everything that flows from it because I think everything does follow from the existence of water.
ML: Be a Good Ancestor is a children’s book but it reads concurrently almost as a poem with mature life themes of compassion, diplomacy, respect, self-awareness, among others. Why was it important to present it as a children’s book?
LP: There was something Monique Gray Smith told me one fall about four years ago. She’s a mentor of mine. Monique talks about speaking children’s futures into existence. I’ve sort of added to the idea that in children is where we need to plant these seeds, at the youngest of ages. It’s a very proactive book. I hope to get children thinking about things proactively rather than reactively and it’s important for those seeds to be planted at the youngest of ages, to come to that mindful understanding of the interconnectedness of everything. Our most valuable resource is our children. I’ve dedicated my life to children, their success and their growth, and I know that often we wait too long to start planting seeds.
ML: The language is instructive in its call to awareness and action but it’s presented in a buoyant and hopeful tone augmented with Carla Joseph’s brilliantly colourful and joyful illustrations. Do you perceive the book as a kind of invitation? An enticement to consider small changes?
LP: We see each stanza as a call to action, for all of us to pause, to think about how the smallest pieces can become big things. How we, you know, as caretakers of our home, our collective home, have a responsibility to that care. The book invites people to think about each of these calls to action as a way to share some of our knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is universal knowledge, and everyone can take up these lessons, so whether you think of it as a call to action, a lesson, an invitation, all of those are really what this book is and it’s done in a gentle, appreciative way. I think coming at things, whether it’s your work, your words, the way you navigate this world, an appreciative lens is always the best lens because it gives us hope.
ML: How does the concept of ancestry enhance that of connection?
LP: Well, I am the sum total of all of the actions of my ancestors. Me sitting here, having the privilege of being here, their sacrifices, their work, their knowledge, thoughts, words—everything that they ever spoke, I’m a result of that. The idea of ancestry, looking back and honouring where you are right now is important but more important is acknowledging that you are a living ancestor. One day, people are going to look back on what you did, not only for your family and yourself but also for your community and the world at large. We should all aspire to be a great living ancestor, someone that all of our family and our communities coming after us can look back upon and appreciate what we tried to do in our moment. That’s what I’m talking about when I speak of a proactive approach, one of being a good living ancestor.
ML: In the book “the eagle is iconic” and “the grizzly becomes balance”…these two references vary from those in the rest of the book. How are they significant?
LP: These two animals have a special place in our community. Many other animals do, too—I’m from the Likh Tsa Mis Yu Clan, which is the Beaver Clan. Both Eagle and Bear have special significance within our territories, for our people. Again, it’s the concept of interconnectedness. Bear is a powerful presence that provides balance in the way it makes its way on the land. Eagle is the closest to creator and recognized by all as embodying that spiritual connection.
ML: The story begins with Water and ends with Ancestor, suggestive of a continuum or cycle. How is this reflective of Indigenous culture?
LP: Well, lifeblood is water. You hear often when Indigenous people speak of water that we’re birthed, we’re cradled in water. As humans, the majority of our makeup is water. And so, if you think about the continuation of life and all those generations, it’s said that the same blood flows through our veins, but you know the same water flows through them as well. To pass that knowledge on is such an important and significant piece of who we are as people. When we want to feel connected with who we are within our identity, often our people will go back to the water, even just to stand and to connect. In that way I always feel that we’re connecting with our ancestors.
We had a family reunion and we were sitting on the shores of our grandfather’s land in Nak’azdli which is Fort St. James out at Sowchea. We sat there looking out at Stuart Lake and Mount Pope and my sister and I had this moment where I told her that this is the view that our family’s been looking at for ten thousand years. Our DNA is in this water, in this soil. It’s here, this is our people. It’s where we belong. You don’t realize how interconnected you are as a person until you have such a moment. If you think about, you know, the feeling of connection to your entire history by sitting on the shores of that lake, it’s such a powerful force.
ML: As an educator, can you speak to the significance of presenting stories like Be a Good Ancestor to young children no matter what their cultural background?
LP: I appreciate that this is digestible by anyone but I also appreciate that it shows Indigenous brilliance, Indigenous connectedness. When I was a classroom teacher, I would always encourage the children to celebrate who they are as people. That’s really important to me. It’s important in the work that I currently do. Even though I’m specifically utilized for my Indigenous knowledge to create programming, it truly is rooted in identity. Our people who are most lost in this world don’t have that sense of identity. So having this book that celebrates some of our teachings in our classrooms, I’m hoping that what it does for our kids is that it brings up their own sense of self awareness. Whenever I’m working with teachers, which is primarily what my work involves and what I’m really passionate about, helping teachers on this journey of truth and reconciliation, I’m looking for ways by which to celebrate the children in front of us. How do we help them to celebrate each other? I think the stanza about neighbours and becoming allied nations is about creating that friendship and about connecting with each other on a human level, teaching that we all need each other. Some of our most ancient teachings have to do with knowing we don’t stand separate or outside of the larger world in that all of the people of the world are interconnected and we all need each other. I try to take those concepts and embed them in the work I do, bringing more stories from my culture to add to the collective of beautiful stories of all cultures, hoping that children will feel emboldened and strong and develop a sense of self appreciation for who they are.
ML: The last third of the book takes the reader through Thoughts, Words, Feelings, Ancestor…there’s a feeling of being drawn from being an observer in the outer world to the more personal, a participant reflecting on our own sense of responsibility. This, I think was intentional?
LP: Yes, for sure. I’m taking a language program learning about my own language Nedut’en and we were listening to one of our Deneza Hereditary Chiefs Wos and he spoke about the Principle of Waggus. Loosely translated, it means respect. It’s not a state of doing but one of being. And I think those last four stanzas capture the Nedut’en principle of waggus. Throughout my life, elders and community have taught me these principles but I didn’t realize there was one all -encompassing word for this way of being and knowing and doing, which includes how you think about things, how you speak about things, how you act. Your emotions. It’s all about that balance, but really at the end of the day, it’s mindfulness. In the early part of my life it was like, don’t bring shame onto your people, right? What that really meant I guess was be the best version of yourself in everything that you do. So I think it all comes to the internal: if you can’t respect yourself, how are you going to respect the rest of the world? Living a good and mindful life starts with you.
ML: What is the role of education in developing a better understanding of the connection between nature/all cultures?
LP: This is my second book and my first book, A Dance Through The Seasons, is also based in the seasonal rounds. Seasonal rounds is our way of being in our environment throughout the year, the things that we do as a people that keep us connected to the earth, keep us busy, keep us aligned with who we are. It’s an incredibly important teaching tool and anyone who has worked with me will tell you that I fully believe in a land-based education based in the seasonal rounds of whoever you are. Everyone has a seasonal round. We need to reconnect education with outside. What I would love is for stories—and all stories, no matter who’s writing them—to contribute to, to promote the beauty and nature and wonder of our land and how we can learn from it by actually being out on the land, experiencing learning in a wholistic way.
ML: Are you hopeful for future generations to come? Are you an optimist?
LP: I would say I am an optimist. I see our children and I think people are confused about our young people right now. People often harshly judge millennials. You see this a lot on social media. But what I see is the first generation to acknowledge their mental health, and use the words. I listen to our youth and that’s one of my favourite things to do, just to listen to their reactions to the things they’re seeing. They’re so honest and a lot of our young people are so sure of what they’re saying. And their vocabulary is extensive. It’s crazy to listen to some of our youth because I’m not even sure if I had those words at that same age! But I think, you know, people often misinterpret that our youth are kind of lost when I think they’re just trying to find their way and they’re actually pushing up against some of the ideals that we’ve held onto for far too long. This is the generation—I see a rise in the creative class. We see it transforming marketing, we see it through industry, through all the social media platforms that our kids are using that they’re hungry for success, but success defined by themselves. And so they’re not really lost. I think we’re measuring our kids by traditional standards that they’re breaking out of so maybe it’s we who are lost.
ML: What is your next book about? Gabrielle? Carla?
LP: I’m not sure about Carla, I haven’t even approached her, but I did submit a manuscript that Gabrielle and I co-wrote. We’re spiritual people so we totally believe that both these books, Be A Good Ancestor and Remember Who You Are came from Creator. Remember Who You Are is a message to our young people to remember who they are, to celebrate who they are as Indigenous people and, if somehow they have forgotten all of the brilliant things that make us Indigenous, this is a reminder. I’ve also another book called Mixed, which is about my mixed ancestry and all the hardships of that. But you know, I am hopeful, because in there, no matter what we go through, it’s hopeful. It’s a hopeful message that acknowledges things might be hard but here’s where you reach in to find your strength, and that’s really the gist of Mixed.