Every Wednesday, UVic’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society hosts a public lecture on how religion and society interact. Last week, a legal scholar delivered a lecture titled “It’s the Spirit That Makes the Person”: Spiritual Practice and Political Agency in Contemporary Coast Salish Society. In it Andrée Boisselle addressed the question, “What can the spiritual dimension of the Coast Salish tradition of thought and action, in its current iteration, teach us about its political dimension – and in particular, about the construction of individuality in relation with solidarity, shaping people’s capacity to make choices and enact them in the world?”
Boisselle delivered a moving and informative lecture, concentrating on the close connection between spiritual practise and legal tradition among the Stó:lō. She described the act of witnessing as central to that relationship, defining witnesses among the Stó:lō as not fulfilling the typical roles in western legal systems (i.e. not witnesses who describe what happened, judges who decide on the importance of events, nor legislative or executive branches of government). Instead, Stó:lō witnesses emerge from a different conception of self and community to remember and create their law; this conception of the witness lies at the heart of their spirituality, which is interconnected with all parts of their lives.
The lecture centred around how annual winter dances among the Stó:lō are being used to create personal and community healing from colonialism, by harnessing the power of witnessing. She made a very personal connection between this practise and something that happened in her own life, and argued that it is important to “bear witness to [personal] agency in all its complexity.” Her research, she said, is an attempt to “connect two ethonographies of healing,” that can lead to a better understanding of settler and First Nation cultures. However, her research is continuing: after her talk, she was asked whether there was “a resonance or point of communication” between Canadian common law and Coast Salish law. Boisselle said that she isn’t done research on that yet, but knows that there are resonances to be found.
One thorny issue that Boisselle mentioned repeatedly is the difficulty in dealing with knowledge that is culturally protected and ought to be kept confidential. She said she was fairly sure she didn’t know anything that she wasn’t supposed to, but knowing that for certain is epistemologically difficult. She also indicated that it is a potentially fraught area, and that she has had to tread carefully in asking certain questions during her research interviews with community members.
One of her Stó:lō friends came to witness her lecture and thanked her for bridging their communities. His drum accompanied song at the end was moving and appreciated.
You can find a list of future (and past) CSRS Wednesday lectures here.