To gather wisdom responsively, Elliott-Groves imbedded her project in the Cowichan community's history and social and cultural contexts. The study centers on community elders and knowledge keepers, and the land as teacher. Going to places of their choosing, such as historical village sites or places of personal or cultural significance, knowledge-keepers walk, read, and story the land wearing a GoPro camera and document the stories that emerge from that particular place. The GoPro recordings provide additional critical information about the storyteller's perspective and experience in association with a vast system of relationships.
As the pandemic interrupted the project plan and prevented Elliott-Groves from traveling, she is working closely with several research assistants, including Sabrina Elliott, who provides community-based support. "In the Cowichan Valley, our stories instill a sense of pride and identity," says Elliott. "Each one has a purpose, like the one about the chipmunk who wanted more and more. He disguised himself to get more food -- but the people would have given him food if he had come as himself. When you hear the elders tell that story, you learn about being yourself and not being greedy." Local stories share essential cultural teachings without discounting individual lived experiences or specific standpoints. That is, they allow the story’s listener to interpret meaning from their current, specific context.
Once a story is gathered, UW graduate research assistant Alayna Eagle Shield of the Lakota Nation helps Elliott-Groves catalog the information. "The beauty of this project," says Eagle Shield, "Is that we all know the ways our communities have always connected to the land, and the importance of leaning into our protective factors and cultural buffers in ways that continue to raise the level of health of our communities."
All three women bring layers of evolving knowledge and lived experience to this work. In addition to working in the local land office and supporting the health of women and children with her expertise in nutrition and herbal remedies, Elliott graduated with a degree in business administration. Her degree work included cross-cultural studies, allowing her to develop interdisciplinary expertise in contemporary Indigenous and First Nations issues. Elliott and her family are deeply engaged in local cultural practices and take pride in sharing with others their experiences related to their collective community and the responsibility they have to help care for others.
"My Xwulmuxw studies opened my eyes to historical trauma across the globe, not just in the Cowichan territory but in Hawaii and other places," she says. "At home, we didn't hear about residential school and the impact on our grandparents and great grandparents. What I'm learning allows me to support my community, to have gentle conversations, and to move toward healing."
It's also helping her to make more cross-cultural connections. "Going to school and studying Western ways of policies and guidelines, I can then relate that to how we culturally understand things," says Elliott. "It allows me to guide, advocate and support families facing things like child services involvement."
Since the pandemic, Eagle Shield began doing her UW graduate classes remotely, moving back home to the Standing Rock Nation, bordering North and South Dakota. At the same time, she's serving as co-executive director of Mni Wiconi Clinic and Farm and Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Wóuŋspe (Defenders of the Water School). This work gives her more perspective to apply to her work with Elliott-Groves. "So many researchers come in with a colonial lens," she says. "They ask questions about things they think are important to us."
For example, in her co-executive director role, Eagle Shield has fielded many questions about vaccine hesitancy. "In the very beginning," she says, "Yes, it was an issue for real reasons because of past experiences with forced sterilization and intentionally infecting people with smallpox blankets, it was in our own right to be hesitant. But we moved past that quickly. We started conversations around vaccinations in early January and were among the first to roll them out within Indian Country. We got the word out through organizations, by gathering community members and even using a huge online platform that has over two hundred thousand members called the Social Distance Powwow Facebook page.”
Her point and the point of the study being done in collaboration with the people of the Cowichan territory? "Let us tell the stories we want to share. Don't sidetrack us with things not relevant in our communities. Let us tell you what's relevant, what's happening on the ground, and the supports we need."
"We cannot get this knowledge anywhere else," says Elliott. "In the Cowichan Valley our goal as parents or grandparents is to ensure that our children grow up knowing who they are and what they are connected to, so they don't fall off into the Western world." If enough people hear the stories, she says, they can share them and pass them on. "That's how we create wellbeing. My grandma shared a story, then a niece tells a cousin who tells her daughter. Once we document and record it, we're able to hold it."
She describes the transformative power of this work. "Our land holds sacred values, and each one is unique," she says. "There's nothing like this written by scholars that would give an understanding of why the land is important and why our stories carry so much value. There are stories that lift you up and you are walking like a feather. Some make you smile and laugh for the rest of the day."
Elliott-Groves emphasizes that this process doesn't involve going back to a precolonial understanding of the world. Instead, the effort uses knowledge rooted in the wisdom of ancestors to address current-day needs, including stopping colonial harm and increasing collective possibility.
"If you Google 'Native Americans,'" she says, "Ninety-five percent of the imagery comes from the 18th and 19th century -- and it all looks very stereotypical. But if you do that with any other population, the images are largely contemporary. That's the mainstream understanding of Indigenous people. Erasure. I want my work to strengthen those representations. Indigenous knowledge systems have something to offer all of us."
How non-Indigenous people and systems support this effort also forms a critical part of the solution. Eagle Shield talks about a word in the Lakota language, iglúha. She says it's close to the word "sovereign" in English and means having the right to make choices on your behalf. "Communities have the right to make choices that are right for them," she says. "If I ever go to Sabrina and Emma's homeland, I will take the lead and direction from them."