‘The spirit of the medicine will lead us back’: How Avis O’Brien is guiding Elders to weave their first cedar hats 

Avis ‘Nalaga’ O’Brien, who owns and operates Nalaga Designs, is guiding Elders to weave cedar hats for the very first time. Photo by Melanie April Graham-Orr  courtesy of Avis O’Brien.

The first in a series on the power of cedar for Indigenous Peoples on Vancouver Island from IndigiNews.

Clam fritters, smoked fish, and raspberry freezer jam; these are some of the gifts Avis ‘Nalaga’ O’Brien has received from Elder Theresa Wasden for teaching her how to weave her first cedar hat.

“I took a bite of this jam and it transported me right back to childhood,” says O’Brien, who says she shared the treat with her daughter.

O’Brien has been teaching We Wai Kai and We Wai Kum Elders to weave with cedar bark on the unceded territory of the Ligwildawx peoples, one of 18 tribes of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw.

They gather weekly for weaving, sharing food and stories in the Elders gathering space on the Quinsam Reserve and the Kwanwatsi Guwkdzi (Big House).

Wasden, who used to babysit O’Brien when she was a child, says she is in awe of O’Brien for the work she’s doing to bring cedar weaving back to the community.

“Our young people are stepping up,” she says.

The journey to weaving

For O’Brien, who’s Haida and Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, it’s been a 12 year journey to get to a place where she’s living on her Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw territory and working as a land-based cultural empowerment facilitator.

She says she first learned to weave cedar in so-called Vancouver during a time in her life when she was feeling disconnected from her culture. It was the sacred medicine of cedar that led her back to herself, her identity, and her people, she says.

“It was 2010 when I learned to weave from my sister, Meghann O’Brien. Prior to that, I watched my sister weaving, but wanted no part of my culture… I still embodied the impacts of our history. I felt a lot of shame about my identity and it wasn’t something that I wanted or understood,” she says.

O’Brien says working with the healing power of cedar, the shame began to lift, and she became open to her cultural practices.

Her Haida and Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw cultures were not accessible to her at that time living in the city, so she engaged in what Indigenous cultural practices were accessible, including pow wow drum circles, sweat lodges and sun dance ceremonies.

Even though it wasn’t her own culture, she says the experiences and relationships filled a need for spiritual connection.

Now, she’s facilitating workshops on cedar weaving, bringing the benefits of the medicine back to the community.

“I can provide the opportunity for people to see what the medicine is like, to interact with it. Even if we don’t have access to our own culture, I strongly believe the spirit of the medicine will lead us back,” she says.

From left: Georgia Conners, Violet Grey, Theresa Wasden, Avis O’Brien and June Johnson. Photo courtesy: Avis O’Brien.

O’Brien says supporting Elders to re-engage with cedar is a way for her to “give back something that was taken from them throughout history.

“Weaving was one of those practices that went to sleep — it had to,” she says. “Our spiritual and cultural practices were targeted, specifically because that’s where our strength comes from.”

In Canada, the federal government tried, unsuccessfully, to erase Indigenous cultures by amending the Indian Act to ban Potlatches — gift giving feasts and governing practices at the heart of First Nations’ economic and cultural ways of being, all across the Northwest Coast.

The law against Potlatches was in effect from 1885 until 1951, although many First Nations continued their traditional ways in secret to preserve their respective ways of knowing.

From birth to death

Wasden says she believes cedar is “who we are and where we come from. It’s entwined in everything we do — from birth on a cedar mat, to death in a cedar box. It’s used for potlatches, for skirts, wreaths, head pieces. It was used for storage, cooking, blankets, mats, and even personal hygiene.

“It’s a part of our art. We use it when carving masks, poles, and making hats. I just think, wow, our Ancestors were so smart in how they thought about all these different uses and ways.”

Prior to joining O’Brien’s workshop, Wasden says she never made anything with cedar, but she has participated in the stripping and pounding process. She says when she’s finished, she plans to gift her first cedar hat to her granddaughter.

The power of this intergenerational exchange is not lost on O’Brien.

“To be able to give the experience of making a cedar hat for her granddaughter to somebody who used to care for me as a child was such a beautiful gift,” she says.

But O’Brien insists it’s the medicine that does the work.

“It’s like we’re giving back these Elders something that was taken to them, taken from them through our history,” she says. “It’s pretty magical.”

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