Obituary: First Nations elder Ellen White put focus on education

Ellen White was a celebrated elder and educator, an author, storyteller and medicine woman who believed education is the key to social change and community building.

Fittingly, the Snuneymuxw First Nations elder, who died in Nanaimo on Tuesday in her mid-90s, was also known as Kwulasulwut or Many Stars.

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White was made a member of the Order of Canada in December 2016 for her work as an elder and community leader and her efforts to preserve the Hul’qumi’num language.

In 2011, she was invested in the Order of B.C. In 2006, she received an honorary doctorate from what is now Vancouver Island University, where she was the first elder-in-residence and helped establish a First Nations program.

Her grandson, Douglas White, also a noted educator and advocate, was interviewed when she was named as a member of the Order of Canada. He described his grandmother as a remarkable woman, a powerhouse and a leader. “We’re very proud of her,” he said.

Ellen White was raised by her grandmother on a small Gulf Island outside the residential-school system catchment. Her grandmother told her and her cousins: “If you can’t go to their school, you will go to my school,” Douglas White recalled.

She was taught traditional Coast Salish spirituality and medicine and learned midwifery from a young age, at a time when other Aboriginal children were being separated from their culture.

White said his grandmother worked hard to acquire the tools to preserve her knowledge and to teach others. She studied linguistics at the University of Victoria in middle age.

“She was always involved in the school system,” he said. “One of her basic teachings was that, in one hand you hold the teaching of your people and in the other you hold knowledge of the western system. If you can hold these in balance, you can do great things.”

Ellen White’s teachings and writings are sought for naming and ceremony traditions and have helped inform treaty negotiations and pipeline environmental assessment.

“Many people have learned from her in lots of ways, from language and cultural to just being a good human,” Douglas White said.

She was inducted into the Order of B.C. for her work as a social activist. White campaigned successfully to get electricity onto her reserve, to establish schools closer to the reserve and to establish a substance-abuse rehabilitation facility and the Friendship Centre in Nanaimo.

White worked in the school system to bring cultural education to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students through traditional teachings, Hul’qumi’num language lessons, dance, stories, foods and lectures. She published books of Coast Salish stories in English. She also wrote about native plants and created one of the first English-Hul’qumi’num dictionaries.

White worked with the Nanaimo museum on First Nations artifacts. She spent 10 years lecturing native students in summer programs at the University of British Columbia, and was named Nanaimo’s Woman of the Year and Mother of the Year.

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