In her workbook Decolonize First, Ta7talíya Michelle Nahanee contrasts the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh verb chenchénstway with the notion of helping.
Chenchénstway means to “uphold one another and support one another.”
With this concept, “all parties have equal power and bring equal value,” writes Nahanee.
“Upholding one another means I bring my best to the situation and so do you; we co-create the best solution together. This approach takes more time and requires good relations.”
With help, one side holds power and gifts the aid.
The power balance doesn’t shift after the exchange and there is a one-way transaction.
“It gets tricky when power relations and access to means are not examined critically,” says Nahanee.
It is equality versus a paternalistic, “I know what is best.”
Nahanee uses the brutal and obvious example of Indian Residential Schools. They were framed as helping, but instead hurt.
She asks good-intentioned folks who want to rush in and make things better first do the work of decolonizing: analyze what motivates you and make sure good relations are being built upon.
Chenchénstway is meaningful and folks work together, taking into consideration the needs and wishes of all sides.
A small-scale positive example of chenchénstway in Squamish, I think, would be the Howe Sound School Farm that is underway.
Chenchénstway is the relationship building and sharing in the decision making and resources of the farm with the ultimate aim of it being autonomous.
It is overwhelming to try and fix all the examples of the negative forms of “helping” once we start looking for them.
My book club is working through the Nahanee workbook; this juxtaposition of chenchénstway and help made us pause and reflect in that beautifully uncomfortable way where growing as people means seeing some ugly truths about yourself and your culture.
We have vowed to be more aware of our choices in our day-to-day lives.
Regarding my holiday donations, I am looking more at what organizations are working toward changing the status quo and raising people up long-term, for example.
And on even a more micro-level, within my own family and relationships, I am trying to apply this concept too, by including everyone in the Christmas plans.
[Hard truth: my instinct is to insist they all come to my house and be dang grateful for the gifts I want them to want — and smile for the photos. But I am — er — growing.]
With a blended hodgepodge of four adult sons, their partners and extended family to consider, this collaboration is a bit like asking a room full of people what they want to watch on Netflix. It is messy and will likely involve yelling and compromise.
Perhaps this is the shallowest version of chenchénstway and not at all what Nahanee meant — we haven’t worked through the whole book yet — but it is a start.