Learn Through the Art of Stories

Lesson: Stories teach lessons, if you are willing to listen and learn

If I look back at my two favorite memories in my career, one would definitely be my time spent at a remote gold exploration project in the Southeast Yukon. Cold, limited services, hard, hard work but a wonderful team, innovative work and many great memories working at 40 below and with Kaska Elders (will elaborate another time). My other favorite assignment would be when I worked on economic development matters with the Carcross Tagish First Nation (CTFN)  in southern Yukon.

My daughter & son at the White Pass & Yukon Train in Carcross

So, what makes some work so memorable? We worked hard, all ideas were welcome and from our work, the Nation has developed a tourism economy centered around the return of the White Pass & Yukon Train, community redevelopment and mountain biking, all things I was part of in the early years. CTFN also settled their land claims and self-government agreements and established a very healthy self-governing nation with legislation that protects the nation & families and economic initiatives which employ their people. I was part of the community and nation in my work, we worked together, we prayed together and I was fortunate to be there for a very emotional evening when the successful self-government vote came in after an initial “no” vote, which I was also around for.

But what made my work there so memorable and one of the most amazing life experiences I was left with are the people. I won’t candy coat it, it was hard work and not everyone was keen on self-government or our economic initiatives, but with a strong Chief and Council and excellent management, mostly from CTFN citizens, success followed. And with that success came healthy people and a healthy community.

But the laughter, I can’t recall ever working in an environment where we laughed as hard as we worked. I wondered where this came from, as it was not my previous experience. My opinion: the First Nation people have historically not had it easy, they knew hard times living on the land and experiencing government initiatives like residential schools. Some people, like the ones I worked with, overcame this hardship with an incredible sense of humour. I have stories that frankly I can’t put in print but still make me laugh to the point of tears 20 years later.

Once I was visiting an Elder in the hospital, a very good friend, who was going home to be with her God. I spent a lot of time with my friend while working at CTFN, we held many meetings with Elders, and she was always incredibly helpful and taught me many things in the traditional way – by telling me stories. I learned the importance of not telling other people’s stories without acknowledging them, and developing your own to help people learn. I once saw a raven funeral and my first call was to her to tell her about it, she was pleased I knew what I saw.  It is now one of my favorite stories (another day, another blog).

Her nieces were with her in the hospital, and we all sat together and talked about how she was receiving visitors from both worlds. I was very sad, accepting the fact I would not see my friend again after that day. Though, what you think would have been a somber event changed when her nieces asked me to tell Auntie the story about Aan Gan Oosh. It’s a story I can’t put in print, and without saying too much I kept calling the Chief Aan Gan Oosh, which was not his name. They tricked me into believing I was calling him a very bad word and the joke went on for days, including letting me know the Elders (my weak spot) would not be pleased I used such language. After days of this I was let in on the joke which I still love to share (obviously).

When they asked me  to tell the story, I was shocked; they wanted me to tell a hilarious yet off colour story to my friend who was passing over soon. But I obliged, told the story and the four of us laughed endlessly with tears truthfully rolling down our faces. And we hugged. I still miss my dear friend and have been fortunate to see her in my dreams happily sitting by the campfire with my own grandmother.

And I never made the mistake of saying the Chief’s name wrong ever again.


About the Author

Janet Sheriff

An innovative entrepreneur, Janet brings her extensive experience in all aspects of strategic planning, management, indigenous affairs and communications to start ups, new ventures and the mining & exploration sectors. Janet focuses her entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and vision to create new opportunities, award-winning innovative programs and new ways of conducting business. Her strong commitment to community engagement, sustainability and inclusion provides her the proven ability to work effectively and respectfully in cross-cultural environments.