MEET YOUR NEIGHBOURS – May Sam: Teaching by Example

by Anne Miller | photo by Amanda Cribdon Photography –

On my fridge door, I keep a magnet with the words “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” These words urge me to live authentically, to “practise what I preach.” When I met May Sam, an elder with the Tsartlip First Nation in Brentwood Bay, I recognized that she doesn’t need a push. She simply lives her life that way.

While May experienced poverty and cruel treatment as a child, there was one person who made all the difference in her ability to cope – her father. A kind and loving single father, Everest worked hard as a logger, cared for his daughters, taught them skills and inspired a sense of creativity. May is proud of this man, who learned so much, despite having never attended school, a decision his parents made to hide him from “the agency” who could force him into residential school. Instead, Everest learned to fish, to hunt, to knit and to encourage his imagination. He was clever and invented a time-saving, electric carding machine and a spinning machine. When people asked about it, he said: “I’ll teach you how. I’m not going to do it for you.” Learning by doing, the traditional way May’s people learn.

One of the skills May learned from her dad, who learned from his father, was Cowichan knitting, which has brought her far-reaching recognition and occupies much of her time today. She buys carded wool locally then spins the fibres into yarn to knit custom-made sweaters. One of her clients is a man in Denmark who grew up in Brentwood Bay. He noticed a Globe and Mail article about May and contacted her to make him an authentic Cowichan sweater, delighted with the results.

May’s challenge now is to spin yarns of alpaca, silk and wool finely enough to make a unique piece of wearable art for a September exhibition called Qu’an qw’anakwal, by UVic’s Legacy Gallery. Like her father, May’s mind whirled with ideas. She will design and knit a shawl featuring whales, bears and mountains, “like a painting,” she says.

May also makes time to contribute as an elder to First People’s House at UVic and Camosun, a role she shared with her late husband, Gabriel “Skip” Sam. She welcomes Indigenous students and others “who need prayer or a listener when they have problems or are lonely.” She recalls an Inuit student in residence, isolated from her culture and traditional diet, facing culture shock. To help, May connected this student to her colleagues who found a source of elk meat and fresh salmon.

May welcomes everyone to First People’s House and recognizes those who seem lonely. She befriended an international student who recently texted her from his home in East Africa to announce his new baby. May recalls the day she met David. “I could tell by his eyes; he was lost and lonely. My husband and I wanted him to know someone cared.”

May is a humble and insightful woman who lives by her values, noting the importance of family. She is delighted when her excited great-grandchildren run into her home to greet her. “I have to brace myself!” she says. She constantly teaches her loved ones to listen to their parents and grandparents as they are a source of knowledge and love. She demonstrates this value at UVic, too, where she gives students a sense of family when they’re away from home.

While she didn’t have the luxury of further education herself, she appreciates its worth. She urges her grandchildren to seek higher education and speaks to students at the tribal school, encouraging them to complete their education, earning “that beautiful certificate.”

May hopes for a future without conflict, a future of respect and caring. She deeply believes that if you can show compassion to just one person, to make sure they’re OK, you can make a difference. What a simple, wise philosophy to live by.

Find out more about Anne Miller, personal historian, at www.annemiller.ca or get in touch with her via email: anne@annemiller.ca.

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