A special gathering at Green Lake for the Pulling Together Canoe Journey last week took a solemn turn with the death of an Elder with the Tsq’escenemc (Canim Lake) First Nation.
The celebrations, which marked the end of the eight-day journey in the Shuswap, began with a healing circle, followed by two prayer songs by drummers and singers to remember elder William Frank.
“Tsq’escenemc is in deep mourning today, we lost a beloved Elder as we were travelling in today and our hearts are heavy and weary,” Kupki7 Helen Henderson said.
Although First Nations protocol usually requires everything to be cancelled with the death of an elder, Simpcw First Nation Kupki7 Shelly Loring said the decision was made to continue with the celebrations at Green Lake.
The lake, known in Secwe̓pemc as Teltsinten, or “where the news spreads,” was a summer gathering spot for the Secwe̓pemc people, who moved with the seasons.
“It’s a very sacred place for us to come back and to be here,” said Loring.
Hundreds of people – including indigenous Peoples, youth, police, and public service personnel – in 18 canoes visited the lake as part of the final leg of the journey, which promotes healing, reconciliation, and respect for Indigenous host nations, as well as the sharing of Indigenous cultures.
The event was inspired by the 1997 Vision Quest Journey along B.C.’s west coast, which saw Indigenous Peoples and the RCMP visiting Indigenous communities along the way.
This year’s journey, hosted by the Splatsin, Cstélnec (Adams Lake), Simpcw, and Tsq’escenemc, in cooperation with Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, made stops throughout the Shuswap and Simpcw before reaching Green Lake last week.
Henderson said she was happy to be welcoming the “Styemc” – people of the lakes – back to their traditional territory. She noted at one point there had been 35 Secwe̓pemc fires burning – now there are only 17 after many were lost in the smallpox epidemic.
“When you step on the territory, you feel the heartbeat and power of ancestors and that’s what this day is all about,” Henderson said. “Our footprint is all over the territory, especially Green Lake and Lac La Hache. They are very special to all Secwe̓pemc.”
Elder Elizabeth Pete told a story of how a pilot’s wife used to have visions of a tall First Nations man walking around the grounds of her house. When 14 burial sites were discovered a few years ago at the north end of Green Lake, she said the man’s bones had been among them. In another instance, a 12-year-old, possibly a boy, was found in full regalia made out of copper.
“They had never seen anything like it in any of our burials,” Pete said. She said the archeologists had begged the Elders to keep the remains a few weeks longer, but the Elders did not want to mess with the final resting place.
“When we’re visiting these places here, we’re retracing the footsteps of the places that were special in the hearts of our people and they would have been happy,” Pete said.
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Stanley Daniels, a Tsq’escenemc councillor and skipper of their canoe – the Sto:méx Skwo-wech – said it was exciting to host the canoe journey in their territory.
His band borrowed the canoe from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans after their canoe was destroyed last year.
“It’s just nice to showcase our culture, after a history of colonization and residential schools and people telling us who we can and can’t be,” Daniels said. “It’s not just pulling the canoes, but to gather and share stories. That’s invaluable. You can’t put a price on that.”