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Gitxaała celebrates historic return of totem pole as ‘the first of many to come’



Sm’gyigyet greet the pts’aan, being brought in a truck by the barge. Photo by Val Masters

This article originally appeared on the Coastal First Nations website and is republished here with permission and minor edits.

A pts’aan’ (totem pole) belonging to the Gitxaała Nation — sold 126 years ago during one of their darkest periods in living memory — has returned home, blessed and reawakened, in the presence of their ancestors.

“It was significant for our people. It felt like it was a turning point for the nation, to see something like this come home,” says Wilg’oosk Dustin Johnson, Gitxaała’s cultural program manager. 

An event to welcome the pts’aan’ home in mid-April was kept private, as decided by the nation’s Elders and Hereditary Table, in order to prioritize Gitxaała first.

“Because of how the pole had been desecrated,” Wilg’oosk explains, “our people knew that we needed to treat this like a sacred living being, to apply our Ayaawx, our traditional laws and knowledge to approach this new situation — returning something of this significance.”

Wilg’oosk is from the Gispwudwada, the Blackfish Clan from Gitxaała. He lives in the village of Lax Klan. His mother is from an unbroken line from Lax Klan and his father’s side is Ganhada, Raven Clan from Lax Kw’alaams, from the Tsimshian people.

Wilg’oosk has been leading the repatriation project as cultural program manager since moving home in November.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I did my own research as a teenager, joining my mother in meetings with Elders, many of whom are long gone now, learning about our Ayaawx and Adaawx, our traditional laws and stories,” says Wilg’oosk. “To be able to finally do this feels long overdue. The first project was this pts’aan, this totem pole.”

The repatriated pts’aan in the hall before an unveiling and blessing. Photo by Val Masters

A long journey

The pts’aan was chosen to be brought home first — among 73 other cultural treasures the nation is repatriating from more than 12 museums across the country and abroad — because of its powerful significance in Gitxaała culture.

“It could very well be up to 200 years old,” Wilg’oosk says. “We don’t know the specific carver of the pole. The carvers of that day, in that era — from the 1850s to 1890s — they didn’t have English names, some of them were hereditary leaders.”

He adds: “This pts’aan was a part of a larger pole that we believe was over 50 feet tall, originally.”

Missionaries of the time were pressuring Gitxaała people to cut their poles down. Settlers were also cutting them down, selling them and burning them, he says. 

“American collectors were coming up and down the Coast, collecting poles … our ancestors saved this 12-foot section and managed to repurpose it as an interior house post. Years later, in 1897, the missionaries pressured our people to sell the pole to the New England Fishing Company,” Wilg’oosk says.

The pts’aan was one of three left in the community at the time, significant to the Gitxaała people, evident even today through its intricate deep-cut carving, he says. 

“We know it was taken under duress, because at that time, a lot of our people were dying of smallpox, diseases introduced by colonizers. Our people couldn’t keep up with the burials, taking care of our dead … missionaries had vaccines, so many of our people accepted Christianity,” Wilg’oosk says.

“That was a really dark time … around the same time the pts’aan was taken from the territory.” 

The New England Fish Company kept the pole for 20 years, before selling it to the Peabody Museum at Harvard in Massachusetts where it had been kept in a warehouse, he says. The museum shared their accession files with the repatriation team which shed light into how the pts’aan and Gitxaała people were considered at the time.

“They shared an old newspaper clipping, an article from the Boston Globe in 1901,” Wilg’oosk says. “It was a very racist article. It was describing us in very racist terms, and that was shared with our Elders and our nation, and the context in which it was taken from and how they talked about our pole and our people.”

It has been a long journey for the pts’aan. Several meetings were held to decide whether or not a delegation should travel to the museum, to have a cleansing ceremony while it was still at the university, but hereditary leaders decided to wait, to bless it when it’s in the Gitxaała home of Lax Klan.

“We just need to get it home, they said, and we’ll know what to do with it when we see it, when it’s in front of us. When it’s in our community, we’ll know how to handle it. But then we’ll go back to that museum, and leave a gan niidza, a marker, to explain what happened,” Wilg’oosk says.

A close-up of the pts’aan in the community hall. Photo by Brenna Innes

Powerful, emotional, historic

After the pole’s arrival, a large smorgasbord dinner was held in Prince Rupert, part of Gitxaała shared territory, as well as a blessing and cleansing ceremony for the pts’aan in the community hall before the feast in Lax Klan.

“It was powerful, it was emotional. Some of our Elders — our oldest Elder is 96 — I could tell they didn’t really believe it would happen until they saw it in our community,” Wilg’oosk says. “When we marched it down the road from the float, up to the hall, we stopped at one of our churches. That church is built on top of a da’ax (a specific type of terraced longhouse), one of our Bighouses. It was the Bighouse of Wiis’eeks. One of our hereditary chiefs stopped and talked about it… he talked about this huge longhouse and the power of that chief (Wiis’eeks).”

It was a powerful moment to witness, he says, a clear “turning point” for the nation in the work that was being done. The community hall was chosen to have the cleansing and blessing ceremony and to hold the pole until a cultural centre is built for all returning items. Four clan leaders, the present, highest-ranked hereditary leaders of each clan, blessed the pole with traditional medicines and messages in Sm’algyax, Wilg’oosk shares. 

“One of our leaders, speaking in our language of Sm’algyax, was addressing our ancestors, calling them, inviting them in,” he says. “We felt how spiritually-charged it was in that hall — that hall has always had a lot of spiritual activity. That pole was right in the middle of that hall, right at centre court.”

The community has had several deaths over the past year and held a lot of memorial and stone-moving feasts, he says, but the returning home celebration felt like the “reverse of a death feast.”

“We felt it when we had that ceremony and our Elders and hereditary table were breathing life and energy back into that pole. We were reawakening, guided by our culture, and we really felt it.”

Many of the community’s Elders and hereditary leaders had just returned from “Vancouver,” participating in an ongoing precedent-setting legal challenge against the province’s mineral claim regime. Less than half an hour after they returned, the delegation was brought to the Civic Centre in “Prince Rupert” for the first celebration of the pts’aan’s return.

“After being away for two weeks at the court case, most of our Elders and Hereditary Table participated in events back-to-back, our dinner in Prince Rupert, and then the feast in the village. We planned it out that way,” Wilg’oosk says.

“This court challenge is about protecting our territory, and the significance of a totem pole being the maker of our territory, defense of our territory, but also telling the history to back it up, was symbolic for our Elders to come back and be a part of that … as tired as they were, it reinvigorated everyone.”

Lunch at the community hall after the pts’aan blessing. Photo by Brenna Innes

‘Part of our living culture’

The repatriation committee, guided by Gitxaała Elders, senior high-ranking people, has reawakened Sm’algyax language in the process of returning treasures home. Words like ‘artifact’ and ‘repatriate’ were replaced by Sm’algyax words and its closest phrases, putting the “value and sacredness back in.”

“The word ‘artifact’ is such a loaded colonial word that implies that our culture died off. It’s not an artifact, it’s part of our living culture. We’re still alive,” Wilg’oosk says. “We came up with phrases in our language … we had to differentiate between what’s already come home, what’s on its journey home, and what we still need to bring home. We were really challenging our committee, with our Elders, to try and find the right phrase, the right way to explain it in our culture.”

Wilg’oosk traveled with a delegation of five Elders to “Victoria” and “Vancouver,” to visit the Royal BC Museum and the Museum of Anthropology in the months leading up to the celebration. One of the Elders, 84, from the Laxgibu, Wolf Clan, told the group a story of when her grandmother was taking her out on one of our islands, harvesting, pulling bark, weaving baskets, “speaking to it, breathing life into it, and infusing it with their Spirits,” Wilg’oosk says. 

“When you see a basket, it’s like speaking to the spirit of your great-grandmother, of our ancestors, so that’s what made it real for us, especially with this pole … speaking to the spirit of our ancestors that carved it, that took care of it, kept it alive for us.”

Many Gitxaała Elders often talk about how Lax Klan is the “oldest living community on the coast,” continuously occupied by Gitxaała people, Wilg’oosk says. The band council system was only set up (in Lax Klan) in the 1940’s, and for thousands of years prior, the nation was ruled by their traditional hereditary system, the Ayaawx and Gugwilx’yaansk.

Wilg’oosk says his Elders told him they weren’t going to use Christianity during this work of welcoming and blessing the pts’aan, and instead the Elders, Hereditary Table, and everyone involved stood on and reactivated the Ayaawx, Gitxaała traditional laws.

“This is just the first of many to come.”

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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors




From left: Whitney Cardenas, Chris Ingle and Jaden Sampson were at the career fair with PIB’s fire department. Photo by Athena Bonneau

During a career fair in “Penticton” last week, Indigenous secondary school students heard from 26 mentors working in different industries — giving the Youth an opportunity to learn about various professional pathways.

The event was the first-ever Indigenous Career Fair held by School District 67’s (SD67) Indigenous Parent Group, planned in collaboration with the district’s Indigenous Education Program and held at Princess Margaret Secondary School.

It aimed to bridge the gap between post-secondary aspirations and alternative career paths, and set Indigenous Youth up for success after high school.

The Youth learned about various industries from professionals including water technicians, Youth and family workers, teachers, artists and more. 

Along with covering the event as a journalist on Nov. 16, I also represented my industry as a mentor, talking to the Youth in Grades 8 to 12 about my career as a freelance storyteller contributing to IndigiNews and Global Okanagan. I shared with them what it means to me to tell these impactful stories as a member of Penticton Indian Band (PIB).

Another of the mentors, Whitney Cardenas, is also a member of PIB and works for the nation’s fire department. She told me that before she became a firefighter, attended a similar career fair to explore different job paths.

Now, she is eager to encourage the next generation of Indigenous Youth who are trying to decide which career path to choose.

“I’m pretty proud of myself to be named as one of the Indigenous role models, and I’m excited to talk to the Youth and tell them why I do what I do,” said Cardenas.

“I’m here to help encourage them to know that there are options out there and how easy it is to get into these careers and how they can make a living.”

Students at SD67’s Indigenous Career Fair at Princess Margaret Secondary School on Nov 16. Photo by Athena Bonneau

As a mother of two young children, Cardenas shared her passion for building a sense of community, emphasizing the importance of involving youth in trades for real-world experience. 

“I never saw myself in this position with the fire brigade but I love it. I feel it’s something that I’m going to continue doing for a long while,” said Cardenas.

Cardenas encouraged Youth who may be interested in the trades to “come as you are and experience it firsthand” — embodying the inclusive and supportive spirit at the heart of the Indigenous Career Fair.

Dustin Hyde, the District Principal of Indigenous Education and Equity for SD67, highlighted the importance of broad representation of Indigenous workers across different sectors at the event.

“There was a parent who said, ‘my daughter wants to study medicine’ and it would be wonderful if there was an Indigenous doctor here,” said Hyde, who is Métis.

“We plan to broaden our role models next year and the hope and the dream would be that we just continue to offer more opportunities.”

Christy Tiessen, a member of the Indigenous Parent Group and organizer of the Career Fair, said the group will continue to meet monthly to find different ways to encourage Indigenous youth to see themselves in different career paths aside from only the traditional university route.

“If one kid walked out of here tonight and says, ‘I know what I want to do, that’s what I’m going to do’ and now they have a passion to move forward — that’s the goal,” said Tiessen.

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For 18-year-old syilx basketball star, sports and mental health intersect




sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr., an 18-year-old syilx Youth from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, pictured at Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court on Nov. 3. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Just down the road from where sk’ik’aycin Peter Waardenburg Jr. grew up is one of his favourite safe spaces — the Westbank First Nation’s (WFN) basketball court.

The sport is more than just a means of keeping active or staying connected with his community — it’s his go-to coping mechanism to help navigate whatever challenges may present themselves. 

So whenever he needs to clear his mind and ground himself, the 18-year-old will head to outdoor facility in syilx homelands and spend time shooting hoops. 

“Whenever I feel down or need to feel motivated, I’ll come out,” says Waardenburg Jr., who is a member of Lower Similkameen Indian Band. 

“It allows me to get away from whatever I need, to create a space for myself.”

Waardenburg Jr. was raised by a community of basketball players. His family started Syilx Basketball long before he was born — some of his earliest memories are of him watching his older brother Treyton, his older cousins and his dad play.

In addition to Treyton, his favourites included local Syilx Basketball league legends Jesse Vissia and Skye Terbasket, with his mom even gifting him a poster of the latter for Christmas one year.

“I always liked to watch and analyze more than I liked to play when I was younger. I was a little shy,” he recalled.

But Waardenburg Jr. was playing ball by the time he was five years old. Throughout his 13-year career, he’s generally played the point guard position, sometimes switching to shooting guard if needed. 

At one point, he also played competitive baseball, where his time as a pitcher taught him patience and how to keep himself calm.

“That helped me later on with basketball: being a point guard and calm on the floor, kind of leading,” he said.

Basketball has introduced him to a new world of different clubs, tournaments and communities throughout North America — he’s played with the Jr. Heat Boys Basketball Club, Okanagan Valley Elite, GW Hoops, the Similkameen Men’s team, and Syilx Basketball for both the Junior and regular All Native Basketball tournaments.

He’s also represented Team BC twice in the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) — first in 2017, where the team placed second, and this past spring, where he was the starting point guard for the team, who finished third.

In 2022, he was part of the Syilx Basketball team that won the All Native Youth Basketball Tournament, which also saw him earn the MVP award. He competed again in this year’s Junior All Native, where he was the top scorer and was named an all-star, helping his team place second.

“Basketball allowed me to stay connected, especially to culture. With the All Native and with the Junior All Native, it brings you towards different tribes and bands,” he said.

A special highlight in his career was when he played with his older brother and his younger brother on a Men’s Similkameen Basketball team that his dad coached. 

“When you’re surrounded by friends and family, and they’re playing basketball, it just makes you realize how much you’re loved,” he said.

This past August, Waardenburg Jr. was named as one of three syilx Okanagan recent high school graduates to receive a Syilx Siya Bursary Award from the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), for demonstrating “a willingness to dream big for themselves, their Nation, their community, and/or their family.”

Applicants for the bursary award were tasked with writing about overcoming a difficult moment in their lives. In his application, he wrote about losing his cousins to mental health challenges and how sports — basketball in particular — helped him cope.

“I definitely believe sports help with mental health. I’ve seen it help me through the roughest times,” said Waardenburg Jr., who graduated from Mount Boucherie Secondary School.

He said while opening up about loss was difficult, he has worked through many of the emotions involved with the grieving process. 

“My two bros that I lost, they played a lot of basketball. I grew up playing with them,” he said.

Now, he is working his way through his first-year studies at Okanagan College’s business administration program. Waardenburg Jr. said he’s keen on promoting Indigenous sports more — he said he’d like to teach and coach other Indigenous Youth someday.

Speaking from his own experience, he encouraged those struggling with mental health to try and pick up a sport because you never know who you’ll meet that may help you down the road.

“It can also just make you realize that there’s more to life,” he said.

“Honestly, it could save someone.”

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Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc celebrates grand opening of on-reserve grocery store: ‘a source of pride’




The Sweláps Market features Secwépemc language and culturally-influenced architecture. Photo by Aaron Hemens

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (TteS) is celebrating a new community-owned grocery store that’s bringing food options and employment opportunities to the reserve. 

The grand opening for the new Sweláps Market is set to take place on Thursday at 11 a.m., and will include speeches and a ceremonial ribbon cutting. It will also feature week-long deals and prize draws, giveaways and food samples. 

The Sweláps Market is located in the Chief Louis Centre, and had its soft opening on Oct. 19.

The market is owned by TteS but is open to everyone. The store displays signs in Secwepemctsín (Secwépemc language) including a welcoming of Weyt-kp above the front door. 

The language also labels each department of the store such as q̓wlem (bakery) and ts̓i7 ell swewll (meat and fish). 

On the market’s website, each department is listed with audio files to hear the proper pronunciation.

Sweláps translates to “bighorn sheep” and the logo represents the sheep’s horn among the mountains and North and South Thompson rivers.

The 22,000-square-foot grocery store incorporates culture into the architecture, including a Secwépemc weaving design on the ceiling and a wooden ladder outside which resembles the entrance of a pithouse. 

After the ladder was carved on-site by Charles Dumont, the owner of Coyote Contracting and a TteS band member, and his son Ryder — a ceremony was held to bless the log as it was put into place. 

General manager Kara Stokes spoke about the importance of having a market in the community, given that, before now, the closest grocery store was off-reserve and across the river.

The vision for a band-owned grocery store goes back ten years, Stokes recalled, with multiple locations explored before settling on the Chief Louis Centre.

Before the store’s opening, Kúkwpi7 Rosanne Casimir expressed high hopes for the store’s impact.

“This project will bring food closer to home, create employment, and further strengthen our economy,” she said in a community statement. “It will be a source of pride as leadership is fully implementing a community driven opportunity.” 

Before opening, the public was kept up to date through updates and upcoming events listed on the market’s website.

A members-only job fair was held in September to give band members a chance to explore the job opportunities before opening it up to the public.

Between full-time and part-time job openings, the market employs a total of 65 people in management and frontline positions.

Stokes explained that the job openings are a helpful addition for TteS. 

“That opens up the opportunity for a lot of people who live in the area to be able to work in the area,” she said.

Since the store opened to the public last month, Stokes said she has served customers of all ages and varying family sizes. The market is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.

“Everybody’s been coming in and shopping and it’s really amazing to see the support from the community to be able to provide this service,” she said.

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