When I was a child, as soon as I could walk, my dad began taking me out onto the land to hike, hunt and gather.
There are pictures of me as a toddler with my family learning how to pick huckleberries on a mountainside. I remember at a young age being told what we could take — and what not to take — from the land.
My dad was always clear about warning me which plants were dangerous or poisonous along with teaching me which plants were edible or used ceremonially.
He showed me different insects and plants that could catch on my clothes, and how, if I wasn’t careful, they could be mistakenly brought back home with us. That was how I first learned about invasive species.
Burdock burrs pictured near kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake). Photo by Sage Flett Kruger
From the Okanagan where fields of sp̓iƛ̓əm (bitterroot) grow, to the oceans where coastal nations harvest seaweed, all the way to the prairies where sweetgrass is collected, we can see how our ways of life are being impacted by invasive plant species.
This goes back to when settlers first arrived here with cattle that would have burdock — or Russian thistle — stuck to their fur or hooves. Any farm animals from other continents can be carriers of plants or insect species.
Birds inadvertently spread seeds of Russian olive trees, as the seeds can be ingested and expelled while still remaining viable. This type of plant spread is natural and can be a positive thing, if the plant is natural to the ecosystem — but not if the plant is native to somewhere else.
As a child, I recall burdock burrs getting stuck onto my pants and my dad picking them off and telling me: “Daughter, if you keep walking with seeds on your clothes, it could spread weeds when they would drop off somewhere else.”
There were a variety of invasive plant species that were spreading through our territory and I was taught to be mindful of that.
I am Okanagan and Secwepemc on my father’s side, and Swampy Cree and Métis on my mother’s. I was raised in the Okanagan Nation territory with my people’s cultures and traditions.
Our Okanagan origin story, our captikʷł, has deep meaning about our roles and responsibilities to the land, water and animals. We are stewards of Mother Earth: we take care of her and she takes care of us.
My little sister and I picking Indian tea on a school field trip.
My dad’s teachings about invasive plants continued as I got older — I recall riding in the truck bed with my cousins for a day trip up the mountain to harvest our foods and medicine and ceremony plants, like sp̓iƛ̓əm (bitterroot), Indian tea or sage.
If we saw fields of gumweed or Russian stinging nettle, my dad would use this as a time to teach us what happens when an invasive plant species takes over.
“They take the land where our native species were natural to and the noxious weeds over-populate and push out our native species,” my dad tells me now.
“Because they aren’t natural to the land, the ecosystem doesn’t have natural predators or systems to moderate their growth.”
How invasives impact harvesting
Recently I was talking to Ryan Fowler, a field technician from the Penticton Indian Band (PIB) Natural Resources Department, about the challenges of invasive plants when it comes to traditional harvesting.
Patches of noxious weeds and other invasive plants taking over poses a problem for many Indigenous people trying to gather medicines from the land, he explained.
“For one thing ‘invasives’ generally start invading from roads and trails, overtaking the native species,” Fowler told me.
“This creates physical barriers for the community’s eldest and the youngest harvesters and community members with mobility challenges.
“It limits their access to the harvesting sites. This also impedes the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation and overall makes harvesting take more effort, time and energy for any community member.”
A Russian olive tree pictured near kɬúsx̌nítkʷ (Okanagan Lake). Photo by Sage Flett Kruger
The evolution of these noxious weeds has been centuries in the making for what we see here today in “Canada” — from the lands to the water and every ecosystem in-between.
And it’s not just invasive plants, but other species, too. In the Okanagan, salmon now have to compete for territory, food and nutrients — fighting against Mysis shrimp, bass and carp, to name a few. For example, carp can mate up to four times a year and will eat salmon eggs as a food source.
The ripple effect
In 2021, I started working for my band, PIB, as a forestry technician. I was a part of a crew that was tasked with pulling invasive weeds and replanting native species.
We were put on restoration programs to help our lands to build these ecosystems back to how they would have been seen pre-settler interaction.
This work taught me so much — like how something so small, like a little seed, can affect an entire field. This is something that can be overlooked in today’s world.
Something like gumweed or sulphur cinquefoil can overtake a field where milkweed would otherwise grow. If milkweed can’t grow there, it affects a host of other species, such as Monarch butterflies, which only lay eggs on milkweed. Their larvae (caterpillars) won’t eat any other plant.
The milkweed also contains a poisonous substance that helps Monarch caterpillars deter predators. So without it, it becomes difficult for them to survive.
A milkweed plant. Photo by Sage Flett Kruger
While invasive plants pose a problem — many of our communities are actively working to find solutions.
Many First Nations have forestry and natural resources departments, which often employ or work with biologists, guardianship programs or stewardship programs to help stop the spread of noxious weeds.
Another example of this is fishing the bass out of the lake and leaving it for bears or coyotes.
Fowler told me that his work at PIB has included removing invasive weeds and transporting them in a sealed container to the landfill to be buried.
“In a season, our team removes thousands of pounds of invasive plants,” he said.
sp̓iƛ̓əm (Bitterroot). Photo by Sage Flett Kruger
Learning about these invasive plant species is a step forward in understanding how to prevent these species from spreading. Fowler reiterated the same knowledge I’ve learned from my dad, which is that, when harvesting, we must take the initiative to inspect our clothing for any seeds or pieces of vegetation — and dispose of any invasive plants or seeds properly.
In Penticton, the landfill takes invasive plants for free, and buries them where they won’t germinate and spread.
In addition to regional parks, there are also organizations such as the Invasive Species Council of BC, which offers free online workshops. The Invasive Species Council of BC has declared this month, May, as Invasive Species Action Month — which makes it an ideal time to talk about how invasives impact us and how we can protect native plants and animals.
As Indigenous peoples, we are the ones to continue our traditions of harvesting and gathering, so it is our responsibility to continue these traditions mindfully to lessen the impact of these invasive plant species and repair the damage already done.
My nation, the Okanagan Nation, exercised our stewardship rights, by creating policies to protect lands where our natural medicines grow.
Gathering wild rose, petals and rose hips. Photo by Sage Flett Kruger
These small steps can make an impact that helps even the smallest of creatures. It goes a long way in the way of living before this land was changed and altered.
It is important to help these lands of ours as we continue to gather our traditional medicines and foods, for the generations to come.
“I think raising awareness at a community level has been on the rise and is a fundamental key to getting invasive plants species under control,” Fowler added.
“The more community members that are aware of the problem, the more we can chip away at it.”
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In photos: Indigenous children and Youth take the spotlight at VIFW 2023
The future looked bright for the next generation at this year’s Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week (VIFW), as children and Youth showcased their talents in modelling and design.
The event took place at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre over four nights last week — each with a different theme. VIFW is an annual event that began in 2017 as a way to promote and celebrate Indigenous fashion, arts and culture.
The third night on Nov. 22 had a theme of Indigenous Futures. After a territorial welcome, the lights dimmed and music vibrated the walls of the venue as Indigenous Youth from the Girls Who LEAP (Lead to Empower and Act with Purpose) program walked in their power on the runway.
As part of a mentorship program with VIFW, each girl designed and created their own shawl to showcase — embodying their hopes, dreams, and respective cultures. Their work was paired with the work of Nisg̱a’a designer Kevin Gosnell Designs.
Girls Who LEAP is a non-profit in “Vancouver” that provides leadership opportunities for Youth in the Downtown Eastside and Grandview Woodlands communities – both of which have a high population of urban Indigenous People. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Partnering with Indigenous models from Supernaturals Modelling, the Youth smiled, held back tears, and waved to their friends in the audience. Family members cheered for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
For Kailani, a Youth who participated in the LEAP program, being mentored to create a shawl for VIFW was a dream come true, and a way to honour her family and culture.
Kailani says she wanted to honour her name, which means sea and sky in Hawaiian, as the inspiration for her design. “I created a blue sun with red, yellow, orange and purple arrows mimicking the course of the sunset. The blue sun represents the meeting point of the sea and the sky,” says Kailani. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“I grew up seeing my aunt dance in her beautiful regalia,” said Kailani.
“My aunt Rebecca influences me especially because many designs are based around powwow culture.”
Kailani’s aunt is Kwakiutł, Dzawada’enuxw and Skwxwú7mesh designer Rebecca Baker-Grenier, who also showcased her clothing designs during VIFW. Another aunt of Kailani’s, Himalkas Pam Baker, also showcased her fashions.
Girls Who LEAP models show off their shawls on the runway. Photo by Aaron Hemens
The founder and artistic director of VIFW, Joleen Mitton, was in the audience, dancing and cheering for the Youth and their creations.
Her work in creating VIFW was recently featured in the short film Ancestral Threads, which premiered at HotDocs in 2023.
The behind the scenes look at how VIFW began, and all of the work that goes into curating a show, and the people Mitton has brought along with her.
The former international model, who is Cree, has deep roots in “Vancouver” mentoring Indigenous Youth. For Mitton, she credits her kokum for inspiring her to serve the community.
Joleen Mitton (front), the founder of VIFW, poses on the runway during the Girls Who LEAP finale. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Opening the show, Mitton wore a jumpsuit with the slogan “the future is Indigenous” on the back before changing looks later in the night.
“You’ve got to appreciate the outfit,” she said. “This was made by the Youth. They are our future.”
Angela Howe-Parrish of Choke Cherry Creek, who is Apsaalooke (Crow) and Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet), shared her new Apsáalooke Collection, which featured vibrant colours, geometric patterns and Elk tooth prints. Photo by Aaron Hemens
Owen Unruh, a Two-Spirit Cree model, dancer and content creator, in Choke Cherry Creek Designs. Photo by Aaron Hemens
During a showcase for the Heiltsuk-owned streetwear brand HSTRYMKRS, models wearing jerseys, cargos and statement-making jewelry by Copper Canoe Woman danced to hip hop music and hyped up the crowd as they walked the runway, prompting loud cheers.
Fashion Brand HSTRYMKRS shared spray paint designs that read “Young Matriarch” and “The Youth are the Future.” Photo by Aaron Hemens
The cheers became louder as a model wearing a graffiti-painted gown emblazoned with the words “The Youth are Sacred” and “The Youth are the Future” walked out with three children who wore shirts with the slogans “Youth Matriarch.”
A model with HSTRYMKRS poses on the runway in front of cheerful audience members. Photo by Aaron Hemens
“How many more times am I going to cry tonight?” said the event’s host Kiefer Collison, after the showcase was over. “That was absolutely beautiful.”
A spectator raises their fist in the air in solidarity with HSTRYMKRS models. Photo by Aaron Hemens
The themes for the other nights of VIFW were the opening Red Dress Event, All My Relations and Spirit of the West Coast.
“My people, you are so beautiful and so strong,” said Rueben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who gave a territorial welcome with his children Cedar and Kayah.
“This is a celebration, because how we look is to the future.”
The show was opened by Rueben George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (TWN) and his children Cedar and Kayah. “We’re taking it back,” says George. “This is a presentation of our future, of who we are.” Photo by Aaron Hemens
With files from Aaron Hemens and Cara McKenna
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SD67 career fair connects Indigenous students with professional mentors
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
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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