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Secwépemc-led documentary ‘Sugarcane’ wins directing award at Sundance



Julian Brave NoiseCat, Ed Archie NoiseCat and Emily Kassie attending Doc Filmmaker Welcome Reception on day two of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Haley Nord / Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains graphic details about residential “schools” that many will find distressing or triggering. Please look after your spirit and read with care.

A Secwépemc-led documentary examining the former St. Joseph’s Mission and its ongoing impact has been recognized with an award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sugarcane had its world premiere on Jan. 20 at Sundance, where co-directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie also won the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary.

The directors were joined on stage at the premiere by Julian’s father Ed Archie NoiseCat, Williams Lake First Nation Kúkwpi7 Willie Sellars and St. Joseph’s Mission investigators Charlene Belleau and Whitney Spearing, who are all featured in the documentary. 

Sugarcane is rooted at the Sugarcane Reserve near Williams Lake, focusing on the stories of people who are affected by the notorious residential “school” that operated between 1891 to 1981. 

Notably, the documentary reveals truths about infanticides that took place at the institution — something that’s long been discussed by survivors who have spoken of an incinerator at the “school.”

The Sundance award jury called Sugarcane “an important voice for truth and healing.”

“Benefiting from sensitive cinematography, careful producing, and editing that interweaves multiple narratives, these directors helped illuminate the urgency of history and the interconnected, multi-generational crimes experienced by a community,” the jury’s citation said.

Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie wins the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary for Sugarcane by Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Stephen Lovekin / Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival

‘The decision to participate felt completely straightforward’

Co-director Kassie said she started work on the film after evidence of 215 unmarked graves was found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) in 2021.

“I just felt gut-pulled, I felt an urgency to help platform this story and make sure that people’s voices were heard,” she said in an interview with IndigiNews.

With a background in investigative journalism and filmmaking, Kassie has covered atrocities in areas such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Turkey.

“I had never turned my lens on my own country’s horrors to its first peoples,” she said.

While she was researching, Kassie found an article discussing an upcoming investigation at the St. Joseph’s Mission (SJM) on the Sugarcane reserve. The SJM was run by the Catholic order the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Along with all the “schools” in “Canada” and the “United States,” it was designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into colonial society.

In her first talk with WLFN Chief Sellars, Kassie recalled, he commended the Creator’s timing and said the council recently discussed having their investigation documented. From that point, Kassie was invited into the community.

Kassie began collaborating with NoiseCat after that talk — the two were already friends, and she knew him as an incredible storyteller, leader and historian of the Secwépemc region. NoiseCat is a member of the Tsq̓éscen̓ First Nation (Canim Lake Band).

“So for nearly three years, we lived alongside our participants, feeling the rawness of their pain and bearing witness to the bravery in their resilience, while documenting a vibrant world in a moment of historic reckoning,” the directors said in a joint statement.

With personal stories at its core, Sugarcane is groundbreaking in how it unveils a deeper layer of history within the “schools” — as the first work to document “a system of infanticide,” according to Kassie.

Eyewitness testimonies, police records, and articles from the Williams Lake Tribune all serve as evidence for this horrifying practice at SJM. 

The documentary and this focus unexpectedly hit very close to home for NoiseCat, whose father had been rescued from the “school’s” incinerator soon after he was born. Throughout the film, NoiseCat gains insight on this incident while he and his father find themselves trying to heal throughout the process. 

While NoiseCat’s story was never intended to be featured in the documentary, he explains the grace given by everyone involved and a spiritual moment with SJM investigator Belleau while in the SJM barn that led to his inclusion.

“Once we had gathered, she invoked the ancestors and the spirits of the children. She called on us, and on me specifically, to help tell this story and bring those spirits, those children, home,” he said in a statement. 

“From that moment, the decision to participate felt completely straightforward.”

Ed Archie NoiseCat and Julian Brave NoiseCat attend the world premiere of Sugarcane at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Michael Hurcomb / Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary is filmed with stunning shots of the landscape within Sugarcane and beyond, utilizing shadows and lighting to emphasize the stories.

In one scene, the sun peeks through the SJM barn walls, dimly illuminating NoiseCat and Belleau as they examine writing and carvings on the walls of the children’s names, numbers that identify them at the “school,” and countdowns until they could return home.

Through the documentary, survivors recount their first-hand experiences of a cultural genocide and of their enduring culture that they continue to pass on to their families.

Belleau, a featured member of the documentary as an Elder and investigator, experienced the St. Joseph’s Mission firsthand, as she attended for four years

In a meeting with other survivors where they are discussing the staff that they remember at the “school,” Belleau is a comforting presence when emotional stories are told.

“It’s okay to cry,” she says to the group. These words served as more than a reminder to the group but to the viewers as well.

Charlene Belleau attends the world premiere of Sugarcane by Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie. Photo by Michael Hurcomb / Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival

As a leader in the community and survivor of the residential “school,” the late Chief Rick Gilbert also has a constant presence throughout the documentary. In 2022, Gilbert attended the Pope’s first apology at the Vatican in Italy. 

During this visit he met with Louis Lougen, the superior general with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the same group who ran the St. Joseph’s Mission. The emotional encounter is met with prolonged silence from Lougen as Gilbert recounts the abuse endured at the “school.”

Along with these survivor interviews, the investigation team conducted a geophysical investigation around SJM which uses methods such as ground-penetrating radar to survey the land. Working closely with contractors and WLFN’s own archaeology company ensured cultural practices were followed throughout the investigation.

During phase one of the investigation, which was focused on the areas immediately around the “school,” 93 reflections were discovered. SJM investigator Spearing spoke on the findings from phase two which broadened the search and displayed 66 more reflections.

These reflections, “display characteristics indicative of potential human burials,” she said.

Since completing phase two, WLFN has purchased the land where SJM sits and will eventually look into possible excavation after ensuring it is safe for ceremony.

A still from the documentary. Submitted photo

Showcasing the truth behind archival footage

The 1962 CBC documentary Eyes of the Children, which was filmed at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, portrays the children as happy students who are learning from the “school” staff — this archival footage is used in the film as contrast with the real stories told by the SJM survivors. 

Kassie said the CBC documentary shows the audience how these “schools” were portrayed to society at the time, in a way that was vastly different to the actual cruelty that the children were experiencing.

“We just were floored by it and knew that if we could find a way to use it … in juxtaposition with the lived experiences of our protagonist that it could be extremely powerful,” she said.

The filming and editing grew with the stories, with NoiseCat saying the discovery of more archival footage which advertises Indigenous children to adopt showed the deeper layer of cultural genocide. 

“[The commercial] helps put a point on the fact that there really was almost like a market for, you know, adopting Indigenous children who were themselves a product of this cultural genocide and, at least at St. Joseph’s Mission, a system of infanticide,” he said.

NoiseCat explained that the documentary also included scenes from the Kamloopa powwow, which show his Kyé7e supporting his dancing, and an Elders’ dance where everyone is smiling and socializing. He said he wanted to showcase breaking the cycles of pain and intergenerational trauma that originated due to the residential “schools.”  

“We really wanted to capture that enduring spirit that exists in our Secwépemc communities and all indigenous communities, because that is ultimately bigger and greater than the harm and the evil inflicted by the residential schools,” he said.

“It’s a story about the love that persists in our families and in our community.”

Whitney Spearing, WIllie Sellars, Ed Archie, NoiseCat, Julian Brave NoiseCat, Emily Kassie, Charlene Belleau and David Archie attend the world premiere of Sugarcane at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Michael Hurcomb / Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival

NoiseCat added that Indigenous people live a family oriented lifestyle, which is “core to who we’ve always been since time immemorial.”

“And I think that it’s a really beautiful, wonderful thing,” he said.

Kassie explains how the film, shot over 150 days, created endless extra footage from their time with the community.

“We had so many incredible narratives and stories and there wasn’t room for all of them,” she said.

“So letting go of incredible material was really difficult.”

Kassie explained how the final documentary was the product of many tried iterations to immerse the audience into the community and throughout constant work with their team, they successfully brought the narratives together.

NoiseCat agreed, noting that with this being his first film, the collaboration in all aspects was a fulfilling personal and creative experience. 

“It’s just been an incredible journey with the community and our team to create something that everyone felt really spoke truth and was a rewrite of history,” Kassie said.

The post Secwépemc-led documentary ‘Sugarcane’ wins directing award at Sundance appeared first on IndigiNews.

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New Sḵwx̱wú7mesh history book is a walk through legends, lifeways and lands




Legends, histories and everyday life are documented in a new book by the Squamish Nation, assembled with many collaborators by lead writer Kwetásel’wet (Steph Wood). Photo by Cara McKenna

This story originally appeared in the Tyee and is reprinted here with permission and minor edits.

The place briefly known as Howe Sound? It’s called Átl’ḵa7tsem in the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh language, where Sínulhḵay, the two-headed serpent, once lay.

Lumbermen’s Arch at “Stanley Park”? It’s the village of X̱wáýx̱way, where people made masks from nearby cedar, before settlers came and demolished the community to build a road.

The Burrard Inlet? Until the shores were dredged and lined with industry, the beaches teemed with clams, codfish, crab and oysters. “When the tide goes out, the table is set,” people would say.

But when journalist Kwetásel’wet (Steph Wood), who is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, attended public school in “North Vancouver,” the focus of her history classes was elsewhere.

“There was an hour dedicated to residential schools,” she says. The fur trade got more time than that.

Wood, now 31, and others in her community have put together a book so that future generations — and settlers unaware of what came before — have an overview of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh culture and history.

The book is titled tiná7 cht ti temíxw (We Come from This Land) and draws from a vast array of sources: oral and written, family stories and legal documents, from within the community and colonial archives. As the lead writer for the project, Wood pored over everything from recordings of late leaders and handwritten notes on ethnobotany, to modern news clippings and podcasts.

The book, at 416 pages and illustrated with art and photos in colour, is intended to be only a “snapshot” and “a walkthrough” of all things Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, say Wood and her collaborators. Still, the book serves as an essential history and cultural overview for everyone living in the territory and beyond.

Legends, histories and everyday life

The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people have lived on the west coast of “British Columbia” for thousands of years. Their territory spans over 6,700 square kilometres and stretches from what’s colonially known as “Vancouver’s” Point Grey to Gibsons Landing to the area north of Howe Sound.

The stories are thrilling, with heroes like Xwechtáal the serpent slayer, creatures like the powerful Thunderbird and Earth-changing events like the Great Flood. These cosmogonic and etiological tales are set in local forests, mountains and waters, explaining how things came to be, such as the mountains that many settlers know as the Lions and the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh know as the Two Sisters, which comes from a story about twins.

Artist Sesémiya (Tracy Williams) explains how important that connection between land and story is: “We need a natural landscape to be able to understand those stories and to keep them alive.”

The book might be a written document, but one of the unique things about it is how it preserves elements of oral tradition. The nation respects “the plurality of our histories,” reads the introduction. “It may include a version of a story that is different from the oral history another family carries. We wanted to bring together the resources available to us, but it is not the be-all and end-all.”

The book notes when there are variations — such as differing accounts of how the first ancestors came into being, as told in different villages — something that comparative mythologists study to trace cultural development. The book also shares stories verbatim, containing personal flourishes and information, inviting the reader into these special, immediate retellings. The name of who handed a story down is always recorded.

The chapters on pre-contact Sḵwx̱wú7mesh life are just as rich as the legends, detailing traditions as seasons pass and from birth to death.

Older siblings teach toddlers about all the colourful berries they can enjoy, and to never eat them before the young ones do, a lesson in sharing and self-discipline. Fish and game caught in the summer are cured for the winter. Large longhouses, some with room for as many as 10 fires, are an example of modular architecture, easily taken apart and rebuilt at another site. They’re masters of working with cedar, crafting baby carriers and cradles, weaving the bark with wool into clothing and making caskets to lay people to rest for their passage to the spirit world.

The book becomes a painful read when the colonizers arrive. It shares important information with readers about how Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people undertook diplomacy and fought for their rights amidst genocidal injustices such as the assimilationist residential “schools.”

Challenging colonial interpretations

The chapters that follow contact will be a revelatory experience for settlers who hold on to those sanitized stories of settler-Indigenous relations they learned in grade school, with the book’s Sḵwx̱wú7mesh accounts challenging colonial interpretations of events.

The most dramatic of them is perhaps the differing accounts of contact itself.

Through other communities, news of European settlers and even their goods likely reached Sḵwx̱wú7mesh villages before white people set foot in their territory, according to the book. Calamity, such as disease or extreme weather, was believed to strike every seven years, and the arrival of the settlers was predicted to be such an event.

If you read Capt. George Vancouver’s description of his first meeting with “Indians,” he says that they “conducted themselves with the greatest decorum and civility, presenting us with several fish” and “did not seem to be hostile.”

According to knowledge that Xwechtáal, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh activist with legal training Andy Paull, heard from his father through those who came before, the “true meaning” of this welcome was to “invoke the all-powerful arrivals to have pity on them.”

“You see, there was motive behind it,” he explains. “They were expecting a calamity and were anxious to do anything to avoid it.”

It is said that the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh were also gifted rum, which they thought had gone bad because they had never encountered the spirit, along with biscuits, which they used as toys, and silver dollars, which they used as buttons.

The name of the bay where they met has since been named Xwelxwalítn, which means “white people.”

“When we read those history books in school about first contact, [they say Indigenous] peoples established little trading posts and that was that,” says Wood. “Our experience on the receiving end was often so erased or homogenized, like a broad-brush description of what happened to ‘all the Indians.’ This specificity of how we recalled contact was important.”

A more recent example of oral history concerns the founding of the mission at the Eslha7án̓ reserve in “North Vancouver,” which led it to be more widely known as the Mission reserve.

Settlers blamed Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people for the murders of two white people, and Lt.-Gov. Richard Moody threatened to wipe them out in retaliation. Chief Snat teamed up with a priest by the name of Father Leon Fouquet to petition the government to set up a mission at the reserve so that those who “wished to reject their evil ways and become civilized Christians” would be protected.

The church was built in 1868, and many Sḵwx̱wú7mesh leaders and community members became dedicated Catholics.

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh futures

As the history approaches the present, there are headlines that will be familiar to local settlers. There’s the development of the Park Royal mall, which the Vancouver Sun called poor urban planning. There’s the court battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

And among the many stories of land battles, there’s the saga of the village of Sen̓áḵw, located in today’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. The land was expropriated by the provincial government in 1913, the buildings burned and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people placed on a barge to be ferried to other communities.

The Indian Act forbade Indigenous people from hiring lawyers until 1951. This allowed the nation to launch a legal battle over the expropriation of Sen̓áḵw, an affair that carried on from the 1970s until the early 2000s, when 10.5 acres was returned to the nation, about an eighth of the original reserve lands.

The Squamish Nation is redeveloping the site of the village of Sen̓áḵw, located by the Kitsilano neighbourhood in Vancouver, into an innovative development that will offer some 3,000 homes. Image via Sen̓áḵw, courtesy of Revery Architecture, Westbank and the Squamish Nation

In 2022, the nation broke ground for a development of its own, to offer some 3,000 homes. But this new Sen̓áḵw also met its share of pushback when a local resident group took the city to court for collaborating on the project; the case was was eventually dismissed.

The courts, the book says, are an “imperfect” but “important” tool for Indigenous Peoples, though one that is ultimately “another arm of a colonial state.”

The book was finished in time for a momentous occasion. In 2023, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people celebrated the 100th anniversary of the amalgamation of their villages into the Squamish Nation. In 2024, the book was publicly published by Page Two Books.

Here’s an interview with lead writer Wood on collaborating with the nation to put tiná7 cht ti temíxw together and what the book means for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and settler readers. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Cheung: What was your experience with the stories in this book growing up?

Kwetásel’wet (Steph Wood): I was really close with my family. We spent a lot of time together but didn’t necessarily dive into this stuff. Most of it came from my granny Lucille, Kwinak’atemat-t. I remember her telling us about Sen̓áḵw. My great-great-great-grandmother Háxsten (Harriet George) was taken away on that barge.

We all kind of remember hearing this stuff, but it was more just bits and pieces. As I grew up and started to ask more questions, it would be from my aunties telling me things. [One] auntie gave me a copy of Conversations with Khahtsahlano.

[The well-known text contains transcriptions of conversations between Vancouver’s first city archivist, Maj. James Skitt Matthews, and Xats’alánexw Siyám (Chief August Jack Khahtsahlano), born in 1877.]

The book preserves the oral qualities of how stories are told, with different versions, little asides here and there, and citations of who handed them down. Why was it important to present the book this way?

The book came from the intention that [Elder] Paítsmuk (David Jacobs) set out, to share these documents that we had. Beyond that, Khelsilem [chairperson of the nation’s council] emphasized ways to acknowledge the plurality of our histories.

Each of our families holds a variety of stories, and also different versions of the same stories, and our neighbours hold their own versions of different stories. The way that history has been passed down is different for different nations and different families. So we acknowledge and respect that.

The way our people historically have referenced ‘here’s where I heard this from’ is kind of like the way that we understand references with academics. That was something we emphasized from the beginning, to frame this book the same way that our people would tell history.

When I was listening to recordings of Uncle Louie [Chief Louis Miranda], that’s exactly how he would start each one: where he got it from. He’d be like, ‘I heard this from my uncle, and he heard this from his father.’

That was super helpful when you realize you’re hearing what may be different versions of a similar story. We would try to include those in the book and say, here’s a slightly different version, here’s how this was passed down and took place in a different location.

That’s why we call the book ‘a walk’ through the history of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people. It’s not an academic voice, an omniscient voice that knows everything. We really can’t do that in a book.

The sections about daily life are so vivid. What was it like putting them together for the book?

The lifeways of our people was something that we really wanted to include for the book. I tried to write it in a way that was meditative, slow, like you’re going through the day and the seasons.

There’s tons of stuff in the archives: that salmon and steelhead eggs could be smoked dry, how we used reptiles and bugs, mentions of how our society works, for example, the flood story that talks about the importance of Indian doctors. We tried to paint life with the seasons, the day to day, the growing up. A lot of that you can still see today: the values behind these things are still very existent.

What do you do when you come across a settler source that does happen to hold information about Sḵwx̱wú7mesh history and culture? They might have interviews with prominent Sḵwx̱wú7mesh figures, despite being documented from an outsider’s point of view.

I was grappling with that a lot. Our Elder Vanessa Campbell was really helpful to me. Our people are the knowledge keepers and they chose to share some with these people. They had some agency we may not fully understand. It’s not specifically relying on this white person’s recording [of them], but treating it as another source for ourselves.

Vanessa also emphasized what our people might not have shared at the same time. There’s that one anecdote of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people literally running away with their children into the woods to keep them away from this anthropologist trying to measure their heads.

Quickly looking up that anthropologist you’re talking about, Franz Boas, it’s ironic that Wikipedia says he’s had a ‘lifelong relationship with the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest.’ And then there’s Charles Hill-Tout, another anthropologist who you call out in the book as an ‘amateur.

Yes, he was just a teacher. When you start looking into this, you realize people don’t often dive into who these [experts] were, what their practices were.

You mention that your aunt gave you a copy of Conversations with Khahtsahlano. It might have been compiled by Matthews the archivist, but it also contains interesting pushback. When Matthews asks ridiculous questions, Khahtsahlano challenges him.

I really appreciate those moments because, as a journalist, there is so much assumption laid into some of [Matthew’s] questions. Then Khahtsahlano would be like, the purpose of your question is wrong in the first place.

[In one case, James Skitt Matthews asks why Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people feast and dance at a sad occasion like a funeral. August Jack Khahtsahlano pauses for a moment, which Matthews notes as him being ‘apparently annoyed at the stupidity of the question,’ before he replies, ‘You got to pay help. Whitemans give drinks [whisky] after funeral. Indians don’t give drinks; he gives eats; something good.’]

Matthews the archivist in 1957; Khahtsahlano the Chief in 1941. Photos courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives

I think we’re all really grateful to have this resource. It’s such an incredible document for the time. But I so often think about what August Jack is choosing to share.

One of the most striking details is that [Matthews] bought two masks off August Jack.

[Catholic priests had asked Sḵwx̱wú7mesh people to destroy them, but Khahtsahlano hid three masks in his home for half a century until Matthews persuaded him to allow them to be photographed. Then Matthews asked to buy them. Khahtsahlano sold him two for $20 and $50 but refused to sell the third, saying it belonged to the people.]

I’m like, whoa, I thought [Matthews] might have been someone who really values the history, learning about how everything’s been stolen, spending all those hours to record it — and he still took those masks. It makes you think, who is this person doing the recording? What kind of extractive relationship might have been playing out? We will never know.

The Welhtima Kexwusem dance group performed during the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Days Festival on the 100th anniversary of the Squamish Nation’s amalgamation. Photo by Cara McKenna

What hopes do you have for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh young people reading this?

Having young people ask questions, that’s something I struggled with when I was younger. Even though you want to learn, you might be shy, insecure or whatever reason for not asking your Elders.

I hope that it serves as a jumping-off point to then go to your auntie or whoever and be like, ‘Did our families do this? Was this a part of us?’ So learning this history, having more questions to ask further, to go into all of the amazing sources we looked at so that they can do their own exploring and have these conversations with their families.

And for settlers?

I’m definitely hoping classrooms would pick this up.

I hope it makes them think about history differently, and the specificity of our history. This is still just a drop in the bucket. It would be amazing for them to engage with this and build a foundational knowledge of where our people come from, what they’ve been through, how hard they’ve fought to hold on to everything, on a small scale and a large scale.

From going to court, everything it took to hold on to our language — all of it.

tiná7 cht ti temíxw (We Come from This Land) was published in January by Page Two Books.

The post New Sḵwx̱wú7mesh history book is a walk through legends, lifeways and lands appeared first on IndigiNews.

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In the Okanagan, syilx leaders are racing to protect a crucial wildlife corridor




Dixon Terbasket, a syilx Okanagan wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, stands outside of a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia on Dec. 7, 2023. Terbasket and other conservation experts are concerned the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and IndigiNews.

Just below the fog line hanging over the central Okanagan Valley, rows of saplings for a cherry orchard expansion span the eastern stretch above Highway 33 on the outskirts of kiʔlawnaʔ (Kelowna) in the heart of wine country.

New cherry varieties and climate change in “British Columbia’s” interior have enabled the fruit to grow at higher than usual elevations. Soon, this grassland terrain surrounded by mountains of ponderosa pine will be full of rows of cherry trees along a sloping hill above this city of about 145,000.

On a recent morning, Dixon Terbasket of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band arrived at the gate of a 10-foot (3 meter) high fence built last year. He gestures at a private property sign hanging from the fence on his ancestral homeland — a barrier to keep a soon-to-be-blossoming orchard free from mule deer and elk that once traversed this patch of land.

Dixon Terbasket, a syilx Okanagan wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, examines a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 6, 2023. Terbasket and other conservation experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor that is under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“The amount of development that’s happening so quickly and rapidly … the urban sprawl is moving out into the wilderness part of it,” said Terbasket, a wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

The syilx Okanagan are Indigenous people who have inhabited the Okanagan Valley in the interior of “B.C.” for thousands of years. Their governing body, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, represents eight member communities, including the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.

The orchard expansion is approximately one-third of a mile (.6 kilometers) away from a wildlife corridor that acts as a crucial link for at-risk species moving through the region’s natural areas, from south of the border in “Washington” state into the province’s dry interior.

While not immediately infiltrating the corridor, this new orchard has heightened concerns development is bleeding farther into the valley’s natural territory. Terbasket and other experts worry man-made barriers are already hurting the corridor’s habitat connectivity, further threatening at-risk species and jeopardizing the area’s biodiversity.

A fence surrounding a cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, is damaged by animal struggle on Dec. 7, 2023. Experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“Animals have to move through landscapes to meet their life history demands,” said Adam Ford, an associate professor in the department of biology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan and the Canada Research Chair in Wildlife Restoration Ecology.

“So much of the land has already been degraded,” Ford said. “We’re hanging on to the last green ribbons around our highly developed landscapes, and that’s especially true in the Okanagan where we have so much pressure from urbanization and agriculture.”

Urban development in the Black Mountain community is visible in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 12, 2024. The community is near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Home to more than 180 licensed grape wineries and known as “the wine capital of Canada,” the Okanagan Valley is also nationally renowned for fruit orchards that produce apples, peaches and cherries.

According to provincial documents, the cherry orchard expansion — approximately 343 acres (139 hectares) — is on land owned by G.P. Sandher Holdings Ltd., which represents Sandher Fruit Packers, a local family-owned business.

The Summerhill Pyramid Winery is visible in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 12, 2024, with Okanagan Lake in the background. Home to more than 180 licensed grape wineries and known as “the wine capital of Canada,” the Okanagan Valley is also nationally renowned for fruit orchards that produce apples, peaches and cherries. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

While parts of the corridor are in Kelowna’s eastern city limits, this orchard parcel falls within the Regional District of Central Okanagan. A significant portion of the corridor — including this parcel —  is within B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve, where farming is allowed under the provincial Right to Farm Act.

“The conflict you’re going to find is between the right to farm in agricultural land, and the protection of this corridor,” said Dean Strachan, manager of community planning and development for the City of Kelowna.

“The cherry orchard, under the Agricultural Land Commission’s permits, have the ability to build high fences to protect their orchards from deer. But not only deer are restricted from the land, as a result.”

Sandher Fruit Packers declined to comment.

A fruit orchard owned by Sandher Fruit Packers sits in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 8, 2024. The fruit growing company is developing an orchard near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Kelowna is one of “Canada’s” fastest growing cities, increasing from 127,380 residents in 2016 to 144,576 in 2021, according to the city. Recognizing the population growth, its 2040 official community plan — adopted in 2022 — calls for slowing down urban sprawl to protect agricultural lands and ecologically sensitive areas.

Ribboning around Kelowna between two provincial parks — the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park —  the wildlife corridor is about 40 miles (64 kilometers) long and six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) wide.

It’s traveled by wildlife such as elk, moose, mule deer, white tailed deer and badgers — and grizzly bears have been spotted. The corridor is home to other animals and berries, plants and medicines used by First Nations peoples.

A deer is visible near the Joe Rich community on Jan. 31, 2024, which is located just outside of Kelowna, British Columbia. The community is in close proximity to a cherry orchard expansion site near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“For the grasslands all the way into the interior of B.C., this is a major pinch point,” said Scott Boswell of Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, the organization spearheading a protection plan for the corridor along with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

“This is a top range of this ecosystem,” Boswell said.

The corridor was identified as a place needing protection because of its unique ecosystem. Though outside its boundaries, the corridor runs adjacent to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a cross-border partnership dedicated to protecting habitats along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

The Kelowna corridor is more closely located to the Sagelands Heritage Program’s cross-border conservation effort dedicated to shrub-steppe landscapes in the Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington.

A vehicle moves down a roar at the Joe Rich community located outside of Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 7, 2023. The community is in close proximity to a cherry orchard expansion site near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“Ecosystems — if we want them to be healthy and resilient at the very highest level — they need to be connected,” said Sarah Hechtenthal, an ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada and lead scientist with its National Program for Ecological Corridors.

The Kelowna area and surrounding Okanagan Valley were identified by Parks Canada as one of 23 priority areas in the country with a “significant need for connectivity conservation.”

A group of urban deer rest in a residential neighborhood in downtown Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 13, 2024. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Hechtenthal noted the area has more rare threatened and endangered species than anywhere else in the province. This includes badgers, burrowing owls, western rattlesnakes and dozens of others.

“The priority areas in this region are really under intense anthropogenic development pressure, and are being fragmented; degraded; lost to agriculture development, resource extraction and urban sprawl,” she said.

Construction machinery work within a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 7, 2023. Experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

The orchard site is just outside Kelowna on land owned by the Regional District of Central Okanagan. The agency said residents and neighboring communities raised concerns regarding soil movement, drainage and noise in the past. Another agency, the provincial Ministry of Forests, said it was investigating whether the orchard project piped water from an unpermitted source, but declined further comment.  

While the current orchard expansion is outside the wildlife corridor, Brittany Nichols, the regional agency’s manager of development services, said Sandher “retains ownership of additional land extending into portions” of the corridor. She said an environmental assessment in the orchard’s development permit proposal outlines the company’s commitment to “environmental monitoring.”

Fruit crates owned by Sandher Fruit Packers sit stacked at its headquarters in Kelowna, British Columbia, on Feb. 8, 2024. The fruit growing company is developing an orchard near a key wildlife corridor that ribbons around the Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park and Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

Feeling pressure of human development on wildlife, the corridor’s health and connectivity, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program and their partners put together a Wildlife Corridor Action Plan finalized last year.

Fifteen actions — informed by tribal hunters and knowledge keepers — in the five-year plan are centered around their laws, principles and protocols. The plan is still in infancy, and Boswell said groups involved are looking to get funding from the province and foundations.

Dixon Terbasket, a syilx Okanagan wildlife technician with the Okanagan Nation Alliance from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, drives by a fenced-off cherry orchard expansion site near Kelowna, British Columbia, on Dec. 7, 2023. Terbasket and other conservation experts are concerned that the cherry orchard’s expansion is impacting the mobility of animals that use a nearby wildlife corridor in an area under threat from urban sprawl and other development. Aaron Hemens/IndigiNews via AP

“We’re not just talking about moose, we’re talking about a whole ecological system that filters our water, filters our air, that provides pollinators for all of our agriculture,” he said.

“It’s a bigger picture than just one species.”

The post In the Okanagan, syilx leaders are racing to protect a crucial wildlife corridor appeared first on IndigiNews.

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Thanks to the Washington Post, I found my ancestor’s remains at the Smithsonian




The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in “Washington.” Photo by John Brighenti

Content warning: This story contains explicit details regarding the remains of Indigenous people that may be upsetting. Please read with care for your spirit. 

It started with an email. When I opened it, I was sitting in the living room of my family’s acreage on Treaty 6 territory, utterly unaware of the journey I was about to embark upon. The contents of this email would set things in motion, things I could not have anticipated. We can never know such things in advance, can we? 

It was Christmas Eve in “Saskatchewan,” and I was enjoying a few lazy days before the new year. The email was from Andrew Tran, a data reporter at the Washington Post. He contacted me to inform me about the Post’s searchable human remains database held by the Smithsonian Institution, America’s esteemed national museum and the largest one in the world. 

“I see that your publication writes about Cree and other Indigenous news and thought you might be interested in going through the database that we just published,” he wrote.

I clicked the link, casually reading the story that contained the searchable database. I found it odd that the Post used the word “Cree” as an example of a search term one could use in the database because in the eleven years I spent in living in the “United States,” very few people I met had ever heard of the Cree. Aside from the Rocky Boy Reservation in “Montana,” most Crees live in “Canada.” I wondered if Cree people were at The Smithsonian Institution and if that was why “Cree” was a suggested search term.

It wasn’t until later that night when I was in bed and struggling to fall asleep, that I searched the database. While my husband slept, I scrolled down the website page until I found the little box that said, “Search the table.” First, I typed in Fine Day, one of my great-great-grandfathers, and nothing came up. Then, I typed in “Little Poplar” my other great-great-grandfather — and instantly got a hit. I hadn’t been expecting to actually find anything, and I flinched in the dark as though from a jump scare. 

His name was ka-mîtosis, or Little Poplar. He was the grandfather of my grandfather, Alphonse Little Poplar. ka-mîtosis was a member of the warrior society in Chief Sweetgrass’s band of Plains Cree around the time of the Riel Rebellion. A war chief, some folks call him. 

War chiefs, sometimes referred to as “sub-chiefs,” were not actually chiefs of the band but would be in charge in times of war (My other great-great-grandfather kamiokisihkwew, or Fine Day, was also a war chief). 

I lay there in the dark, staring at Little Poplar’s name in the glow of my phone screen. 

My husband, who is a light sleeper, asked, “What is it?”

“They have my ancestor’s remains at the Smithsonian,” I said, but he was already drifting off again. 

I clicked the link to the first page of the accession file (out of sensitivity, the Washington Post limits each file on its site to the first page. To see the rest of the document, you must contact the Smithsonian). Time stood still as I read what appeared.

“1 Box. Skull of ‘Little Poplar,’ Cree Indian Sub Chief from Canada” was written in faint but large, loopy cursive. It was an image of an accession Card, the document the Smithsonian filled out when receiving a donation of human remains. I scrutinized every inch of it. It looked like it had been sent from Fort Assiniboine, Montana, by Dr. C.E. Woodruff on October 2, 1894. 

At that time, in the 1880s, our people travelled freely across the U.S.-Canada border. They were there before the border was invented. Before colonization and the creation of “Canada” and the “United States,” Montana was just as much our homeland as “Saskatchewan.” When the Riel Rebellion broke out in “Canada,” some Plains Cree bands travelled south across the border to avoid persecution. Both of my great-great grandfathers did this, which is why I have some relatives on the Rocky Boy Reservation. 

The facts sat like stones in my guts. I tossed and turned in the dark, thinking about how my great-great-grandfather’s skull was in the Smithsonian. It seemed too bizarre to be true. How could my family member be in some institution’s box on a shelf? I felt sick. I regretted having opened up the email earlier that day. I shouldn’t have searched the database right before sleeping, either. I turned off my phone, closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

But for a long time, I lay in bed, in a state of shock. 

In an eerie coincidence, I had just started reading Warrior Girl Unearthed by Angeline Boulley just that morning. This novel is about the human remains of Indigenous people in American institutions. The protagonist, a young Anishinaabe woman named Perry Firekeeper-Birch, discovers that the local college has her ancestors in boxes and resolves to get them returned.

I reflected on the parallels between the protagonist in the novel I was reading and my own life. Like Perry Firekeeper-Birch, I couldn’t understand the depravity that would lead to storing my ancestor’s body parts in a museum. I felt violated somehow. How could something as personal as the remains of a loved one be treated with such disrespect?

‘All manner of deviltry’

The next day, I awoke with a ball of anxiety in my stomach. It was Christmas, and my kids were excited about their presents, but I found it challenging to be in the moment and enjoy the morning. That pit remained in my stomach for the entirety of the day. Finally, I responded to Mr. Tran’s email to let him know I had found an ancestor in the Post’s database. 

“I have seen the documents that mention ‘Little Poplar’ in accession file 028559,” he wrote, “and I have to warn you, the correspondence from the donor is quite horrifying.”

He was not wrong. The dehumanization of Indigenous people — and so many others in the world — is horrifying. I was grateful for Mr. Tran’s warning. He was able to send me the rest of the documents in the file, which meant I could skip the step of having to contact the Smithsonian myself. Still, I was unprepared for what I read. Like someone recounting a trauma, I found myself laughing at the egregious wording of the letter. But it wasn’t actually funny — dissociation and deflection are common reactions to traumatic incidents. 

“I send you by express for the Smithsonian an Indian skull and I think you have none like it, and it may be of value to your section,” wrote the donor, Charles Woodruff, to the curator of the Smithsonian in 1886. 

“It is the skull of Little Poplar,” he continued, “a Cree sub-chief from Canada. He took advantage of the Riel rebellion to attack settlers, robbing, stealing, violating women, torturing victims and doing all forms of deviltry.”

It was the “all manner of deviltry” bit that made me laugh out loud.

Coming from the pen of a man who had just dug up my great-great-grandfather’s grave, this seems almost like a compliment. 

Dr. Woodruff’s letter continues, stating that my ancestor had a bounty on his head of $2,000.

“In Aug. 1886 he was murdered right here in this post by a half breed,” writes Woodruff, referring to Fort Assiniboine, Montana, a U.S. military fort at the time. 

He details how a soldier had “watched the grave for several years and when the flesh was all off he took the skull out and kept it as a relic.” 

After that, he writes how he went to the grave with the soldier to collect “a few odds and ends” from my great-great mosôm’s grave. 

My mind was reeling. It was all too much. There was a bounty on his head? I never knew any of this history of my family. What an incredible story. What a horrifying turn of events. 

I knew I had to talk to my family about it, but I feared it would upset them. It turns out I needn’t have worried. When I asked my aunty about it, she was nonplussed. “We knew he was in some museum somewhere,” she told me. “I also heard they have the clothes he was shot in.” 

Hearing my aunty’s words reminded me of the knowledge we still hold in our families. We have an oral tradition, which is a legitimate form of knowledge-keeping. Our relatives have safeguarded the histories of our people for hundreds of years. I’m humbled when I consider the knowledge held by my family members. I’m so grateful they protected such important information about who I am — my lineage. 

I have inherited more than intergenerational trauma. I have been given stories passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. That’s why my aunty knows about our ancestor who died in 1894. That’s how I found out he was shot.

I didn’t know these things about my family as a child — I learned them later, as a teenager and adult, after reconnecting with my family on the Sweetgrass First Nation in so-called Saskatchewan at the age of 14. Over the years, after spending time there visiting with family, I had the opportunity to hear our family history the way it was meant to be told — through oral transmission. I found it overwhelming that my ancestry was so well-regarded. Could I ever live up to that? I was just a short, poor, lost young woman who didn’t really know who she was or what she was doing in her life.

“We’re literally Indian princesses,” my cousin Irene said to me a few years ago. I laughed. I know she was being sarcastic, but I understand what she was referring to: the respected positions that my great-great-grandfathers held in their communities. It is an honour to be related to them. And, of course, the same applies to my great-grandmothers — who I know less about because of how the the archivists of the day favoured men and left women out of many records. It would be remiss not to mention them. I wish I had the opportunity to learn about them as well.

Not just a right, but a responsibility

The next person I called was my dad. I was excited to tell him what I had learned and wanted his advice about whether I should try to arrange a visit to the Smithsonian. In some ways, I needed my family’s permission to proceed with this endeavour because they were closer lineal descendants than I was. More importantly, they were my Elders and knew more than I did.

“You see, Little Poplar was affiliated with Âyimisîs,” my dad told me on that call. 

“And Âyimisîs was the son of Big Bear. So, they were the northern branch of Treaty Six Cree. And Âyimisîs was the head of the warrior society there, and Little Poplar was his cohort.”

When I told him I would be in New York at the end of February and, therefore, close to “Washington,” I mentioned that I was considering contacting the Smithsonian about visiting the remains. I wondered aloud whether I had the right to do so.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said, “It’s not just a right, but a responsibility.” 

His words were revelatory to me. I had never considered my visiting Little Poplar’s remains a responsibility, but as soon as he spoke those words, I felt it. There is still so much for me to learn.

“Those bones need ceremony,” he said, “and ceremony isn’t going to do itself.”

I discussed the rest of Woodruff’s letter and asked, “Why would he take the soles of Little Poplar’s moccasins?” Woodruff had mentioned that the soles of Little Poplar’s moccasins were one of the “odds and ends” he had taken from the grave.

“Well,” my dad said, “funeral moccasins would have had beaded soles.” 

Ah, right. That made sense. Since the person won’t be walking on them, the soles could be decorated too. 

Long after his death, my ancestor continues to teach me about my culture.

Visiting the museum

I was nervous when I emailed the Smithsonian. Although I had been told by the reporters at the Washington Post that lineal descendants receive the highest priority concerning human remains at the Smithsonian, I still felt like an imposter as I composed my email. I worried I wasn’t in close enough relation. Was I really the appropriate person to be making this request? Should someone else in the family be doing this, someone more used to representing the family in this type of situation?

But it was me who was going to be close to “Washington” and could potentially visit. It was me the Washington Post had reached out to. And I was just as qualified as anyone in my family to visit this relative. I tried to let go of my doubts. 

In the email, I laid out my case with my usual candour. I explained who I was and my relationship with Little Poplar. I wrote of the obligation I had to bring medicines to this relative and say prayers. I asked if I could have access to him.

I assumed the Smithsonian Institution would be a bureaucratic nightmare to try and navigate. I didn’t know if they would respond or, if they did, how long it would take. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found large institutions daunting to deal with. The bureaucratic processes that came with colonization have been alienating to a lot of Indigenous people. We’ve had to get used to the fact that the words we speak are basically meaningless without a piece of paper to back it up — a paper that comes from the very government that destroyed our way of life in the first place.

Imagine my surprise when, the next morning, my phone rang. The name that flashed on my phone was Dorothy Lippert, the Smithsonian’s repatriation program manager.

My heart raced when I answered the call, but Ms. Lippert was gracious and kind. She seemed to be just as excited to be talking to me as I was to be speaking with her. She told me the Smithsonian would accommodate my desire to visit with my relative. And more than that — they would pay for my transportation there and put me in a hotel while I was in the city. After all of my agonizing, it was so simple and easy.

So, I will be heading to the Smithsonian in March. I never imagined being in a position to say these words, but here we are. I look forward to being a good relative and honouring my mosôm. I give thanks to the Grandmothers and Grandfathers for putting me in this position as I set out on this sacred journey. I will bring him gifts of medicine, pray for him and give thanks for the gift he gave me — my family. After all, like my dad said, those bones need ceremony, and ceremony isn’t going to do itself.

The post Thanks to the Washington Post, I found my ancestor’s remains at the Smithsonian appeared first on IndigiNews.

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