A journey to B.C.’s sage lands

In 2019, RAVEN travelled to Secwepemc territory to begin filming a documentary. Then: covid hit. After a two-year pause, we’re back on the land near Kamloops, B.C. to pick up the thread of story. We’re working in collaboration with a group of local youth, together with Indigenous film mentors from media educators InPath. 

Intended as a way to communicate the promise of the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Title case, the project is part of a community-wide effort to restore Indigenous sovereignty to the original stewards of these lands and waters. Learn about their case here.

For the next three weeks we will be sharing snapshots from the ‘set’: come along on RAVEN’s journey into the heart of Secwepemculecw.

On Day 1, we’re  invited to the Skeetchestn Community School’s weekly opening circle. Joining dozens of youngsters, we sit cross-legged on the gym floor as elder Terry DeNault leads a prayer by lighting a bowl of sage.

Stepping lightly around the circle, a little boy smudges each person in turn, bathing them in sweetly fragrant sage smoke. His teacher and fellow students alike take it in turn to be brushed from head to toe with an eagle feather. There’s something incredibly tender about how this little kid stands on tiptoe to smudge his teachers’ shoulders; occasionally, he trots back to the elder, who rekindles the spark and blows on the embers, renewing the prayer. 

This circle is a beautiful illustration of Kweseltken, a foundational Secwepemc law that holds that everything that exists — trees, mountains, streams, animals, and people — is inter-related. Under Secwepemc law, all of our fellow creatures and the land itself must be treated with the same respect and care we would show a brother or a sister. 

Following the sage ceremony,  kids pass a talking stick around the circle. Some simply say, “all my relations”, or, “have a good week.” Others tell boisterous stories about their lives:  they talk about playing soccer, helping their parents in the yard, losing a tooth. But they also talk about going night-fishing for Kokanee salmon, smoking trout in their yards,  and how glad they are that the creeks are full after last year’s drought. 

“I wish I’d gotten to do that when I was a kid,” says Talon Billy. He’s one of the young filmmakers who, after years away, is returning to his Secwepemc home to work with RAVEN on this film. “My mom went to residential school, and now: this is just beautiful.”

It’s hard to believe that this community was on the brink of disaster just a year ago. When wildfires tore through Kamloops in 2021, the fires came within a few hundred metres of Skeetchestn. One in five people from this town of 350 people  joined forces to fight the fires, protecting not only their communities but the surrounding area too. 

Mountainsides dotted with blackened pines tell the story of those fire-seared yesterdays.  Where fires moved through, conifers stand scorched and brown. Yet: Today, we walk through velvet hills verdant with spring’s green. Wrinkled morel mushrooms rise from the ashes as if to say, “if all you see here is destruction: think again.”

Witnessing how the community educates and cares for its children is one thing: hanging out with the breathtakingly committed and brilliant youth who grew up here is another.  What if the care we are seeing here was extended to the land itself? What if those values – rooted in Kweseltken – were the ones through which we made decisions about how to treat the forest, the rivers, and the animals? 

Over this past year, the country has reckoned with the discovery of 215 unmarked graves found at the notorious residential school in nearby Kamloops. What the filmmaking team urgently want to convey —  alongside the horrific traumas of colonisation —  is the depth and power of the cultural teachings that still have the power to sustain and to heal. 

By framing the documentary as a story of discovery, for the next 3 weeks RAVEN will follow Autymn Plante, a young artist who is learning about the Title case and what it could mean not only to her people, but to everyone who depends on an ecosystem in balance. 

That’s the promise of Secwepemc’s title case, and that’s why RAVEN is stepping up to fundraise to sustain a challenge that – though costly – stands to benefit everyone who cares about wild salmon, healthy communities, and honouring good relationships with all living things. Please donate to help be part of a different story here in Stk’emlups te Secwepemc territory: one that will be written on the land and in the waters for generations to come.

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