Listening to the Future: elevating Indigenous youth voices

Written by Julia Bendtsen

On September 20, 2023, Salt Spring Island was treated to a magical evening. After a powerful set by the multi-talented HK aka Higher Knowledge — an advocate, rapper, and spoken word artist, whose Indigenous roots trace back to Kuskatan (El Salvador) and Collasayu (Chile) — Tia took to the stage and raised the roof. 

Wood is a talented singer-songwriter hailing from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. A child of a musical family who toured as the band Northern Cree, Tia’s commanding voice filled the brimming Fulford Hall. She shared medicine songs from her relatives and ancestors woven together with self-penned anthems to “Dirt Roads”, “Indian Boy” and the tongue-in-cheek “I Wish You Were Gay”. When her mother, a famed singer and dancer Cynthia Jim-Wood, joined her for a duet, there were tears, applause, and finally a standing ovation. It was a deeply moving experience for everyone fortunate enough to be in attendance. 

Maiya Modeste – a Quw’utsun (Cowichan) youth and the P’hwulhp (Garry Oak) Restoration Project Coordinator at Stqeeye’ Learning Society – opened the night. She welcomed everyone to her traditional territory, shed light on Stqeeye’s impactful work on the island, and presented gifts to the evening’s artists. .

Thank you to everyone who joined us to immerse ourselves in the enchantment of Tia Wood and HK’s performances, explore the profound sense of unity and connection they cultivated throughout the show, and delve into the unwavering dedication and importance of Stqeeye’s work to reconnect Indigenous youth and Elders with their land and culture.

Maiya Modeste welcomed the crowd alongside Tyee, Tony, Rachel, Michaela (the Stqeeye’ team). 

Photo by Andrea Palframan.
Maiya Modeste welcomed the crowd alongside Tyee, Tony, Rachel, Michaela (the Stqeeye’ team). 
Photo by Andrea Palframan.

I had the honour of sitting down with Maiya, during which she generously shared her experiences from the concert. She also shed light on her involvement with Stqeeye’ at Xwaaqw’um (Burgoyne Park Provincial Park), with a particular focus on their recently launched Mi tse’ t’awk (Coming Home) campaign. This campaign aims to acquire land to bring Elders back to live on their traditional territory for the first time in 150 years. 

Hi Maiya! Could you please introduce yourself?

Uy’ skweyul siiem nu sye’yu tl’i-i-im tsun ‘o’ ts’iiyulhna’mut, ‘u tun’a ‘uy’ skweyul
Maiya Modeste thuna sne
Sulatiye’ s-hwulmuhw’a’lh’ sne
Tun’ni’ tsun ‘ult’ kwa’mutsun
Brianna Thorne snes lhuna t-en
Chris Modeste snes kwthuna m-en
Sulsilu Deb I’ Ron George
I silu Diane Modeste I silu’elh Wes Modeste
Huy tseep q’a siiem huy tseep q’a
Good day my honured friends and family, I am very grateful for this day
My name is Maiya Modeste
My traditional name is Sulatiye’
I come from the village of Quamichan in Cowichan territory
My mom is Brianna Thorne
My dad is Chris Modeste
My grandparents on my maternal side are Deb and Ron George
And my Grandparents on my paternal side are Diane Modeste and late Wes Modeste
Thank you with the utmost gratitude!

How did you find your experience at the show, especially when it came to sharing the stage with two emerging Indigenous artists?

The night felt incredibly healing in many ways. There’s something profoundly impactful about representation and the opportunity to share a stage with fellow Indigenous artists who are talking about colonialism, residential schools, our youth and our Elders. The conversations are really important and need to happen more often. So, to share a stage with these artists who have such a large platform, who are doing such good work in their communities, was extremely healing. It’s rare for Indigenous People to witness such a display of Indigenous excellence; to sit in that room and see oneself represented on stage, to hear one’s own story conveyed through song or poetry. It was a true honour to stand up there with them and to share that space with us and to uplift our voices. And, you know, even though Tia has her album coming up and all these really big things unfolding, they still are generous enough to share that space. That’s how a lot of Indigenous communities are – I think a lot of us, and a lot of our cultures, are centered around witnessing each other. So, it was a real honour to witness them and for them to witness us. I think it started a good relationship, and I’m really excited to connect more with them. It felt so healing and safe.

What was your favourite part of the night? 

It’s difficult to pick just one favorite moment because the entire event was incredibly beautiful. But if I had to choose, it would probably revolve around a couple of songs that resonated with me.

One of these songs, performed by Tia, touched on the theme of missing her dad and the longing to return home while being in a city, feeling lonely and disconnected, experiencing a sense of not belonging. She talked about how, in our communities and on our land, that’s where we feel safe and wrapped in support and love. It was really special to hear her story, but to also relate to it.

Another song by H.K. addressed the tragic loss of a young man’s life to gang violence at the age of 14. Many of his songs centered on our youth and the essential need for mentors and positive role models in their lives. Hearing him talk about this young man on stage brought to mind a recent tragedy here on Salt Spring, where we lost a young woman to substance abuse. She had been an important part of our youth on the land program. It was a devastating loss for all of us and for the broader community. 

It sounds weird to say, but for H.K. to talk about that was healing. I feel that it kind of opens doors for a larger conversation around youth-at-risk and how we can work to address issues like substance abuse and homelessness through something simple as bringing youth back to the land. H.K. advocated for this so much throughout the evening. He was so incredibly inspiring and uplifting. In the end, I was thinking of the young man from the song and the youth that we lost here, and it just ignited a fire within me to do more and was a true reminder of why we do the work that we do.

Do you have a message you’d like to share for other Indigenous youth out there looking to connect more with culture and community?

Something my papa Ron has always said to me, when I would say something like, “oh, Papa, I’m thinking I’d like to go and visit, you know, Granny Bertha more,” he replies, saying, “don’t think, just do it.” He always says: Don’t think. Just do. Don’t think about it. You go and do it. Don’t talk about it. You go and do it.

And I think that, for me, has been one of the biggest things to push me because sometimes it can be scary reconnecting, especially if you’re not living in your home territory. There are a lot of different factors that prevent many of us from accessing culture and community, and a lot of that is linked to colonialism. So, it can be scary when there are all these barriers put in front of you.

But for me, I would say to youth who are looking to connect more is to start with your family. Learn more about your family lineage and who you are and where you come from. The land that holds you and holds your people and has for thousands of years

One of the biggest things for me to feel more of a connection to my ancestors, to my culture, to my people, is coming back to the land. And it makes sense – even our [Hul’q’umi’num] word for our people, Mustimuhw, means People of the Land. We have, for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, had such a deep relationship with our plant and animal relatives and with the land and water. Everything on this earth is to be honoured. And that’s where our ancestors started, with an appreciation for the land and this idea of reciprocity and coming back to it and tending to it, cultivating it. So, for me, I think the biggest thing is connecting with the land. 

And sometimes it doesn’t even have to be in your home territory. We have a lot of youth here who are displaced and who aren’t from here – some are from Ontario, some of them are from the interior B.C. – but they always say that Xwaaqw’um (Burgoyne Bay) feels like home to them. To have them connect with the land and Elders and culture, even if it’s not theirs, is harm reduction. It’s suicide prevention. It means so much to these youths. I firsthand have seen the benefits of bringing youth back to the land.

So, I think for youth who are wanting to connect more with culture and community, the land and your family is the best place to start that.

A group of people posing for a picture

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Maiya and Michaela with HK. Photo by Andrea Palframan.

Can you tell us a little bit about Stqeeye’?

Stqeeye’ (STAH-KAY-AH) Learning Society is a non-profit, Indigenous-led organization. We have a focus on land restoration, as well as land-based learning programs for youth. A few of the projects that we have going on right now are the Garry Oak Ecosystem Restoration Project, which is largely a food sovereignty project. The focus is to reintroduce Indigenous staple foods, like Camus, Deltoid Balsamroot, Chocolate Lily, and many other native wildflowers. We have ten times the population of deer here on Salt Spring, so the ecosystem is really struggling. 

And so, what we’re trying to do is revitalize Camas as a food source and have youth coming to the land to learn how to harvest it, prepare it, preserve it, and cook it. Our hope is to, one day soon, feed Elders traditional meals out of that on the land. We also have a wetland restoration happening, so we have planned to plant over 80,000 native plant species and create 20 hectares of new wetland. We have quite a bit going on in terms of larger restoration projects. And then we also have a Youth on the Land Program, which we run throughout the year. We bring youth to the land, Indigenous youth, and they’re invited — as long as we have the capacity —  to bring a non-Indigenous friend. We work to connect them with Elders, knowledge keepers, and we get to take them on medicine walks and do things like cedar weaving, drum making, basketry and learning about different plants and what they were used for and how we survived in the past. 

This society was founded by my grandparents. My grandfather, Tousilum: his ancestry comes from Xwaaqw’um, which is the village that we work in. Xwaaqw’um is the place of the merganser duck. Xwaaqw’ is the duck and when you add the ‘um on the end, it means the place of. The Xwaaqw’ come in the hundreds every winter, so it became a staple food at the village. So, my grandfather has ancestral ties to this village, and it was his hope and dream to come home and to have our family, stewarding the land. They’ve all worked so hard towards this and written so many grants to make this happen for us. 

I remember my grandma saying when I was younger, I think I was probably about 17 or 18, she said, “you’re going to work in Garry Oak Meadows.” I was like, “I don’t know much about that, grandma.” And she replied, “no, you’re going to work there. You’ll learn. I want you and our family to be in a place where you can still make money, you can have a job, but it’s for stewarding the land.” And so, they worked hard at it. And we’ve come to this point now where we’ve been able to carry out a lot of different land restoration projects and bring youth back to the land. 

Stqeeye’ is very much a family-run society. We have 11 board members, all who are Indigenous and part of our family. And, among our staff members, I work alongside some of my cousins. it’s just incredible to be working with my family on the land that our ancestors have stewarded for thousands and thousands of years. To think that in my grandmother’s time this was not allowed, this was illegal. She couldn’t harvest. My grandmother, who’s 94, has never tasted Camas. 

And so, it’s time now that we come home.

Tell us about your campaign and how people can support you?

We have a very exciting campaign launch that is happening right now. The campaign is called Mi Tse’ T’akw’, which means Coming Home. The campaign is focused on connecting Elders and youth and bringing our Elders back home. 

My grandfather, Tousilum, exhibits a sense of serenity when he is on the land. He often quietly observes, nodding his head, and taking in the surroundings. He tends to be reserved unless you sit with him, perhaps bringing a coffee, tea, or a snack. When asked how he’s doing, he responds with a warm smile and a simple statement: “I’m home.” I think about what it means to him to be home and I want him to feel like that every day. 

Youth coming to learn from our Elders is paramount right now. Our people will say that when we lose an Elder, it’s like a library burning down. And that is true. Our Elders have extensive knowledge of our lands, of our teachings, of our language, of our culture. And so, it’s really put a fire under us to get them home, as my grandfather’s getting older and he’s ill right now. 

With that, we’ve acquired land at Xwaaqw’um. The official date for the 10-acre property to be in our name and for us to commence our mortgage is November 1st

We have a goal of 1.7 million for the campaign which would not only help with the purchase of the land, but also to build a staff housing for youth and for Elders. It’s very exciting and, while it seems silly to have to buy land back, we are incredibly appreciative to the private landowners for approaching us first. We’re thankful for the support of the community so far, and we truly believe that we will meet our goal because I think that our message and our story speaks to a lot of people. 

I asked [the crowd at the Tia Wood concert] to think about, what home means to you? Does it mean sitting at a kitchen table with grandma and mom and tea and drinking tea and the house is filled with laughter? Is it sharing a meal with your family? Is it that certain road that you turn down and you can smell the ocean and you can just see all the markers of your home territory? What does it mean to you? And, you know, I just think of my grandpa and the way that he looks and his serenity and the peace that he feels when he’s home. I just want him to feel that every day.

A big thank you to Maiya for taking the time to talk to us. We extend our deepest gratitude to the Stqeeye’ team for their invaluable hard-work they are doing towards stewarding the land and cultural healing. To learn more about Stqeeye’ and to support their once-in-a-generation Mi Tse’ T’akw’ (Coming Home) campaign, please visit their website. If you wish to support this remarkable initiative, there are several donation options available.

  • By cheque: Stqeeye’ Learning Society PO Box 407 Salt Spring Island, BC V8K 2W1

CRA Charity number: 808394555 RR0001

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