This is the Life: Lower Kootenay Band members explain Ktunaxa struggling to maintain identity

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At a cross-cultural workshop on Monday

“With what little we have left.” It was a phrase I heard twice on Monday morning, and one that said volumes about our community.

Two speakers used the phrase at a cross-cultural workshop (photos here) presented by the Lower Kootenay Band. I was one of about two dozen invitees who were engrossed for over three hours as we learned about Ktunaxa history, right back to the Creation Story, culture, language and community. It was as satisfying and moving an experience as I have had in a long time.

Kudos once again to Chief Jason Louie for having enough trust in himself and the people around him to reach out to the larger community around Lower Kootenay. Along with his wife, Angie, his band council, LKB chief administrative officer Linda Berg and other residents, Louie did a masterful job of enlightening the audience.

The morning started with a brief introduction by Louie and a prayer from band Coun. Anne Jimmie. Then the floor was turned over to Joe Pierre Jr. The son of long time Lower Kootenay resident and employee Joe Pierre and Sophie Pierre, now chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission, Joe Jr. has been telling the Creation Story, and about how he learned it, to audiences for more than a decade. Nobody, repeat nobody, who lives in the Kootenays, should not have a chance to hear the legend. It is part of our own history and gives us a much greater appreciation for our geography and natural history.

Angie Louie has built up a strong reputation with her health and wellness work. She spoke about the history of the Ktunaxa people before they were “discovered”, she said ironically, by the explorer David Thompson. Of note is the fact that the Ktunaxa were not a nomadic people, with archeological and anthropological evidence of their residing in this area more than 10,000 years ago. The language is a rarity in that it was not blended with or influenced by the language of other tribes.

Once white settlers moved into the region life changed dramatically for the Ktunaxa, and rarely for the better. The fur trade changed the men from being subsistence hunters to economic ones, with things like sugar, flour and salt coming back in return for hides. She didn’t mention some of the other obvious results, like disease, but it was hardly necessary. In one of the most powerful moments of the workshop, she illustrated the impact of residential schools, in which children were forcibly removed from their homes, many to be abused and damaged.

“Imagine a community without the sounds of children,” she said. “Imagine a home without the sounds of children.”

Jason and Angie spent some time explaining the purpose and meaning of traditional regalia, including headdresses, feathered pieces, moose tooth-decorated dresses and moccasins. Jason created a role-playing scene to illustrate the challenges First Nations people face when they are carrying traditional ceremonial items. Some elements, like eagle feathers, might be restricted and difficult to cross borders with. Others, like ceremonial pouches, can easily cause problems with police and border guards. The pouches, containing things like sage or sweet grass and other items, are wrapped and tied in a specific way, and are not to be touched or opened by anyone but the owner. An insensitive or unaware cop or border guard can cause great personal offense by opening the pouches simply because the occupants of a vehicle smell like smoke, as they will after participating in some traditional sacred ceremonies.

In the Creston Valley, we learned, RCMP officers are instructed to contact Const. Dan Cameron (who attended the workshop) when they have questions about how to deal with such situations. Cameron, who serves as the RCMP liaison officer for the Creston RCMP, will then advise officers about how to proceed.

As I sat through the presentations, I was touched by the amount of trust it takes on behalf of First Nations people to put themselves, their regalia and their traditions out for others to see and experience. It has to be done, in the interest of education, but it still can’t be easy. As Chief Louie said, the LKB walks a fine line when its dancers are asked to perform at a community event. Each request presents a struggle — is it to help enlighten or it simply because the dancers make for a colourful show?

Ktnuaxa people, like most aboriginals, are in a life and death struggle to maintain their identity as their mostly oral history is lost, their language dies away and their traditional lands are exploited. Angie Louie put it best when she pointed out that treaties and the reserve system were created by white settlers who were agreeing “to pay rent” on land that would allow the creation of incalculable wealth for decades and centuries to come. The “rent” was to be paid for “as long as the water flows and the wind blows.”

“With what little we have left”, for the people of the Lower Kootenay Band, is about 210 members, 150 of which live on the 6,000 acres of reserve land. It is about the six people who can speak Ktunaxa fluently in this valley. It is about a struggle to document the smattering of oral history that hasn’t died with their forebears.

For the rest of us, the non-aboriginals, it is about not having simply stood by as the eradication of a people and their culture was made complete.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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