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This is Part II of an article about the night I visited the Penelakut Big House. To read Part I, click here.
The smoke swirled into the night sky. As the winter dances continued, young men and women from the community walked outside to fetch huge, 8-foot-long logs to add to the fires.
Whew, I thought. For a second there I was worried I’d be able to breathe again…
At one point, John and I went into another room on the side of the Big House to have dinner with other members of the community.
I’m an obsessive learner, so I did my best to understand what I was seeing. Every time something new happened, I asked a flurry of questions (probably making John wonder why in the world he agreed to babysit me in the first place!).
What I Learned
Through many conversations that night and afterwards, I got a little bit of context. Keeping in mind that I barely scratched the surface, here’s a bit of what I learned:
The Penelakut winter dances are a fascinating mix of tradition, spirituality, artistic expression and entertainment.
In the days before European settlement, the dances were performed after the fall hunting and gathering seasons came to an end. The community lived together in the Big House to ride out the cold winter months and to welcome neighboring tribes and communities for celebrations similar to what we in the U.S. call potlatches.
The unique songs and dances performed around the fires are passed down from generation to generation to worship the Creator, tell stories from the past and remind everyone of their connection to their ancestors and the earth.
All of that I’ve learned. But when it comes down to what the dances mean, where the songs originated or how specific Big House traditions have changed over time, there is not much I can say. These are things that I, as a non-native will most likely never understand.
However, despite my ignorance, I did take away a few significant realizations about the Penelakut Nation that night. What really stood out to me was the stark contrast between modern life and ancient traditions.
Although the Penelakut people are just as modern as you and I in their technology and education, they are still eager to maintain their cultural values, rituals and customs. As a result, there were a lot of interesting disparities in the Big House.
For example, dancers wore traditional garb… with tennis shoes on. Drummers played on hide drums… while wearing sweatpants. Even the customary community meal… was spaghetti.
It all served as a broad illustration for me of what is happening among the Penelakut people. As their nation continues to grow and develop, they must daily face the influx of modern western culture. How do they maintain the traditions of the past when they have to compete with Xboxes, reality TV and Facebook?
More significantly, how do they undo the loss of pride and dignity that comes from a century of enslavement and exploitation?
Many Penelakut age 45 and above attended compulsory Residential Schools. There they were forcibly converted to Christianity, physically and sexually abused and taught to be ashamed of their identities as First Nations people (more on those schools in a future article).
Traditional hunting and fishing grounds that used to belong to the Penelakut people were long ago taken away by settlers and the Canadian government. Once sacred spaces are now summer homes for wealthy businessmen from Vancouver.
Reclaiming the Past
Many traditions have been nearly forgotten. Others have been lost entirely. But the Penelakut I have met so far have not given up. Despite the damage that has been done, they are eager to reclaim the traditions that give them their true identity.
This is why I am so excited about the work being done today on Penelakut Island.
Initiatives like R.O.O.T.S., which focus on other traditional values such as archery and kayaking, are enhancing and bolstering this movement of dignity reclamation. Tim, Tal and a team of Penelakut leaders and elders are partnering to make this dream a reality.
There is much work still to be done for those Penelakut hoping to fully re-engage with their past, but by holding onto their traditions in the midst of a rapidly changing world, the process has begun.
The Penelakut people are finding a way to live modern lives in the present while being firmly rooted in the past.
I left the Big House that night, my head spinning from all that I had seen and experienced. I walked out to Tim’s truck, turned on the engine and drove across the island to meet the ferry.
As I drove, I had a big, silly grin on my face. I knew then and there that it was a night I would never forget.
- Pick up a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie to get a unique insider’s look at the clash of modern culture and traditions in a First Nations Reservation (Caution: This book contains some mature content that is not suitable for children).
- The R.O.O.T.S. program needs your help! They need funding to purchase archery and kayaking supplies, camping gear, etc. If you want to invest in the work of this awesome initiative, click here (be sure to designate your gifts to “KWT – R.O.O.T.S. Outdoor Program”).
- Pray for the people of Penelakut Island. Pray that they would find healing from the injustices of the past and hope for their development in the future.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.