Celebrating International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Posted on by Sarah Lafontaine

August 9th marks an important day for the planet, as today we honor our World’s Indigenous Peoples. Celebrating the traditions of our indigenous peoples is increasingly important in our modern world. It’s become too easy for people to feel disconnected from their heritage, yet if we use the power of technology responsibly we can tell the old stories, and teach the ancient lessons with a reach we’ve never had before.

As a kid growing up on Vancouver Island, a small part of my education was Native studies but there was a large number of Aboriginal students. We learned about fishing, potlatch, and weaving. What we didn’t learn about was reservation schools and that tens of thousands of Canada’s indigenous children were taught that their way of life was primitive and sinful. This is relatively new knowledge, but a crucially important part of Canadian history that needs to be acknowledged.

Delphine Derickson - Okanagan language teacher and mentor

Delphine Derickson – Okanagan language teacher and mentor

So why is it important for kids to have a strong cultural identity? Jordan Coble, the Curatorial & Heritage Researcher at Sncəwips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna, BC, Canada, has dedicated his life to working with Okanagan and Syilx communities. Coble helps grow cultural awareness and appreciation and says, “One of the first lessons I learned from one of my language teachers and cultural advisors was that I am not a half-breed of Okanagan and Filipino ancestry, I am 100% of everything that I am – 100% Okanagan, 100% Filipino, [also] German, Scottish, and Spanish. That is my identity because those are the roots of my being.” He adds, “We struggle with identity because our sense of belonging and responsibility has been deconstructed and replaced with assumed expectations of what it means to be indigenous to a place. We grew up in a culture of dependency, fear and shame, which we often translated into hate, anger and resentment. Many of us grew up not knowing the strength and resiliency of our ancestors who fought for our right to be who we are, that people died for our right to speak our language because they knew that our language is the key to our identities. The knowledge we need to know about our responsibilities to the land and to each other are held within the language and what we refer to as cəptikʷəɬ – our oral histories of how we as people and the land and resources around us came to be.”

Jordan Coble works with daycare children to help with cultural awareness and build a solid foundation.

Jordan Coble works with daycare children to help with cultural awareness and build a solid foundation.

Language is paramount to restoring identity and belonging. Communicating with elders, learning the stories, sharing information and building community are the basis of a culture. Coble says, “Our languages and traditional customs go hand in hand. They are what make us distinctly Okanagan and not just Indian, indigenous or First Nations. Our language holds the key to our responsibilities to the land and resources. Our language holds knowledge as to how our land and resources are to be used and live with, not just on. It acknowledges the importance of biodiversity as well as cultural diversity.”

Indigenous languages are much older than the English language and hold relationships and concepts that are very specific to the people. “Language is the essence of identity. The Okanagan / nsyilxcən language was taught to the people by the resources themselves so when you understand the language you can start to hear nature in a new way. The land is very rarely referred to as a living entity but it is, and it speaks to us – we just forgot how to listen or gave up trying to. It has been prophesied that we will one day get to the point where we will no longer be able access the resources from the land, I strongly believe this day will come if we stop teaching, learning and speaking our language.” Coble said.

Jordan leading a community tour, which helps to open the door to community and culture.

Jordan leading a community tour, which helps to open the door to community and culture.

Today, Michele Johnson and a group of support youthful support teachers have established the successful Okanagan Language House where language is taught to our Nation’s best learners two days a week for the next four years at an immersive level.

However, in today’s world, with cell phones, social media and other distractions, are Aboriginal youth interested in getting to know their roots? Coble says, “I have noticed a resurgence in youth reconnecting with their language, traditional practices and true history. Unfortunately, this started to take hold after the passing of one of the Okanagan Nation’s most influential youth, Makwala Derickson-Hall [in 2010.] We had also lost another amazing young leader and University professor, Ethan Baptiste at the same time – both were very unexpected losses. We all knew that both Makwala and Ethan were warriors for the people and they wouldn’t want us to fade off into the pages of history, they’d expect us to become warriors so that’s what we did, that’s what the youth did. They began to demand traditional hunting, gathering and canoe camps. They demanded our elders share stories with them, share the language with them and raise them to become leaders.”

Jordan Profile Pic

Jordan Coble

There is still much work to be done, and it’s all our job to ensure that all kids grow up with the opportunity to be who they are at their core while inspiring others to do the same.  Combining these traditions with modern education will give children a strong sense of self and give them the confidence needed to grow responsibly through a modern life.

For more information about Language House, visit their website: http://www.thelanguagehouse.ca

For more information about Westbank First Nations & the Sncəwips Heritage Museum, please visit: http://www.wfn.ca and https://sncewipsmuseum.org