‘We’re still here, and we’re thriving.’ Indigenous culture celebrated in Campbell River

Shawn Decaire of We Wai Kai’s Cape Mudge band emceed the Big House celebrations before leading marchers through the city streets during Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in Campbell River on Friday. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror
Avis O’Brien leads a group of dancers from a Ligwildawx youth and elders cultural group at Kwanwatsi Big House during Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror
Avis O’Brien holds her 20-month-old daughter K’yuusda Davidson. They are shown with items that O’Brien uses in cultural empowerment work for Indigenous youth at Campbell River’s John Howard Society, including a bear skin from Haida Gwaii. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror
Artist Ernest Puglas works on a painting of a frog (wak’es) at Spirit Square during Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in Campbell River. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror
Children from Homalco First Nation perform at Kwanwatsi Big House during Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations in Campbell River on June 21. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Hundreds gathered in the Kwanwatsi Big House in Campbell River on Friday morning before marching to Spirit Square for an afternoon of celebrations marking Indigenous Peoples Day.

Avis O’Brien, a Courtenay resident with Haida and We Wai Kai ancestry, led a group called Xyuu Xyahl Gaang.nga, which translates to the Southeast Wind Dancers. The intergenerational group sang and performed a number of traditional Haida dances. O’Brien stressed the theme of resilience following years of cultural repression.

“We’re still here,” said O’Brien. “And we’re thriving.”

O’Brien said the group was born of a vision of children growing up connected to their culture, even if they’re living away from their traditional territories.

“For our children to grow up connected to their songs, their dances, the ceremonies, the spirit of their ancestors, it’s really important in healing intergenerational trauma,” she said, noting that her generation and the previous one were severely impacted by colonization and residential schools.

“I didn’t grow up in culture,” she said.

For her children, it’s different. In Spirit Square, the mother of two cradled her 20-month-old daughter K’yuusda Davidson, both of them wearing traditional woven Haida caps, as cultural celebrations took place.

“We’re healing intergenerational trauma, one generation at a time,” said O’Brien, who works with the John Howard Society’s Campbell River chapter in a restorative justice program for youth.

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At a table in Spirit Square, O’Brien displayed items that she uses in cultural empowerment work for Indigenous youth, including a bear skin from Haida Gwaii. It was formerly used in healing ceremonies related to missing and murdered Indigenous women on Highway 16, often called the Highway of Tears, in northern B.C.

“This bear did a lot of healing for that movement,” she said.

Performers and speakers from several First Nations were involved in Friday’s events, including from as far as Alberta. Shawn Decaire of We Wai Kai’s Cape Mudge band, who emceed the Big House celebrations before leading marchers through the city streets, said that it’s important to recognize people from all First Nations living in Campbell River, a central hub for Indigenous people.

“We may call Campbell River home, and it is home of the Laichwiltach people, (but) it is still a central hub for all people here,” said Decaire, who works with the Laichwiltach Family Life Society. “We have many nations in Campbell River that aren’t just Laichwiltach, like Haida Gwaii, Cree, Heiltsuk, Nuchatlaht, Coast Salish. There’s so many nations here, and we want to honour them all.”

The event at Spirit Square featured music, artwork, information booths, activities and food, including bannock and plates of salmon. Those delicacies were prepared by the Laichwiltach Family Life Society, which organizes the annual event.

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