By Sage Birchwater –
For the past 30 years, Naghtaneqed School in remote Nemiah Valley has held a culture week in mid-May that involves all the children in the school and many elders and volunteers in the community.
This unique program initiated by Marty Solomon and June Williams in 1987 was created to preserve the traditions and cultural knowledge of XeniGwet’in and Tsilhqot’in First Nation in a public school setting.
Over the years, other schools from across the Cariboo-Chilcotin and other parts of British Columbia have joined Naghtaneqed for these four days of cultural immersion.
This year children from neighbouring Yunesit’in School journeyed to Nemiah Valley to take part in the activities.
The routine is simple. After recess each morning, children sign up for a range of activities that includes beading, dream-catcher making, rope braiding, mini drum-making, rock painting, archery, horseshoeing, horse management, smoking and preserving meat, wild potato harvesting, outdoor survival skills, traditional toy-making, Tsilhqot’in language skills, traditional cooking, lehal stick-making, drumming, and singing.
The four days conclude with a Thursday afternoon lehal tournament.
Because of its three-decade longevity, many students who participated in the first culture weeks in the 1980s, are now parents and grandparents of students in the program today.
Jimmy Lulua was an infant when Culture Week began. This year he led the outdoor survival skills session.
He says students get alienated from the land when they spend so much time living in an urban environment and become so engrossed in their handheld devices.
“Outdoor survival skills is simply a matter of teaching kids a common sense understanding of the land,” Lulua says. “We show them how and where to build a fire, where to build a good campsite, and give them pointers so they can survive in the bush.”
Over the years XeniGwet’in elder Eileen William has taught students how to tan deer hides. Though she didn’t offer that activity this year, she says this is an important skill that can easily become lost if students don’t practise it. This year she taught students how to braid rope out of haystring. Her underlying message to students was to practice patience and finish what you start.
Aaron Plahn is a digitization technician employed by the Tsilhqot’in National Government. He brought several handheld Android devices equipped with interactive Tsilhqot’in language apps for the children to check out. The voice of language specialist Bella Alphonse articulates the correct pronunciation of Tsilhqot’in words as children use the devices to play language games.
Lillian Underwood travelled to Nemiah Valley for Culture Week from Saanich on Vancouver Island with her 13-year-old daughter Asheya and 13-year-old niece, Hope. Her husband, Harvey, is chief of the Tsawout First Nation. Lillian is full of praise for the program that teaches the fundamentals of Tsilhqot’in culture in the Nemiah Valley school.
She says the contrast between coastal traditions and those of the Tsilhqot’in people helps broaden the perspective of the students.
A few years ago, students from Bowen Island participated in Naghtaneqed Culture Week. Then students from Nemiah Valley reciprocated and drove down to the coast to visit the kids at their school on Bowen Island.
Horse culture in Nemiah Valley remains strong. David Setah and Chief Roger William instruct the students about the fundamentals of horsemanship and how to properly look after tack and saddles. Roger demonstrates how it is safer to stand next to a horse if it decides to kick rather than further away.
David explains the different types of saddles a rider can choose—a light saddle for barrel racing and mountain racing; a heavy saddle for roping and working stock. Both domesticated and wild horses dominate the Nemiah Valley landscape. High up on the mountainside, wild horses can be spotted. All up the valley, herds of tame horses can be seen foraging on the flush of spring grass.
Students look forward to participating in the annual week-long horseback and wagon trip from Nemiah Valley to the Williams Lake Stampede in late June. It could be argued that this tradition is a natural offshoot of Naghtaneqed School Culture Week where age-old cultural practices have been encouraged and supported for 30 years.
Dedicated school staff, community volunteers and a buy-in by the school district allow this unique program to continue. The positive results are very evident.
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.