By Sage Birchwater –
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the 26th day of the month is significant in the historical narrative of the Tŝilhqot’in nation.
It began on October 26, 1864 when five Tsilhqot’in war chiefs were hanged at Quesnelle mouth on the banks of the Fraser River. The warriors led by Chief Lha Tŝ’aŝʔin were tricked into putting down their arms to attend peace talks to end the conflict known as the Chilcotin War, only to be captured, tried, and convicted as murderers for defending their territory.
In modern times the Tsilhqot’in nation declared the 26th of October an annual national holiday known as Lha Tŝ’aŝʔin Memorial Day, commemorating the martyrdom of the five heroic leaders who were wrongfully put to death by the colony of British Columbia in 1864, and a sixth in 1865.
Then on the 26th of June 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously awarded the Tsilhqot’in nation title to 2,100 square kilometres of their traditional territory near Nemiah Valley. This was the first time in Canadian history that land title was designated to an Indigenous nation outside the federal reserve system.
More recently, on the 26th of March 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially exonerated the six Tŝilhqot’in war chiefs Lha Tŝ’aŝʔin, Biyil, Tahpitt, Telad, Chayses, and Ahan of any wrong doing in the Chilcotin War of 1864. This statement of innocence was unanimously adopted by all parties in the House of Commons, who rose in unison to give the Tsilhqot’in representatives a standing ovation.
Twenty-year-old Peyal Francis Laceese was part of the Tŝilhqot’in delegation and got to play a significant role in the exoneration ceremony. He joined the six elected Tŝilhqot’in chiefs on the floor of the House of Commons. These included his dad, Chief Francis Laceese of Tl’esqox, Chief Russ Myers Ross of Yunesit’in, Chief Jimmy Lulua of XeniGwet’in, Chief Otis Guichon Sr. of TsiDeldel, Chief Roy Stump of ʔEsdilagh, and Tribal Chair Chief Joe Alphonse of Tl’etinqox.
After the prime minister and opposition party leaders gave their exoneration statements, Peyal stepped onto the floor of the House in full regalia. The six chiefs stood and took off their black vests symbolic of mourning the martyred war chiefs and reversed them to reveal a bright red colour symbolic of reconciliation.
Peyal performed a drum song he received in a dream the night before. The song contained the names of the six martyred Tsilhqot’in warriors. “As I was singing each of their names I envisioned who they were,” he says. Then he presented the drum to the prime minister, and the two exchanged a big hug.
Asked if he was nervous stepping into the limelight of Canada’s biggest political stage, Peyal shrugs it off. “I do a lot of pow wow dancing, so I’m used to performing in front of people.”
Being involved in the pow wow circuit is something Peyal has done since he was a toddler. His travels have taken him to Indigenous communities across North America. In the process he learned to identify similarities between the various Aboriginal traditions and to accept their differences.
“There’s no wrong way to learn a dance or perform a song,” he says. “In our Tsilhqot’in culture we have stories that go back to the creation of Mother Earth, the sun, and the stars. Everything has a story behind it.”
Peyal says blazing a trail to Ottawa for the exoneration will be helpful to other First Nations. As far as he knows it’s the first time an Indigenous nation was invited to perform their culture on the floor of the House of Commons.
Peyal describes the eagle staff he carried and the regalia he wore in Ottawa.
Speaking in parables he says if you go to the ocean you bring your gumboots; if you go to the mountains you bring a coat; if you go to a hot place you bring a hat and sunglasses.
“If I go to a pow wow I bring a war club. That’s what I dance with to protect myself spiritually and emotionally from whatever’s out there. When I dance it makes me feel positive.”
He says the eagle staff he inherited from his grandparents represents wisdom.
“If I do business I bring my wisdom. The physical object that represents wisdom is the eagle staff. It has been handed down generation by generation, representing the good medicine we carry in our family. It reflects the strength we hold not only as a family, but as a nation.”
Other parts of his regalia have meaning, too.
“Around my neck is a medallion from my grandparents. It’s covered with the beadwork of three generations. Inside the medallion I carry medicines and stones to keep me close to home.”
His shirt made by his mother represents his colours. “Green represents the grasslands where I was raised. Purple represents the wisdom and wealth of knowledge that I am honored to borrow from my ancestors.”
Lastly, the moccasins on his feet were made from the last moose hide his great aunt ever tanned. They were sewn by both his grandmother and mother. “They literally sew their prayer into the hide for protection,” says Peval.
He says he can go anywhere in North America and other Indigenous people will recognize his Tsilhqot’in identity by the way his moccasins are sewn.
“Tsilhqot’in moccasins are recognized for our unique design and pattern,” he says.
In ancient days the Tŝilhqot’in would trade furs, oil, fish, and meat to their Indigenous neighbours. “Nowadays we trade words and knowledge. If we want to grow in economic development we’re going to meet with a nation in the city who is high on economic development. But they might be low on title and rights. We have our strengths and differences, too. We can exchange that and balance it out.”
He says it took 25 years for the Tŝilhqot’in to obtain Aboriginal rights and title.
“We can role-model and show others what we’re doing so they can do it, too. We leave big footprints so that other first nations can follow.”
Aboriginal Day is June 21, but for Peyal every day is Aboriginal Day.
“Every day we practice our title.”
Aboriginal Day is an opportunity for all Canadians to embrace reconciliation, so we can move forward as one nation, supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples across our country and throughout the world.
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, & being part of the rich cultural life of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.