And while work might not be happening on the ground, some Stó:lō people are hoping to have their voice heard in another way.
A new campaign called WaterWealth seeks to represent the whole community in the Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Hope electoral districts on the issue of water quality. The project stresses the interests of Aboriginal people in the area, including the Stó:lō whose identity is closely linked to water.
The campaigners want the province to develop a new Water Act to includes these perspectives.
The secret of the dance
Spirit dancing is one tradition that relies on water.
Point says spirit dancing provides a source of wisdom and a gift from the Creator, chíchelh siyá:m.
“Spirit dancing has been with our people since the beginning of time. And that’s what taught us how to know the land, to learn about one another and how to respect and treat the land and treat everything as one.”
Point is considered one of the oldest living spirit dancers in Stó:lō territory which spans from the mouth of the Fraser River to Vancouver Island. Spirit dancing is also one of the most secretive of all of their spiritual ceremonies.
Spirit dancing is a lifelong commitment. It involves living in long houses during the winter, spiritual bathing nearly every day, singing and dancing, counselling younger spirit dancers and keeping the secret of the dance.
“To tell you how it looks and how it feels and how it comes out, that’s something that I would never go to in detail,” says Point.
Shirley Hardman of Shxwhà:y Village is a senior advisor on Indigenous affairs at the University of the Fraser Valley and regularly participates in sweat ceremonies.
She says spiritual practices are often kept secret because, not long ago, spiritual ceremonies were banned.
“You had 100 years of parents telling their children not to get caught. We don’t potlatch. We don’t gather. We don’t participate in our spiritual way of life. We don’t do these things because to do them would be to get in trouble,” says Hardman.
This makes it difficult to protect sites, especially because spiritual practices aren’t readily talked about.
But there are some parts of spirit dancing that can be shared.
Point explains how a spirit dancer comes to be born.
People experience “spirit sickness,” or syúwél sq’óq’ey, which is a sign that a song needs to be released.
By going into the long house for the winter, singing and doing the spiritual baths, a person is reborn as a spirit dancer, and their symptoms are relieved.
Point has arthritis and can no longer withstand cold temperatures in the sacred pools. Though he doesn’t do spirit dancing anymore, his children have carried on the tradition. All four of them are spirit dancers, as well as his wife, Liz.
But trips to the water are getting harder for spirit dancers.
Desecrated spiritual sites
Spirit dancers and non-spirit dancers participate in spiritual baths, sweats and singing near water.
Bathing requires a pool in a rushing river or stream that is private and clean– like the pool at Sweltzer Creek.
Eddie Gardner, an elder from Skwá First Nation, often visits this creek on Soowahlie First Nation.
He frequently goes to sweat ceremonies, sings and does spiritual bathing.
Although Sweltzer Creek is relatively clean and untouched compared to other places, Gardner says, “Some sites are so dirty, they had to be abandoned.”
Along Tamihi Creek near Chilliwack Lake, dirt bikers and fishermen are interrupting ceremonies. And Liumchen Creek has become more of a place of refuse than a place of refuge.
And there’s more than just garbage from camping and other recreational activities. Point suggests that the other garbage, including rusted appliances, is put there to avoid dumping fees.
“I would never take a bath here anymore,” Point says about Liumchen Creek. “I’m seeing a garbage dump now. The whole place is ruined. It used to be nice and clean.”
“I haven’t heard of anyone coming up here (to bathe) in years.”
And Point doesn’t think the loss will stop there. He says legislation has thus far been unable to protect these sites from the growing population.
Gardner says this has been a problem in more ways than one. It’s also had an effect on privacy.
“People will hear the singing and drumming and come to watch because they think there’s a party going on,” he says.
Nobody outside of the Stó:lō community is meant to see these practices, and even personal spirit power is something to keep to yourself.
“Patchwork of legislation”
Vancouver lawyer Jennifer Archer has studied water legislation extensively and finds that, where Aboriginal rights and title and water connect, the waters are muddy.
“There are no overarching laws that respect or integrate First Nations people’s rights,” she says.
This is because the jurisdictions of the federal and provincial government overlap.
Provincial legislation doesn’t apply to water on reserve land and is uncertain in areas with unresolved Aboriginal title, and the Federal government is responsible for water on reserve land.
When it comes to the Heritage Conservation Act, protection is granted for Aboriginal archaeological sites where signs of historical significance are evident. This doesn’t include protection of spiritual sites.
Several Fraser Valley reserves are currently going through a 17-year-long treaty process to protect these sites.
The communities are identifying and attempting to protect their spiritual sites before more are lost.
The wealth in the water
WaterWealth is calling on Chilliwack and Hope politicians to demonstrate their commitment to a new Water Act for B.C. They emphasize free, prior and informed consent from First Nations.
Campaign director Sheila Muxlow says WaterWealth recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples, which includes the need to protect spiritual and cultural sites.
“It is members of the Stó:lō and other Indigenous nations that hold the knowledge about their sacred sites. Thus our role as an organization is to advocate that they are involved in the decision-making with the due authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a project that impacts them,” she says.
A former chief of Soowahlie, Larry Commodore is the cultural advisor for the campaign.
“Before contact, the Stó:lō Nation was one of the wealthiest nations on the continent. That was because of our natural abundance, the natural wealth of this land… In 150 years, a lot has changed. There’s no longer the abundance that we once had… It’s time to get together to bring back the abundance,” he says.
Adapting to the times
With more sacred sites being used recreationally, Stó:lō people are going to more remote places to find clean and private spaces for their spiritual ceremonies.
This makes it difficult to access their sites, especially for elderly people.
But despite what some people think, Hardman says many Stó:lō don’t see all change as a bad thing.
Hardman drives to spiritual places, eats sandwiches and pudding cups on trips to the sweat lodge, and sometimes uses bottled water to pour on the hot rocks during sweats.
“We’re a living culture. We’re not artifacts in a museum that are stuck back there doing things the way they were done 150, 200 years ago, so inevitably there will be change,” she says.
But to the extent that the land and waters are being degraded, the Stó:lō people believe that something must be done to clean up the area — and it needs to be a collective effort.
Stó:lō community members gathered together to clean up the Sweltzer Creek pool in the early ’90s to build a campground.
Some community members, including Gardner, are involved in cleaning up these water sources, but he says not enough is being done.
The Chilliwack-Vedder River Cleanup Society has been cleaning up recreational and criminal garbage in and around these rivers for more than 10 years. Gardner has been involved in this before.
And WaterWealth campaigners are continuing the consultation process with Aboriginal communities in the area in order to better inform and lobby the local politicians for their support in the upcoming B.C. election.