Stoney Elders Traditional Knowledge Group at HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre
By guest blogger and HI employee Liz Ferguson
On a mid-summer evening, to a campfire surrounded by over forty people, three Elders from the Stoney Nakoda First Nations walked and then sat to join the assembled group. Most of those anticipating their arrival were guests of HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre, some visitors to the area, one or two people from Parks Canada and a few HI employees. Some of our guests were Canadian but we also had some Europeans, Americans and a gentleman from India. Introductory remarks were offered before turning the group’s full attention to the Elders, Sykes Powderface, Virgle Stephens and Jeff Hunter.
Each of the Elders took a few moments to share some background information about themselves. One of the Elders, who had spoken of a role in his community that he had inherited from his father, explained the protocol of the smudge which he then prepared and lit. They then accepted a gift of tobacco. After this, the Elders invited the guests to ask questions.
And the questions were varied. The first was a request to know how to say thank you in the Nakoda language spoken by the Elders. Sykes offered the word “ĩsniyés” which from his explanation, I understood to be more of a translation of the English term than what would be used in the language. He went on to explain that a preferred expression of thanks translated in English to mean, “You make me grateful”.
The folks around the campfire were quite engaged and hands continued to shoot up as the Elders explored the topics raised in the discussion including resource extraction, the impacts of climate change and the importance of respect for the earth. Early in the evening, the questions asked led Sykes to explain that their community was currently in the process of rediscovering their traditions and their language. He talked about an improving relationship between the Banff National Park and the Stoney Nakoda where the two parties are taking steps to see that this indigenous people can be reconnected to traditional wintering grounds, now within Banff Park boundaries, and to other sites important to the Stoneys.
To give the audience a deeper context to the discussion, Sykes also talked briefly about the impacts of treaty enforcement, of the residential school system and of being expelled from the territory that fell within the boundaries of Banff National Park established in the early 1900s. It is clear that these examples of historical fact while uncomfortable to hear, are important in understanding the road ahead.
Some guests asked for reflections on history, some about current issues such as language reclamation, the gentleman from India asked about comparisons to his own cultural festivals and there was a question on collection of plants for medicine. Some of the questions were cautious and some bold, none were refused and all were answered graciously. There were moments of seriousness and moments of humour. In all cases the desire for understanding was sincere. In all cases the replies were candid, within the boundaries of what could be shared in that setting.
I have a lot to learn about the relationship that the Stoney Nakoda have with the land and with the other people on it. I will say that one of the gaps in our overall understanding was illuminated in a thread of conversation fueled by one particular fellow who insisted on pursuing a discussion on religion. Out of that came reflections on the concepts of ownership and of sharing the resources available from the earth. I won’t offer a solution or summary to that part of the conversation. That might imply that I have an answer, which, of course, I do not. However, I can say that the answers offered by the Elders on this subject were powerful and respectful.
Sykes wrapped up the evening by encouraging the guests to enjoy the Park while being respectful of the wildlife and their place in the environment. He shared some personal and moving stories of encounters with bears and other animals from his youth on the land with his father, and another of how a lesson from those stories had been embraced by a Parks Canada employee. I won’t tell you any more than that since I absolutely want you to come to HI-Lake Louise and experience one of these extraordinary evenings yourself.
Hostelling International and Parks Canada are partnering to bring this series of campfire sessions to the HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre. Please join us on one or more of the following dates, August 8th, August 22nd and/or September 19th. Each evening will begin at around 8pm. For more information, please contact the hostel www.hihostels.ca/lakelouise