The Return of an Event Celebrating Connection to the Land
A ceremony took place last fall in the traditional territory of the Stz’uminus people among the tall trees and mossy ground of Wildwood Ecoforest, south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The celebration was steeped in protocols of the land and Coast Salish culture, including the preparation of food in the traditional style.
What made the feast special?
“It has been 100 years since such a Pit Cook was last held in central Coast Salish territory.”
said Stz’uminus hereditary man Squtwxulenuhw, George Seymour. About 85 attendees, mostly Indigenous, thoroughly enjoyed the event, smiling, chatting, eating and reveling in the warm sense of community and nature. In particular, the non-Indigenous attendees enjoyed learning about this rich culture, which was long-repressed by the Canadian government.
Earlier, a pit was dug and a fire burned in it for hours. The assemblage watched as volunteers placed more than 100 pounds of root vegetables including carrots, potatoes, beets, garlic, turnips and a salmon onto the embers and hot lava rocks. The vegetables were layered with salal leaves and sword fern with a staff held vertically in the middle. Water was poured in along the staff creating steam. The pit was covered with burlap and a final layer of earth, and then a long tantalizing wait began.
The crowd moved to an elongated circle of stones around a blazing cedar fire. About 20 salmon, butterflied and mounted on specially carved maple sticks, were placed around the periphery of the fire leaning slightly inward. As they slowly cooked, the succulent flesh turned a deeper pink and tiny drops of fat appeared and slowly dripped onto the ground.
During the cooking, the participants sat on lawn chairs and logs around the fireplace and listened to numerous stories. Indigenous people have long practiced this oral tradition as a means of transferring teachings from one generation to the next. They love to speak, and also love to listen.
Once outlawed by the Canadian government due to racist policies embedded in the Indian Act (see 21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act, Hul’q’umi’num, a Coast Salish language of Vancouver Island, was frequently spoken.
The assembly was privileged to hear Elder T’uwahwiye’, Philomena Williams, wearing a Cowichan sweater featuring two wolves, describe her time in a residential school in the 1950s. Graphically she showed how horrible that period was and made everyone appreciate the present gathering. She described how the salmon run on the Nanaimo River, which once lasted two months, now may be only 20 minutes long. She also mourned the slow decline of the cedar, the tree of life, with which Coast Salish people make clothes, baskets, canoes, medicine and more. Appropriately, only a few hundred metres away two “culturally modified” cedars towered with long vertical marks where Coast Salish had recently removed long strips of bark.
The stories and teachings of Elders and knowledge keepers continued, casually presented but full of meaning, frequently referring to the dark times of residential schools as well as ruing the damage being done to nature. The talks were frequently lightened by humour. One Elder, impatient at how slowly the food was cooking, wondered whether he should call DoorDash. Singing and drumming, frequently led by knowledge keeper Tsumqwatun, Lawrence Mitchell, formed a vital part of the ceremony.
Several speakers emphasized how Indigenous People revere nature, consider themselves to be an integral part of it, and highly value their connection to the land. Appropriately, the Pit Cook was held at Wildwood Ecoforest, an area where nature is diverse and in balance, complete with old-growth trees including coastal Douglas firs, red cedars, bigleaf maples and arbutus. Wildlife is abundant and plants and herbs like licorice fern, rose hips, wild blackberries, and salmonberry flourish. During the ceremony, gathered berries were simmered in a large pot on the burning logs making a delicious, healthy tea.
Luschiim (Dr. Arvid Charlie) and renowned ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner, the authors of a new book Luschiim’s Plants: Traditional Indigenous Foods, Materials and Medicines, were honoured through a formal blanketing ceremony. The ceremony expressed the community’s love, and respect for Luschim and Nancy because the book is considered an important accomplishment for an oral society and ensures the knowledge of the plant relatives are recorded for future generations.
The book contains encyclopedic knowledge about B.C. plants and their properties. Plants were a mainstay to Coast Salish peoples for thousands of years, and the book describes nutritional, medical and other properties and uses, which Luschiim learned from Elders, including his father, Simon Charlie, a renowned carver and medicine man. Luschim also observed the natural world. For example, he discovered the medicinal properties of masticated arbutus leaves, when he observed a deer chewing arbutus leaves then spitting the mass onto the wound of an injured deer. The hurt deer recovered.
Luschiim and Turner were escorted to the front with drumming. They sat in chairs while Elders gave speeches in their honour and presented them with traditional Coast Salish Speaker blankets.
The Pit Cook, a superb example of the wealth of knowledge in Indigenous tradition and culture, was organized by Stephanie Johnson, a Métis, who was dressed in black with a contrasting red Indigenous cape with a motif of stylized hummingbirds. “I wanted the ceremony to honour Indigenous elders and involve the Hul’q’umi’num language with traditional singing, drumming, gift-giving, storytelling and feasting,” she stated. Not only were her goals met, but the ceremony reinforced Indigenous spiritual connections to the land and, very importantly, served as a very positive step along the bumpy road to truth and reconciliation.