10-acre parcel of land anchors Stqeeye’ projects
Part of the Truth and Reconciliation journey involves learning about Indigenous people’s history and connections to one’s community. For residents of Salt Spring and the other Gulf Islands, there is lots to learn.
For example, Xwaaqu’um (pronounced “hoo-wah-kwum” and also known as Burgoyne Bay) is the site of a Quw’utsun (Cowichan) village that was inhabited until colonization occurred about 150 years ago.
One of Maiya Modeste’s ancestors was the chief of that village, and she and others involved with the Stqeeye’ Learning Society (SLS) are excited about an opportunity that will see the non-profit society acquire a 10-acre parcel of land in Xwaaqu’um.
The land purchase and project are the subject of a $2-million fundraising effort called the ‘mi tse’t’akw’ (Coming Home) Campaign, which was publicly launched Sept. 16 at the Mateada Convergence event in Ganges.
Just under half of the cost is for the land purchase itself, which came about in a “meant-to-be” kind of way.
Modeste told the Driftwood last week that SLS had been seeking a parcel of land for its activities for a long time, and members were working hard to acquire one in the Burgoyne Valley, but all sorts of barriers kept popping up to make it unworkable. Then one day at a strategic planning meeting they were approached by a couple who said they had a property at Xwaaqu’um that they wanted to see go to people who loved the land as much as they did.
“They said, ‘We couldn’t picture any better people to take over this property.’ So it was so special.”
About $500,000 has been raised from generous individuals and foundations to date, and those involved are eager to see the purchase completed and improvements initiated. Plans include upgrading an existing residence for Quw’utsun Elders to live in, creating a base of operations for a youth-focused, land-based education program, a native plant nursery and SLS staff housing. The vision is to create a special place for weaving together food security, stories and community.
“It’s been a really amazing journey so far,” said Modeste, “and we’ve just felt an overwhelming amount of support from the community. I think there’s just such a need and a desire for relationships with us, with Indigenous people of the land. A lot of people will say that it is an enriching experience to connect with the Indigenous people of the land, because we look at the land in such a different way. There’s so much appreciation, reciprocity, relationship and knowledge that a lot of people weren’t aware of, and it’s been strategically withheld from the general public. I think we’re coming to a time where Indigeneity is celebrated. And I think a lot of people are looking for truth. They’re looking for people like us to learn from and I think to have a space to do that is just so heartwarming.”
Stqeeye’ (pronounced Stah-kay-uh) has had a presence in Xwaaqu’um in Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park lands for a number of years. A watershed restoration project has been ongoing, as well as Youth on the Land camps and other activities connecting youth with Elders and traditional knowledge keepers.
Modeste is the Garry oak ecosystem restoration coordinator. Her partner Tyee Joseph is a water data technician, and both were originally volunteers with the society.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with the Stqeeye’ Learning Society,” said Joseph. “I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years, working with experts in the field. It’s been very hands-on and that’s the way I really like to learn.”
He also appreciates being involved with a group that has a positive impact on both Indigenous youth and the environment.
“To be able to say that we helped even a little bit in creating wetlands or getting some youth in contact with culture — and to practise culture on the land would have been illegal for a long time — it feels really good to be able to say that we’ve helped to heal some of those intergenerational wounds, even if it is a small bit.”
But he and Modeste look forward to transferring operations from land under BC Parks jurisdiction to a private setting, as there are certain restrictions and permitting issues connected to activities in the provincial park.
Having a native plant nursery on the property is another exciting part of the plan, as plants used in Xwaaqu’um restoration work are currently grown in the Cowichan Valley and trucked over to the island.
An area to grow culturally significant plants would also show people what sustainable living looked like in the pre-colonization period, said Joseph, and traditional meals could be prepared there.
People who have participated in or witnessed Quw’utsun cultural activities on Salt Spring may be familiar with Modeste, Joseph and Modeste’s grandfather Tsoulim (Ron George). Tsoulim is an Elder and member of the Tzinquaw Dancers who often speaks at public events. His great grandfather was the chief of Xwaaqu’um village, so Tsoulim is its hereditary chief, as the eldest surviving brother in his family, explained Modeste.
Facilitating the family’s return to Xwaaqu’um has immense meaning and an underlying urgency.
“There’s really a fire under us to get our Elders home. My grandfather’s health is declining and we just want him to be able to rest there; to be in his traditional territory. He has a right and a responsibility to that land, and he expresses that all the time.”
To learn more about the Coming Home campaign and how to donate, and to see a short film made by Alex Harris with Modeste talking about the project, visit the stqeeye.ca/land website.