Observance included day-long powwow drumming and song
Gulf Islands Secondary School (GISS) students and staff observed Truth and Reconciliation Day early on Thursday, with a day of learning and listening highlighted by powwow drumming, singing and a march through Ganges.
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was Friday, Sept. 30. GISS is usually closed on Fridays, so the school’s observance was moved up so everyone could participate meaningfully.
The drumming started at 9 a.m., and didn’t end until dismissal, featuring a rotating group of student musicians taking turns offering “many hands,” according to Indigenous education principal Shannon Johnston. She said some communities will drum for as long as two days.
“The drum beat is the heartbeat,” said Johnston. “We’re drumming for those who did not make it home from the residential schools, who’ve been living in a place of anguish.”
The idea, said Johnston, is to welcome those children back to the creator and their loved ones, to release them from that pain. The drumming was part of a week that saw staff engaging students on how they can be part of the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation — a cultural shift that is still, Johnston agreed, in its early stages.
“Yes, we’re looking backwards in time, to a history that we are not proud of,” said Johnston, “but we’re listening deeply to the elders who are telling us the truth — the first step in truth and reconciliation.”
That deep listening to things that are hard to hear, and conversations that are hard to have, is how we can honour those elders and their story, said Johnston.
“We look back to yesterday, and look forward to tomorrow. And by participating in events like this, you’re changing the trajectory of tomorrow for so many.”
As the drumming continued, music teacher Michelle Footz led the GISS choir — and ultimately, the entire gathered school — in a song by Indigenous composer Sherryl Sewepagaham. Footz and Johnston said the song was given to them at a recent conference of elders, knowledge keepers and songmakers in Victoria. Because it was gifted, the song is sacred, Johnston said. Footz said the melody gives singers and listeners a framework, but not a specific message.
“Because there are no words, you can think about what the meaning is,” said Footz, “either by singing along or just listening. We sing it six times. The first time we each set our own intention with the meaning of the song, and that can feel different for everybody.”
Drums in hand, students and staff then marched in song off school grounds, down Rainbow Road and through town, encountering waves of encouragement and cheerfully beeping horns along the way.
“It’s exciting and beautiful,” said Johnston. “I’m so excited to see all our youth here at the high school, standing in a place of pride as they learn about their cultures.”