Voices that were silenced are coming to life in the Shuswap.
Through a collaboration that began between Neskonlith elder Louis Thomas and Tracey Kutschker, curator/director of the Salmon Arm Art Centre, the legends and family stories of the Secwepemc people are being matched with the work of visual artists.
“We’re oral history and we’ve done very little to record it, protect it and save it,” says Thomas. “Every year we’re losing more of it. If we don’t start protecting it, eventually we’re going to lose it.”
He says he and Kutschker took part in the arts centre’s Trail Mix multi-media exhibition, where they went up Mt. Ida with artist Linda Franklin.
“She did the painting, I did my little talk on the side. That’s where Tracey got the idea from.”
The exhibition is called Slxlxaya: Stories of the Secwepemc People.
Some of the legends told by his mother, the late Mary Thomas, which were recorded for radio, will be featured.
“They put us on the reserves long ago and put a big Donald Trump fence around us, I call it,” says Louis.
“I am trying to raise the profile of our people, to keep telling our story… We’ve been ignored too long. Our story needs to be told, not just by me but with other people…
“Everybody’s got a story, not only our people.”
Kutschker says it’s a two-phase project and they’re still in phase one.
First Nations knowledge keepers were invited through Irene LaBoucane at the North Okanagan Shuswap School District as well as via Thomas. Kutschker invited the artists, in consultation with Secwepemc elders and educators.
“Louis and I wanted to match aboriginal artists and Secwepemc storytellers to work together to create visual work that would match a story. We’ve done that. We have our 10 artists and storytellers.”
Kutschker says a variety of new and traditional media will be used, ranging from animation to painting to carving to bead work.
The stories, she says, “are amazing – so beautifully recorded with kids’ voices.”
People visiting the art gallery between June 2 and Aug. 4 this year will be able to view the artwork as well as listening to the stories.
“It’s a wonderful presentation but it’s also been really wonderful going through this process,” she says. “One of the things that is really important to me is to build long-term relationships. We’re never going to fully understand each other unless we have lots of time to gather and talk and tell our stories. So this process has allowed me to do this. I’m working so much with Louis Thomas, every time I think to myself, ‘I need to talk to Louis about this,’ he shows up. It’s the weirdest thing. Every time I see him I say, ‘Oh good, I have to talk to you about something.’ He says, ‘I know, that’s why I came.’”
Splatsin artists will be involved as well. One Splatsin wood carver will do the story of UFOs from the Indigenous perspective.
Phase 2 of the project will be loading the whole exhibition into a beautifully carved crate so it will be made available at no cost to organizations and educational institutions in the B.C. Interior. Kutschker says the school district is interested in integrating the exhibition with its new curriculum.
“Sometimes all this work is done and there’s no legacy piece… For this purpose, Louis wanted to have a way to have children keep learning about Secwepemc culture.”
Kutschker says there’s no limit on stories.
“We hope to collect as many stories as we can for the audiophile. Not just legends. We want stories as well. Contemporary and traditional stories are what we’re hoping to collect. Early settler relations would be really good. Anyone interested, just stop in.”
She expects they’ll be able to take stories up until April.
Throughout the process, Kutschker says, one of her goals is to make sure that the Secwepemc voice is heard.
“That’s so critical, in this era of reconciliation – we’ve got to do the truth part, all be open to truth. Like reconciliation – it’s not just ‘hugging it out’ like Arthur Manuel says in his book, we have to fix a lot of things.”