Elder Louis Thomas speaks to students from Salmon Arm West about how his people used to live on the land around Shuswap Lake. The Neskonlith councillor will be present The Power of Storytelling at this year’s Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival. (File photo)

Preserving Secwepemc culture, history through storytelling

Neskonlith councillor Louis Thomas to share his craft at Word on the Lake

By Barb Brouwer

Nobody is more aware of the power of storytelling than Louis Thomas.

The Neskonlith councillor says storytelling is vital to the continuation of the Indigenous culture.

“It’s always been our way, it’s all about our oral history,” he says. “The only writing you see is the petroglyphs, until the Jesuits came and they developed a written language around our Secwepemc (Shuswap) people.”

Son of the late and much-loved Mary Thomas, he continues to build on his mother’s legacy of inclusiveness through Indigenous-settler relations that lead to a better understanding of Secwepemc history, and a better world.

A consummate storyteller, Thomas is an activist and community builder, involved in many facets of the Neskonlith band as well as several organizations within the wider Shuswap community.

He will be sharing his stories at the Word on the Lake Writers’ Festival, which takes place from May 10 to 12 at the Prestige Harbourfront Inn and Okanagan College.

Read more: Word on the Lake is in the books

Read more: Bringing stories to life

“We have to keep telling our stories to keep our knowledge alive,” he says, pointing out the work his mother initiated to record the stories in the Secwepemc language continues, with several people preserving what little is left on video and tape. “When an elder dies, a little bit of our knowledge dies with them.”

Thomas points out that one of the effects of residential school trauma is that many elders don‘t share their knowledge because they have been suppressed for so long.

He is well aware of the residential school system, having been sent to Kamloops in the early 1960s after quitting school in Salmon Arm. Even though treatment of Indigenous people was improving, Thomas lasted only three months of being told when to get up, when to eat and when to pray.

“I didn’t like it so I ran away,” he says, describing how he tried to hop a train in the middle of winter but the doors wouldn’t open so he climbed on top and held his little suitcase in front of his face for protection against the icy wind.

When he neared the bridge on Neskonlith band land, he threw the suitcase off and, fearing he’d end up in Revelstoke if he didn’t get off the train, jumped into a large sawdust pile near an old mill.

He was 15 at the time and while he tells this story with laughter, the pain is evident.

“I was already a rebel, angry and bitter,” he says, noting he, Harold and their sister Jane were the first Indigenous children in the area to be sent to school in Salmon Arm. “I had lots to be angry about – an abusive dad and part of it was non-acceptance at public school where we were called dirty, stinky Indians.”

Thomas says his people learned to accept the attitude and knew very well where they could and could not go. And some of his bitterness was directed towards the Roman Catholic Church, who had a small church on the reserve where Thomas was an altar boy.

“They moved off the reserve; they’d done their job and then they stopped coming,” he says of the band’s conversion to Christianity. “Our reserve was our whole life and we were not really allowed to come off it. But they liked the little money we had.”

Thomas says Indigenous people spoke for a long time amongst themselves about their treatment at residential school without being heard,

“It’s only in past few years that people acknowledge it and the racism and discrimination, but we’re slowly being accepted.”

Like his mother, it was connecting with his grandmother, who taught him the Secwepemc language and everything about his rich culture.

As was the Indigenous custom at the time, the two oldest sons, Thomas and his brother Harold were sent to live with their grandparents, Thomas with his mother’s parents and Harold with his father’s family.

The custom was the Indigenous way of ensuring the oldest sons would take over hunting and gathering when their grandparents could no longer do it for themselves.

The pain may remain, but Thomas has become very connected to community.

Thomas is currently working with The Shuswap Trail Alliance and Agriculture on a plan to renew native plants, many of which have been lost. He was a founding member of the Salmon River Watershed Roundtable, works with tourism, and the art gallery and is cultural advisor too R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum. He is often asked to perform the opening prayer at local events and is happy to share his culture with anyone who shows an interest.

Read more: Safe route needed between First Nations, Salmon Arm communities

Read more: Rebuilding a sweat lodge

“Rather than bridging the two cultures, I feel more like we’re walking together,” he says, proud that he has been included in the community’s upcoming multicultural day.

While he feels comfortable in working with anyone, Thomas turns to his own culture for physical and spiritual health.

He goes to a sweat house several times a week, a place that allows him to connect with the land and animals and says that while he sometimes feel overwhelmed about all the projects he is involved with, he believes “it’s the creator who sends me to do what I do.”

Thomas will present The Power of Storytelling from 10:35 to 12:05 p.m. on Sunday, May 12 in the Gathering Place at Okanagan College.

For more information on the annual festival for writers and readers, go to www.shuswapwritersfestival.com.


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