‘A symbol of us’: Esk’étemc-built powwow arbour connects community

Esk'etemc Sawmill recently finished building the First Nation a brand new powwow arbour. Tino Seidler / Supplied

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In the early 1990s, Esk’étemc youth banded together to build the community’s first powwow arbour.

“They started off by just building it with whatever was there,” said Irene Johnson, Esk’étemc coucillor and head of the community’s powwow committee.

But last year after the powwow season wrapped, community members noticed the old arbour was starting to fall apart and decided to build a new one. Johnson collaborated with Tino Seidler on the project — he’s the manager of the Esk’et Sawmill, which is entirely community-run.

The new powwow arbour offers not only a space for powwows but for culture sharing, gathering and events that bring the community together.

“It was all built by our own sawmill crew, our own people,” said Johnson. “I’m so proud of this.”

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The arbour saw its first powwow on Aug. 25 — which was to honour Indigenous children and those who didn’t come home from residential schools.

“When we did our grand entry, we had all children carrying in the flags, there were special dances for them and we had a spotlight dance,” said Johnson.

“We turned off all the lights and we spotlighted a three- and four-year-old as they danced; it was really emotional because of all the children that didn’t come home.”

“We wanted to honour that and remind people that we do have children still missing out there.”

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Esk’étemc is focusing on ways it can help make culture accessible to community members. Johnson said many members are interested in learning more especially when it comes to ceremony and traditions — the arbour helps with that.

Ahead of Esk’étemc’s first powwow in the new space, material was purchased to help community members who normally can’t afford regalia and they were taught how to make their own.

“Those who have lower income, you’re really limited to what you can buy, right?” said Johnson. “We see the issue, so we try and respond.”

Click to play video: 'Grandmother explains why she’s making regalia for her grandchild'
Grandmother explains why she’s making regalia for her grandchild

Esk’et Sawmill employs five community members and several learned woodworking on the job; the project was community-led from start to finish.

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They started with cutting boards, beams and boards but now routinely make benches and outdoor furniture. However, the arbour was their biggest project yet.

“It took four and a half months to make and was kind of stressful to be under that time crunch, there was a lot of pressure” said Seidler. “We needed to have it done for the powwow.”

The arbour consists of four sections, each one painted to represent the four directions — red, yellow, white and black. There are large timber beams and an awning that surround the arena.

Esk’et Sawmill led the construction of the new powwow arbour for Esk’étemc. The arbour features the colours of the four directions. Tino Seidler / Supplied

The arbour will be used for more than just powwows. They’ve since hosted a music fest and have even recorded the community’s language speakers there.

“After the powwow, we were recording some of our elders speaking and people came up and they were just sitting there listening to the stories — we’re trying to keep the language strong,” said Johnson.

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“We’re trying to get our fluent speakers speaking and recorded so we have that available, bringing it into the schools and daycare.”

The arbour is up by Alkali Lake, and a popular place for people to visit located just a 10-minute drive from the heart of the community. There’s a nearby campground and the community plans to increase the area’s capacity for events and gatherings.

“It’s a symbol of us,” said Johnson. “We host cultural camps up there we also do our fasting ceremony, our vision quest happened in June where we bring people up in the mountains in that same area … it’s a really spiritual place for us.”

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