By: Kelsie Kilawna
Where I grew up on my reserve the hills are rolling and green, they carry medicine so powerful that it heals our bodies and spirits; it’s where the waters teach us humility by living in the lowest part of our beautiful valley.
ałi kwu swiwi-numtax, we are beautiful, ałi kwu suknaqinx, we are Okanagan, ałi axa/ L/tmxwula/xw, because our land is beautiful.
That’s our Okanagan Song, the one that reminds us of our responsibilities to our lands, and also reminds us we are beautiful when we exist on our lands. And to not forget we are as beautiful as our land is. This brings me to the topic of this newsletter: ‘rez life.’
When someone says, “Well that’s just rez life,” or they infer a stereotype about the reserve – us rez kids know our home differently. There’s a mentality you gain while being raised on the rez, a communal responsibility you learn. There is a type of humour you pick up that usually isn’t accepted off the reserve, but there is so much beauty to it – along with the pain, yes.
Reserves were created for many reasons, among those are: land theft, genocide, forced starvation, and assimilation – all being enforced through the Pass System.
Many Elders in our community still have some of those passes hanging up in their homes as a reminder of what they had meant: to be allowed to leave the reserve, and they were trying to kill the sqilxw in us. For those who aren’t familiar with the Pass System it was a system set up by the Canadian government to control our movements on our land, using Indian Agents to do it. Indian Agents gave us a “pass” to leave our communities for various reasons, such as visits with our children in the residential “schools,” or for hunting, sustenance gathering, to sell our goods to the markets, medical visits, etc. The Pass System was phased out in the 1930s.
Regardless of the Pass System, and regardless of the colonial genocidal policy that created reserves, the rez is a safe space for us Indigenous kin to roam our lands freely, without harassment. A place where the world goes quiet and we feel safe to exist – unapologetically.
Kelsie Kilawna centre and big sister Alicia Marchand with our cousins after a day of gathering in the swamps to make materials for various uses.
I want to share a poem by Mekko Bulo BearKiller titled, When I die, I hope there’s a reservation in heaven.
When I die I hope there’s reservations in heaven,
Can heaven be a reservation?
I’m used to the beauty, the pain, and the struggle,
I don’t want no city of gold the colonizers talk about,
I want them saturday mornings at grandmas house,
Laying on the floor with my cousins,
No money. No father.
Man, can reservations be in heaven?
I love you.
This is a clip of what life is like in our home community, the Okanagan Indian Band.
This poem captures a moment of what it’s like, for some, to be a “Rez Kid.” If you grew up on the rez it doesn’t matter what age you are, you’re a “Rez Kid.” And I want to share what that looked like for me, what being a rez kid looks like for those of us who grew up in my community.
What was it like to be a rez kid on my reserve? The Okanagan Indian Band, the second largest reserve in the province, where the scenery is breathtaking, and where you come from any one of these areas: ‘the Six,’ ‘Round Lake,’ ‘Head of the Lake,’ ‘Whitemans,’ ‘Up by Roberts,’ ‘Across the lake,’ ‘By the Mudhole,’ ‘Duck lake,’ ‘Salmon River,’ ‘Irish Creek,’ ‘Roping Ranch,’ ‘the Old Mill,’ or ‘near Neehoot.’
For those who drive through my rez, they pass by worlds existing – worlds many will never see.
You pass by the homes of our Elders who are inside, mixing up a pot of boiling medicines they gathered from just outside their house. They might be washing down their walls with Rose Water, or cooking up some food they leave on the stove for the many people who will visit their home that day. You never leave granny’s house without gifts, a full belly, and a margarine container of leftovers for your loved ones at home.
On my rez, you always see children playing outside together, where their imaginations run wild, alongside rez dogs that have become their arch-nemesis, but, those same dogs would also protect them in a heartbeat in the face of danger.
On my rez you would always find the old grocery store, where so many generations of memories were made, buzzing with people. On any given day back in the ’80s a 10-year-old rez kid’s bike would lay on the ground outside, and inside he would be buying his grandma a pack of smokes with a note, that was always followed up with by a phone call from the teller (also a community Aunty) to confirm the note before the sale.
Skookamina Marchand laying in the creek and bathing before going into the mountain to gather berries. He's familiarizing himself with the waters that feed the feed the berries he's about to go and harvest.
On my rez, there are kids running in the big field sprinklers down at the Pow Wow Arbour, cooling off on a hot summer’s day. You’d see kids laying in the irrigation ditches and occasionally flooding the road because we wanted to pool up the “creek.”
On my rez, kids will take off to other reserves to go fishing in creeks or on the ice for trout and ling cod and bring it home to granny who would make it for dinner.
Ice fishing nights, fishing in spaxmn for ling cod.
You would see us outside tanning hides with our Auntys, while the others are off in the mountains learning to hunt with Uncle.
On my rez you see kids crying with scraped knees after doing something they were warned not to do, and an Aunty cleverly scolding us from her window, yelling “Now go do it again!” As if to say "If you're going to be foolish, you'd better be tough." Then just as quickly she runs out to help.
On any given night on my rez, the community hall would have a packed parking lot full of cars under the night stars where our Uncles would gather to talk, while the Auntys are inside cooking and cleaning, and the older cousins would be minding the younger ones.
On my rez you are known by your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. When you introduce yourself you know to share your family lines and whereabouts you are from so we know how to relate to one another. This is always followed by a story of how that person knows your family. There are always stories attached to our names.
On my rez you always had three gatherings going on at the same time. One for the kids, one for the teens, and one for the adults. It’s never out of place to find a random person laying on your bed when you invited a bunch of people over for dinner. The food is just that good, you always hear, “Go ahead and go lay down in the back room.” Everywhere you are, you are home.
What was it like to grow up on my rez?
It meant we were loved by a whole community of people, it meant that I couldn’t get away with anything because there was always an Aunty or Uncle around the corner ready to correct me. The many times I heard, “Don’t forget, niece, in everything you do you represent this family,” or, “I know your Dad, better smarten up,” and it would be enough to put me back in my place. I think a lot of people think we come off gruff, blunt, or hardened, but our hearts are soft. Our people haven’t been speaking English as long as others so our words are more direct, and in our language, we can't tell lies so there is no other way to say things.
So when we deliver loving messages they come off blunt, but it’s because those messages need to be said. At the core of those messages, it is a belief that you’re worthy of being in a good community, and that you are loved by the whole community.
On the rez you find safety, you find dark humour, and big roaring laughter. You find a safe place to sit with your people and grieve your losses, you find loving encouragement from the Auntys to keep going when you need respite from the colonial world.
Even though the rez had a negative impact on so many because of its roots in colonialism, as always, we know how to make our land our home and that’s what we’ve done.
We are beautiful because our land is beautiful.