There is a painting and quote of Elder Mary Paul in the main lobby of St. Eugene that reads, “Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”
A program that embodies that quote, 20 years in the making, is finally ready for pilot runs and marketing campaigns. Known as Speaking Earth, Haqaⱡpaⱡninam (Hackalth-palth-knee-nam), it is a four-day experience in which tourists will get a unique, totally immersive experience of the culture, language and traditional land of the Ktunaxa Nation.
The experience consists of time spent at St. Eugene, a night in a tipi and hearing Ktunaxa legends from an Elder around the campfire, traditional games and beading, tours of the residential school and trips to Creston and Nelson areas to learn about the spiritual significance of the terrain and the Ainsworth hot springs. The trip will also encompass Akisqnuk traditional territory.
The Townsman sat down at St. Eugene with CEO Barry Zwueste, Business and Product Development Coordinator of the Ktunaxa Traditional Knowledge and Language sector (TKL) Jared Teneese and Director of the TKL Don Sam to talk about this new endeavour.
Zwueste explained that when the decision was made by the community to transition St. Eugene from its historical use as a residential school into something much more positive, it had always been conceived that there would be a First Nations program attachment with it.
“For whatever reason that did not come to fruition,” Zwueste said. “And then a couple years ago when I came on board it seemed like a natural, for me, that a natural offering at St. Eugene should be provided so we started the journey and it’s been a journey of finding the right people.”
During Zwueste’s first conversations with Sam, they knew they were on to something, and Sam had many valuable suggestions to add to the vision, but lacked the resources at the time to bring it to life.
When Sam acquired the services of Teneese, who also saw the vision in its entirety, and with St. Eugene providing the venue, marketing and sales — the project was at last able to begin to take shape.
“There’s a high amount of risk involved to be honest,” said Zwueste. “It wasn’t until we had the thrust of the Nation behind it, through the Traditional Knowledge and Language Sector (TKL) that we could actually start to get some traction going.”
Another crucial factor to be considered, according to Sam, is that while many people like to enjoy First Nations style experiences, it must be done in a way that benefits the Indigenous community itself.
“The idea of a tipi camp so that tourists can come get their entertainment and so that the resort that we didn’t even own at the time could increase their sales … what was in it for the Ktunaxa people?” said Sam.
“So the fundamental business model had to be in a way that was conducive to give life to the culture of the Ktunaxa people. It wasn’t so long ago that our culture, our traditions, our spirituality were outlawed.
“This very residential school tried taking away our language and our culture and our family, our sense of identity. So when we’re turning that around and saying ‘hey we want to celebrate this’ there’s a point there where we have to identify how can we benefit from this.”
Sam and Teneese are both part of the first generation that were not forced to attend the St. Eugene residential school — they both had parents that were.
Emphasizing the fact that the Ktunaxa language is considered critically endangered Sam explained how a program such as this will not only leave its attendees with a deeper and more profound understanding and respect for the language and culture, it will also be a point of pride for the Ktunaxa community, especially its youth.
“For me the real reason of wanting to do this,” said Teneese, “not just trying to help Barry out, in the fact that what this camp really means for TKL and what it really meant for the SCM and what it really meant for the Ktunaxa people is this gives us now a chance to use our culture use our language every day.”
The marketing campaign began with the launch of a pilot of the first two legs of the adventure that was then followed up with a presentation from Teneese and Zwueste to members of Aboriginal Tourism BC. Now they are working to finalize the details of the last legs of the program before taking it to Canada’s West Marketplace in November and then Rendezvous Canada and perhaps internationally going forward.