More than 150 Grade 4 students were immersed in the customs and traditions of a Wet’suwet’en feast at the Moricetown Multiplex last week.
Dubbed a “learning feast,” the gathering was a chance for students to experience first-hand what they had learned about Wet’suwet’en culture in the classroom.
However, its main business was to honour the work of the teachers and First Nations leaders who helped teach the Wet’suwet’en unit at School District 54 Bukley Valley schools.
School buses carrying students from Houston, Telkwa and Smithers converged on Moricetown for the annual educational event.
The feast system, which is used to mark important events or to express gratitude, is a part of First Nations culture in northwest B.C. but some customs are specific to Wet’suwet’en tradition.
Students at last week’s feast were separated into four Wet’suwet’en clans of Gil_seyhu (big frog), Gitdumden (wolf and bear), Tsayu (beaver) and the host clan Laksilyu (small frog).
Each student group or individual guest was greeted at the door and led to an assigned seat, marked by the speaker who pounds a wooden staff in front of the chair.
Before the feast, the group heard that it was customary to remain in that seat and only speak quietly if they must.
Speaker Hagwilneghl, whose English name is Ron Mitchell, told the students they should not refuse any of the food offered to them.
“In the feast hall we accept what is offered, we don’t say ‘no thank you’,” said Hagwilneghl.
“That would be an insult.”
He explained that feasts usually last 12 to 18 hours, but last week’s was condensed so that the students could attend.
Prayers were offered before and after the feast and a steady stream of food and drinks, much more than most could eat, were handed out by the host clan.
Meanwhile, Lake Kathlyn Elementary School teacher Mel Basil shared a traditional story of kindness.
“I would like to ask your permission to loan me your imaginations,” he said to the students and teachers.
“I would only like to borrow it for a time.
“It’s not mine to keep, I will hold it and honour it and respect it.
“And I need a volunteer … your job is to remind me to give them back.”
Basil told the story of a trapper who helped an injured man and was rewarded for his kindness.
After the story, he returned the people’s imaginations.
Traditions and customs were on display throughout the feast.
One student who spilled their drink on the floor had to call for donations from her Tsayu clan to give to back to the host clan Laksilyu, which was responsible for maintaining a clean hall.
Before the ceremony’s conclusion, gifts of gratitude were offered to Grade 4 teachers and Wet’suwet’en leaders.
Students from the Twain Sullivan School thanked Chief Na’moks for teaching their class with a traditional-style blanket with their names written in needle-craft.
Chief Madeek (Jeff Brown) was among those who honoured the teachers and leaders for teaching the children about the Wet’suwet’en.
“I want to thank all the students and the teachers that put a big effort into coming here to this feast,” he said.
“This is very important work you do educating the children.”
School District 54 aboriginal curriculum teacher Jana Fox, who is also a Wet’suwet’en woman, said the feast system was part of the Wet’suwet’en unit the Grade 4 students had completed at school.
The students also learned about social structure, traditional territory, rules and protocols, oral traditions and hunting and fishing technology.
Fox said First Nations culture was becoming more prevalent in public school learning.
She said it would play an even bigger role in a new elementary curriculum which is being developed.
“Incorporating First Nations content into your classroom I think has been growing stronger for the past five years, it just gets bigger and bigger,” she said.
“I think it’s really important for our students to recognize the culture that has been in this area for time immemorial.
“What I really like about this unit is that the kids are excited to learn about the people and they gain a real sense of appreciation and respect for other people and I think that is really important.”