The great gathering of B.C. First Nations elders is returning to the same tribal grounds of the Sto:lo Nation in Abbotsford 35 years after the first meeting.
Millie Silver, a 73-year-old local elder, says it all began in 1977 with the Coqualeetza elders.
“When they started it, there was only about 40 people at that first gathering,” she said. “Then they travelled around and it got bigger and bigger.”
The gathering has been held in different parts of B.C. every July since, the last one drawing 2,500 people to the Secwepemc Nation in Salmon Arm.
This July, it’s at the Tradex Centre in Abbotsford, and for the first time will be open to anyone, not just elders. That means organizers are expecting up to 5,000 visitors.
Silver says she and her husband Ray have been going to gatherings for 10 years and wanted to bring it back to the Fraser Valley, last held in Chilliwack in 2001.
“I went around and talked with some of the elders about bringing it back to the Fraser Valley. They all said yes.”
The word Coqualeetza is anglicized from the Halq’emeylem word Qw’oqw’elith’a, meaning clubbing. Before the Europeans, the Sto:lo (People of the River) washed their clothing by clubbing it in the streams with a wooden mallet.
Silver says the Elders Gathering is a way of preserving common heritage and traditions.
“[It] was a chance for them to get together to share our culture and traditional ways – our songs and our dances – and just share in each other’s stories.”
Those stories include some dark moments in history. Many elders were forced into Indian residential schools, Silver says.
“I remember one of the very first ones (gatherings) that Ray and I went to on the island, he met one old schoolmate that he hadn’t seen for over 60 years. So it was a very emotional time for them to get reacquainted.”
The Tradex Centre was considered the perfect spot in Abbotsford because all the events are on one floor, making it accessible to many elderly and disabled people.
There are 24 bands in the Sto:lo territory, extending from Langley to 5 Mile Creek, north of Yale, on both sides of the Fraser.
The Sto:lo are Coast Salish people, so Silver says they have invited relatives from all over B.C. and the coastal U.S.
The gathering will feature workshops on financial management, elder abuse, and scheduled tours of the Sto:lo territory. There will also be traditional games, dances and songs at the Sumas Longhouse.
The dates are July 12, 13 and 14. Registration begins at 8 a.m. and costs $50.