Penticton, B.C.--The website for the Okanagan National Alliance describes The Four Food Chiefs Gathering as, “an annual gathering of Syilx Nation members. This event focuses on information sharing, utilizing the enowkinwixw model through our Four Food Chiefs. Each year, the event consists of workshops, discussions, presentations, keynotes and activities that focus on connecting to the land and water, connecting to each other, our well-being and learning useful tools to thrive!”

Chief Greg Gabriel welcomed everyone to the Four Food Chiefs unceded territory of the Okanagan Nation. He spoke about how the world is changing with droughts, wildfires and less snow in recent winters. “The changes in our world affect everything that is attached to our land. That has become a concern and we all know that. We need to work together to become our strong nation again. We all have the same issues and same concerns. And we all have to work together to put back, I hope someday, back in the right place."

Chief Gabriel went on to say, “There are some things we need to focus on and teach our children. Keep our minds on the changing world because it’s going to continue to change. I’m glad the next couple days you will be looking at what we have, and what’s left out there after the fires destroyed, but we don’t give up and we will fight for that.”

The first keynote speaker of the conference was Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum). She, “is from the Treaty 6 lands in what is now called ‘Canada.’  She is a direct descendant of Treaty peoples and Original peoples of these lands. Sylvia is from the nēhīyaw Nation. She has her Juris Doctorate from the University of Saskatchewan and a Bachelor’s degree in Human Justice from the University of Regina.  Sylvia is co-founder of a global grassroots Indigenous-led movement called 'Idle No More,' which has changed the political and social landscape of Canada as well as reached the global community to defend and protect all lands, waters and animals.”

Sylvia began by acknowledging the generations of work before her that have resisted colonization, “Ours is just a heartbeat in that long work.” She told those in attendance that her People tell stories, and their history is in their language. It is the women who carry the original instructions from the Highest Being, as they have no word for “laws.” Sylvia referred to the original instructions as Laws since it is convenient to do so in the English language. “No human being can know all of the laws, then you are saying you are the Creator–that is impossible.”


The Original Instruction, “To Step-over” meant you had to step over all of the laws laid out in front of you, with the understanding that they were there and for you to be mindful of them. Language is a gift, and there are instructions to speak as sacredly as possible (no swearing, or gossiping), but not to say people don’t get mad, but to try everyday. Sylvia said, “My biggest challenge is not other people, it is myself.” There is also the law against anything other than a human being: not to overharvest trees, or medicine; to sing the songs of the animals when you go hunting. 

When people go through government systems that determine eligibility, they are oftentimes left feeling unworthy. They feel dehumanized and begin to believe it. She spoke of a homeless young adult in her community, who didn’t fit the Indian Act criteria for housing, who summarized  their own plight as, “The longer I’m homeless, the less human I feel.” By surrounding herself with others who did the same work as she pursued, they have been able to find housing for these young adults who would have otherwise been neither here, nor there.

Protecting the land is an act of freedom, liberation, and self-determination. Their Treaty 6 Lands and trees were threatened as Canadian resources for logging companies–treaty violations masquerading as capitalism and progress, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They did not save it all, but saved more than by being docile and passive. She is still able to bring her grandchildren to those same forests out on the land. 

Sylvia authored the book, “Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing Nehiyaw Legal Systems." In the book, she explains “mamitoneyihta.” The first syllable is the sound of the Universe, where Crees are guided to seek their thinking. The Universe has a sound, which is forever. Their language moves them and their heart. Their songs are ancient and span generations, reaching back to their ancestors and tell the history of the land and waters. 

In their own stories, the women hold jurisdiction over the land and water when the Creator took away drums and songs by using the waves of the water as a drum to remember their songs. It is the women who sing songs to seek permission to be on the water to protect everyone from harm. It was the women who were traditionally consulted regarding the land and water. The women are the traditional knowledge keepers. They will revitalize their systems and nation by sharing the songs of the land and water of their lands.  

When a law is broken, it needs to be fixed. Because that person, family, nation becomes sick. The women made peace with the Blackfoot after a battle that took many lives, even though the Cree won because it took a heavy toll. They said never push another nation to act desperately, which forced the Blackfoot to take lives. They have ‘wahkohtowin' (related by blood) and 'wahkohmtowin' (related by relationships). 

Everything they need to revitalize their nation is there to learn and put into practice. It is a matter of sharing the work and gathering the People with the knowledge and fortitude to make those changes. 

After the keynote address, the attendees broke up into four groups to discuss: 1. How can the information shared be applied in our lives?; 2. Does the information in the keynote tell us anything about the tmix (animal) world? Moderators in each group led the discussion and notes were taken for a report to be made available at a later date.

Part 2 will be coming to a future Tribal Tribune issue.

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