By Odette Auger, Buffalo Spirit Reporter
Wenecwtsin, Wayne Christian’s Secwepemctsín name, means “big voice that speaks truth.”
It’s a name that the Splatsin Kukpi7 (chief) waited more than 50 years to receive.
He’s a Sixties Scoop child, removed from his community early in life.
A stet̓ex7ám (old one), kyé7e (grandmother) Lena in the community went on a fast to ask the ancestors for guidance in his naming. The name was given in the community, and she explained that the ancestors said he should be using his great grandfather’s name, Wenecwtsin.
“It was just an instant connection to the land, and hard to explain,” Wenecwtsin said. “It just connected me to where I was from and who I am because I’ve never really left this area. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve just been away.”
Wenecwtsin has been given two other names that are not yet publicly shared, following protocol. They were given to him by Elders from his community, and beyond, to honour his work.
“The names are for the connection, and how we identify ourselves.”
The Sixties Scoop refers to the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system. It was common practice on reserves in B.C. and across Canada for very young children, including newly born babies, to be taken from their mothers and placed into middle-class Euro-Canadian families.
It was an assimilation practice that replaced the waning residential school system with a ballooning child welfare system. It continues with “birth-alerts” today, when child services is called into hospitals to remove newborns from Indigenous mothers who have been flagged for one reason or another.
Wenecwtsin’s path had its dark moments, he said. But he’s worked through his own healing process and now his effort has turned to others “to find an effective process to help, because it is the pain of the people. I’ve walked it all my life,” he said.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to learn many things through going through fasts and ceremonies, conducting ceremonies, and from the ancestors,” says Wenecwtsin.
“And my job is to be a translator for the next generation, to show them that it’s possible that we can help ourselves heal ourselves.”
Wenecwtsin says it’s important to remember the way we were for thousands and thousands of years.
“We looked after ourselves until the colonial interruption interrupted our way of life,” he said. “We could heal ourselves.”
His mother went to residential school, but she never told him this. Not once. She passed on a number of years ago and he learned later that she had shared some of her experiences with his sisters, but had been afraid of his reaction so didn’t tell him.
“She knew how I’d react. I’d be angry and would’ve done something,” he said.
“So I’ve been coming to this whole process of recognition and, truly, reconciliation within myself.”
When the 215 children revealed themselves at T’kemlúps, Wenecwtsin said he had a visceral reaction.
“My body just reacted, and I actually got kind of numb and I kind of lost a week of time just because it just hit me so hard.”
It was in May 2021 that the T’kemlúps te Secwépemc announced its findings from ground-penetrating radar searches of the former residential school that unmarked graves had been located on the grounds.
“Our parents and grandparents went though those institutions of genocide as children, dehumanized,” said Wenecwtsin. “Yes, tons of anger with that.
“I began to recognize that my mother, she survived that place so I could be here.”
Our responsibility is to the children, Wenecwtsin said.
“Not only for the children that are little today,” he explained, but “it’s also for them, our parents and grandparents. They were children at that time. And so we give voice to this by speaking out about it.”
Wenecwtsin spoke with Windspeaker’s Buffalo Spirit the day after his new grandson was born, and he shared his joy knowing the boy will never know the pain of residential schools.
“We’re not looking for sympathy. We’re looking for understanding and empathy,” he said of the importance of speaking the truth about such things as residential schools and the Sixties Scoop.
Ask water for help
Anger is a natural reaction, and by moving through it, Wenecwtsin teaches we can channel that anger into understanding.
“It doesn’t dissipate the anger, but it makes it understandable.”
A lot of children were angry at their parents, “because they thought they had abandoned them. It was all done by law. They had no choice. I think once we get through that, we just start building bridges, if you will, to that knowledge.”
When Wenecwtsin thinks of the alcoholism that flowed from their mistreatment, he thinks of people, “especially men, very quiet and soft spoken. But when they started drinking, they just went into this rage, just like a blind rage, I think, because nobody ever talked about what they experienced at residential school. Nobody.”
Anger is like any emotion, including love and happiness.
“The problem with anger is we allow it to control us,” Wenecwtsin explained.
He has also had to learn to let go of anger and says it’s hard because it’s really deep inside.
Wenecwtsin has found that getting back into a traditional way of being helps.
“Ceremony is really a powerful tool to do that.” And one of the most powerful tools to let go of anger, that blackness inside of us, is water, he said.
He explained that séwllkwe (water) is one of our most powerful medicines. By taking water dips year-round, even in icy winters, was a way of training ourselves. Some call it ritual bathing and it is practised in many areas. Going regularly into a river, stream or lake, even the ocean, to connect with water and pray.
He has turned to water in his darkest moments, allowing it to “wash over me and to pray to the water and ask it to take those things away from me.”
He has done this in waterfalls, rivers and creeks.
“Turn your face upstream, dip down four times in the four directions, and ask the water to help you heal that pain inside you, that anger.”
Wenecwtsin reminds us that “water has been here since the beginning of time.
“The water we see today is the same water that was here in the very beginning. It’s just been recycled through the ocean into the mountains, creeks and rivers and back, over and over and over.”
“So it has a memory of our people, and I think that’s what we need to understand. It’s always been there for us.”
Wenecwtsin said even going into a shower can be used in this way.
“I do this when I travel sometimes, just to centre myself or to get that connection.” He learned from the stet̓ex7ám who named him that “a shower can be a way to go into a state of meditation and journeying, using cold water to do that.”
We are so good at adapting, says Wenecwtsin, and that is why we’re still here. “We take things in the modern context and adapt them to what we need.”
(Late Mary Thomas was Wenecwtsin's mentor and friend. She was interviewed by Windspeaker publisher Bert Crowfoot two decades ago and mentions ritual bathing in a story about the loon: https://windspeaker.com/teachings/buffalo-spirit-the-loon-songmary-thomas. And she spoke of it again in this story about about the women’s sweat ceremony https://windspeaker.com/teachings/buffalo-spirit-the-womens-sweat).
Call out to the land
Wenecwtsin also recommends going to the mountains in the trees and “literally using your voice to let out the anger to the tree. Let the tree know that you’re angry and to let it go, hollering or shouting, just let it out.”
Wenecwtsin said “the trees are a living being. Our breath gives them life and they turn that into oxygen. It’s a cycle.” It might sound simplistic, he says, but it’s really a powerful way of freeing ourselves from anger.
“It’s about really asking the tree, the land, the water, to help you release that anger and to turn that anger into love and compassion,” he said.
Wenecwtsin says healing begins with the families because the family systems are where governance is rooted.
“And I think that those family and tribal governance systems have to be reinvested in and we’ve got to bring them back to life.”
How to support someone
Letting go of anger is not easy, and it helps to have someone who stands with you, as witness.
“That’s the hardest thing to understand,” Wenecwtsin says, that sometimes all people need is someone just to be with them, to sit with them and be there for them.”
Whether that’s “having a coffee, going for a drive, hunting, or whatever, just being with them physically and understanding.
“Yeah, they’re going through all this stuff, but it’s not my job to interpret what they’re going through.”
Our job is to walk alongside them until they invite us in, Wenecwtsin said. And that in itself can be transformative. A lot of people feel alone in what they’re dealing with, he says.
“But when somebody’s with them, they feel connected and it starts to open them up to the humanness of themselves and to others.”
It is difficult to do, Wenecwtsin said. “We’ve been taught, ‘Well, let’s fix the person. Let’s do something for them’.”
This is exactly what the system has done to us, said Wenecwtsin, “thinking that I’ve got control over you, and I’ve got the answer. Which is not true. We don’t have the answer for other people’s pain. They do. We just stand beside them.
“It’s really interesting because the relationship will change as the person decides, ‘yes, this person’s here, truly here, for me. Not to tell me what to do, but to stand beside me and to work with me and to support me.”
Over a period of time they start to transform because then they get a sense of safety. Safety is what leads to trust, which leads to healing.”
To hear more teachings from Wenecwtsin, listen to the podcast, “Coming Home: In Conversation with Kukpi7 Wayne Christian | Podcast on Spotify by reGEN Impact Media.
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