The 29 hand-woven baskets on display at the Sts’ailes Lhawathet Lalem (Healing House), were empty. Yet, the memories and wisdom they contained filled the hearts of the people who welcomed them home.
The joyous repatriation ceremony on Friday, March 3, was an “answer to prayers” as the Sts’ailes community celebrated the return of the 29 sá:letel (baskets in Halq’eméylem) that were once on display at the Kilby Historic Site in Harrison Mills. Some of the baskets dated back at least 100 years.
According to Kilby curator Chelsea Brown, the work to repatriate the baskets began as early as 2018. This repatriation marks the first carried out by a Provincial Hertiage Property in the province.
“The history that’s here with us belongs to the Sts’ailes people,” said Sts’ailes Chief Ralph Leon. “Whatever’s embedded into the ground, surrounding our territory, belongs to the Sts’ailes people. I really want to thank those who are really involved in this beautiful work.”
Brown said the baskets were likely bartered for goods from the Kilby General Store, which now houses the museum at the historic site. Other baskets were donated after the museum was established. Kilby staff worked with Sts’ailes elders and knowledge keepers to pinpoint exactly where the baskets came from and who made them.
St’sailes Elder Sel Ya:al (Nancy Patricia Charlie) said she was “touched” by the return of the ancestral baskets. Even without seeing the display first, she was certain some of the baskets belonged to her and her husband’s ancestors.
“(My husband) used to make these baskets; he used to work with his mother,” she said. “We remember those old people. They told us, because we were young when we got married, they told us ‘you’re going to carry it on. You’re a part of helping us, to guide us to where we are today.’”
Sts’ailes Coun. Boyd Peters, Friday’s master of ceremonies, said the return of these baskets were vitally important to the people, particularly the youth.
“Their great grandparents, their, great, great, great, great grandparents, they’re the ones that did this work, and they’re in museums right now,” Peters said.
He recalled his own grandmother, blind from diabetes, weaving the baskets, fuelled by her passion for the work.
The joy at Lhawathet Lalem was palpable. Boyd hearkened the celebration to a repatriation ceremony when a sásq’ets (Sasquatch) mask was returned to Sts’ailes years ago.
“When the family was bringing in that mask, that mask was just dancing,” he said. “That spirit was just so alive. That mask was alive; everything we have is alive. So when that happened, it was a real healing for our family.”
MLA Kelli Paddon expressed her gratitude and joy to be able to witness the repatriation.
“I get to share Sts’ailes because you share so generously with me, about the stories and the strength,” she said. “And I get to talk about the baskets and what they mean and what they carry. The baskets are being held, and there’s nothing in them, but there’s everything in them.”
Members of staff from the Kilby Historic Site and Fraser Valley Regional District Area C director Mel Waardenburg also witnessed the repatriation. Ceremonies concluded with celebratory dances from the Sasquatch Dancers.
Peters said some of his grandmother’s baskets are on display at a museum in Vancouver, urging the province to continue the works of repatriation and reconciliation.
“There’s a lot more work that we need to do,” he added. “We want to turn back things to our communities. We’re getting back a little bit of our land right now, but it’s so critical for the next generations that we do this – that we always have a place in our heart, we have a place to put these sort of things.”
“The closer we work, the work becomes strong,” Leon said. “That’s my message to my friends that are here.”
Paddon presented Leon with a commemorative plaque marking the historic repatriation. The plaque listed several names of those who made the baskets, including Ada Peters, Alice Point, Che Che Williams, Frenchie Chapman, Emma Leon and Mary Joseph.
“These sá:letel are a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of our people,” the plaque reads. “May they serve to inspire us always and help us create a strong future together based on the wisdom of our elders.”
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