Sto:lo cedar baskets coming home this weekend

A ceremony for Stephens and the baskets at Skwah First Nation is set for Sunday, June 21.

Sharon Stephens is giving back five cedar baskets that have been in her family for 100 years.

It’s heart-warming tale that may give you goose bumps.

Cedar baskets crafted by Sto:lo hands are coming home — full circle after almost 100 years.

The five baskets are owned by Sharon Stephens of Chilliwack, a descendent of the Northcote family.

Stephens moved to Chilliwack about nine years ago, into an apartment building that’s actually kitty corner to where her great-grandparents used to live.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I really liked the baskets,” she tells the Progress. “They were so pretty and interesting looking.”

They are of different shapes and sizes, made from both cedar bark and cedar roots.

With ample family history here, Stephens actually grew up in Burnaby, and spent most of her life, almost half a century, in a variety of B.C. communities, many with a strong aboriginal presence.

One of the strange elements of her tale is that when she finally arrived in Chilliwack, she did not unpack her beloved cedar baskets as she usually did. It’s the first place she has lived where they were not out on display.

They remained tucked away in a laundry basket out of sight. She did not for the life of her know why.

Until now.

The baskets have been in her family ever since her great-grandmother Annie Northcote bought them on the doorstep about 90 years ago.

She would admire the baskets at her grandmother’s house, displayed along with the Limoges pieces.

Her great-grandparents, John and Annie Northcote, lived in a house near the corner of Corbould and Princess, near The Landing site.

Her dad, Harold Stephens, 95, still talks about how he would travel up to Chilliwack from Burnaby on the B.C. Electric train to visit his grandparents, her great-grandparents, The Northcotes.

Dad still remembers the baskets being purchased by his grandmother from some Sto:lo ladies who came up to the door from the Fraser River, selling the hand-made cedar baskets, house to house.

When Stephens eventually inherited them, she was thrilled to become the keeper of the baskets, at the age of 20. She brought them with her as she moved from community to community, with her developer husband, through most of her adult life.

Now 68, she never thought of selling them, or parting with them in any way.

“It was strange because I always had them on display in a place of honour in my home. I liked to have them around me.”

But not here.

They travelled with her for close to 50 years from Surrey, to Richmond, North Delta, Langley, Kitsilano, West End, Ucluelet, Qualicum Beach. And they are now back in Chilliwack.

At one point, Stephens felt drawn to the traditional hand drum so she joined a drum circle, and eventually met Eddie Gardner, a Skwah elder. While drumming and singing traditional Sto:lo songs at the Sto:lo Elders Lodge with Gardner, the idea came to her.

Stephens realized in a flash of insight that the baskets needed to go back to the community that they came from.

“I was literally drumming and it came to me. It was so bizarre.”

She was deeply compelled to see them returned, and with Gardner’s help, decided they must have come from a local Sto:lo community, likely Skwah First Nation.

That’s where they had to go, she figured.

“It was as if I had been given a special message,” she said.

“It was a very profound moment for me.”

The gesture is already having ripple effects.

“It is wonderful,” said Eddie Gardner, when asked about the baskets’ homecoming. “It’s of great significance and importance to us as People of the River.”

He remembers when the repatriation idea struck Stephens.

“It hit her like a thunderbolt.”

It’s very significant because the Sto:lo people have great reverence for the cedar tree, and in stories they are seen as the tree of life.

These particular baskets were made with “great skill,” he says.

“The baskets are in remarkably good condition and having them come back is a magic moment for us — and for Sharon,” said Gardner.

The Skwah leaders met and talked about the baskets, and are now anticipating their return with great delight, he said.

“It’s so special. There’s a wonderful energy emanating from them.”

They decided to hold a traditional ceremony for Stephens and the baskets at Skwah First Nation on Wellington Avenue on Sunday, June 21. They are welcoming them back into the fold, and to warmly thank Stephens, with a lunch after the ceremony.

“It’s a gesture of respect. They wanted to thank her for having it in her heart to do this.”

Stephens said she is very honoured and grateful for the opportunity, as she was honoured to be the guardian of the treasured baskets. Now she understands why she couldn’t unpack them when she got to Chilliwack.

It was because she was bringing them home at long last.

“It’s all falling into place now.”

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