Preserving traditional Indigenous foods and passing that knowledge down is a passion and a priority for Secwepemc elder, Helen Sandy.
So when the longtime photographer’s image of a sxusem berry, or soapberry, was chosen as part of BC Hydro’s beautification initiative along Second Avenue in Williams Lake this summer, she was more than thrilled.
“When I first saw it, my heart was just beating and I was just excited, just thrilled. And I thought you know what, this not only represents me as a Secwépemc woman but it also represents all the First Nations. We all pick this. We all eat it. It’s a great source of vitamin C, it helps your stomach. I have quite a bit of tummy upset, you take a tablespoon of sxusem and it’s better than the medication they give you for heartburn. It also tastes very good when it’s whipped into ice cream and you add sugar and vanilla to it.”
Sandy’s sister Jean, who was on hand at the unveiling of the image which is depicted larger than life on the BC Hydro fence, makes sxusem into a concentrated juice to mix with water.
Sandy honed her photography skills taking pictures at pow wows and other culturally significant occasions over the years.
She captured the image of sxusem berries while picking them at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake campus.
“I was up there picking sxusem and I thought ‘geez this looks beautiful’ so I took a picture of it.”
Sxusem, a small red berry, is highly valued within Indigenous communities because of its nutritional value, but can be considered an acquired taste for some due to its bitterness.
Sandy grew up at Sugar Cane and has three sisters; Jean, Nancy and Amy, and three daughters. She said she’s never considered herself an artist, just someone who ‘thoroughly enjoys photography.’ She also does pine needle work and is learning how to make moccasins.
When asked what one thing she would like people to know about her, Sandy said that she’s a person who would like to protect and promote traditional Indigenous foods.
“Our traditional foods gives us everything we need to life on. It give us all the nutrition,” she said.
“People need to see this. They need to recognize that we have our own food and our food is better for us than what’s in the store.”
Sandy also takes pictures of her own dried salmon, which has been scarce in recent years. Seeing the image of sxusem on the fence will serve as an importance reminder.
“This is preservation of our traditional foods for future generations. There may come a day in our life when those foods are gone, when our children no longer pick it. There may come that day, we don’t know. So preserving it for future generations is what I do.”