Esk’etemc elder Francis Johnson Sr., 73, keeps active by teaching hoop dancing to local school students and going for long walks on a regular basis. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Esk’etemc elder Francis Johnson Sr., 73, keeps active by teaching hoop dancing to local school students and going for long walks on a regular basis. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

OUR HOMETOWN: Cultural enthusiast, hoop dance teacher

Francis Johnson Sr. enjoys sharing his culture with Indigenous and non-Indigenous students

You cannot help but get excited when Francis Johnson Sr. talks about teaching hoop dancing to students, something the Secwépemc senior has been doing for about a dozen years.

“I have to start with no music and demonstrate with one hoop,” he said, sticking his arms out as if holding an imaginary hoop. “We then add one, then two, then three, then four and finally five. It is very difficult to build the ball with hoops.”

Recently he was teaching hoop dancing to Grade 7 students at Lake City Secondary Columneetza campus and he described the students’ efforts as “intense,” and beyond what he had expected.

“I am able to show non-Natives our culture in this cross-cultural way. They look at us and see part of our experience as First Nations people. They would not experience it otherwise.”

Besides, he added, he is an “excellent” teacher.

For many years he taught hooping dancing to students in First Nations communities across the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and it was at the invitation of former Nesika elementary school principal Yvonne Davis that he got his start teaching it in Williams Lake schools.

“We wanted to bring First Nations culture to all our students,” Davis recalled of why she first invited Francis in for the first time about seven years ago. “We made all the hoops as well so the students were really involved.”

Davis now principal at Cataline Elementary and Francis comes there to teach hoop dancing – he also teaches it at Marie Sharpe Elementary.

Growing up Francis did not learn about cultural dancing at all.

That changed when he was an adult student pursuing a bachelor of education at the University of British Columbia and he attended a powwow at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society.

As he watched the men enter, dressed in feathered regalia doing the fancy dance something came alive.

“The feathers really awakened me and the feeling stayed.”

From that experience he was inspired to learn how to make his own regalia and learn the dancing steps.

Eventually he was going to competitions.

Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation invited him to do fancy dancing at an event and it was there he learned about hoop dancing from some children who had learned from world champion hoop dancer Dallas Arcand at a recent workshop.

“They taught me,” he recalled.

Born in 1949 to Seraphine Harry of Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation and Charlie Tom Johnson from Esk’etemc, Francis was the seventh of 14 children. After their mom died in 1963 the children were raised by their adoptive grandparents Christine and Henry Squinhan who were in their 60s and 70s.

“Our dad was around working but he knew our adoptive grandparents would do a good job – they’d raised our mom.”

Today he credits his adoptive grandparents for teaching him how to trap and eat whatever they could find on the land.

“We were healthy and happy even though we missed our mom.”

Francis attended St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School near Williams Lake for three years when he was really young, then again until Grade 9 when he transferred to Prince George College staying there until he graduated.

At the encouragement of Davis and former Xatsull Chief Bev Sellars, Francis is writing a book about the abuse he suffered at residential school. For this interview he said it was not something he wanted to discuss, except to say he dealt with the trauma by drinking too much for about six years. He has been sober now for 47 years.

“Bev has written her books about residential school and I told her I was too ashamed to write about it and she told me just to write it.”

His book will cover his own community history, the impacts of residential school and reconciliation.

Francis said there were some things he enjoyed while going to school including playing hockey and learning music.

“I was a good hockey player and taught my son Francis Johnson Jr. who became a really good hockey player.”

READ MORE: Father son duo look forward to 2018 Coy Cup

While at the mission he sang in a choir and learned how to harmonize and he played the bugle, sometimes in a marching band that participated in parades and Remembrance Day ceremonies.

His experiences at school in Prince George were “eye-opening” and it was there he built his character and enjoyed a bit more freedom.

He became close friends with Alphonse Harry and they formed a band – Todaze Children.

Harry was an exceptional musician and together the friends would listen to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other popular bands of the day, transcribe the lyrics and learn the melodies by ear.

“Alfy was a great lead guitarist and singer. I played the bass guitar.”

Today Francis is a proud father and grandfather. He and his wife Doris have six children – Francis Jr., twins Brent and Alita, Mike, Dorothy and Christina. Dorothy teaches at the school at Esk’etemc and Francis Jr. was named manager of Alkali Resource Management in May 2022.

They also have “going on” 17 grandchildren.

“The other day we had a party with the grandchildren. We went swimming at the pool and then were at Kiwanis Park. It was so great.”

READ MORE: Seventy-kilometre walk from St. Joseph’s Mission to Esket part of healing journey for Indigenous Elder

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