Nestled on a plateau overlooking the Fraser River, the history of the Northern Secwepemc people is on full display at Xat’sull Heritage Village.
For more than two decades, the community of Xat’sull (pronounced hat-sull) has shared their spiritual, cultural and traditional way of life with visitors who can participate in a variety of activities and even stay in a teepee or pit house at their national, award-winning heritage village north of Williams Lake.
Providing tours for the majority of those years is 82-year-old Ralph Phillips.
“I was the first tour guide that was ever here, and I didn’t know what the heck to do,” Phillips admitted.
At the time Phillips was a councillor with the Soda Creek Indian Band and was working as their drug and alcohol counsellor — a role where he learned more about his culture through working with and meeting fellow First Nations people.
“I asked the Chief who was going to be the tour guide and he said I was, so that was that, and that’s where it started,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about that these last couple of years. I don’t even remember what I told the people but it must have been alright because I’m still here,” Phillips added with a laugh.
Before opening in the summer of 1994, Soda Creek Indian Band (SCIB) community economic development and employment co-ordinator Cheryl Chapman recalled how she was working at the Cariboo Friendship Society in Williams Lake when Sam Moody and German immigrants Bettina Egert and Thomas Schoen approached Jim Edgar a few years prior.
They were keen about developing a First Nations cultural tourism village at Bella Coola which, at the time, wasn’t ready for it, she said, suggesting they talk to SCIB.
“We always talked about culture and talked about bringing it back — rescuing it,” Chapman said, noting she thought it would be a great idea to have a venue for her aunt who was fluent in their native language to be able to share it with all of them.
With consultations and negotiations beginning in 1992, not everyone was thrilled with the idea, although it would eventually go through with the support of Chief Lenny Sellars.
Community members played a key role in the development of the village, and Chapman recalled fondly a time when staff shut down the band office so everyone in the community could assist in constructing pithouses.
“You could feel the energy and the healing that happened with all of us, and it created a sense of place and a sense of home,” Chapman said.
Located by the Fraser River, Chapman would find herself escaping to the heritage village to sing to the river and pray when things got stressful at the band office in which she served as councillor after having been elected in 2001.
“That’s the beauty of this place,” she said. “It keeps you connected to the river, the land and our spirit.”
As Chapman eyes what — if any —celebrations will take place for Xat’sull Heritage Village’s 25th anniversary, pre-booked tours had continued this year until mid-October after a late start due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“If I’m alive I’ll probably be around,” Phillips said lightheartedly of 2021.
Over the years, Phillips’ own grandchildren have worked alongside him eager to learn more about their own cultural identity and sharing it with others.
“I wanted to learn more just about where my people were from and how everything worked back then,” said 22-year old Roxanne Pop, who has been assisting for six years.
“That’s why I started but I kind of just kept going because I really like talking to people, and I really like
sharing what I have learned throughout those years with other people.”
Pop credits Phillips and other Elders who would attend the heritage village for the knowledge she has gained.
“Getting to work down here, talking to the people and finding out those little bits that I didn’t know previously it was just very rewarding for me and also being able to work alongside my grandfather,” she said.
Phillips, who does not speak his native language, said it was partially due to the Canadian government, as well
as himself for “not having enough respect to look after that.”
His grandmother, who could speak their native language fluently, spent 10 years in residential school.
“For a lot of years I said that the government robbed us, but it was something that happened and now looking back you see that it was because I was trying to find something else,” Phillips said, noting he did not have respect for himself at the time.
“I thought there was something better but now I find out that living the old way is a hell lot better than we’re living now.”