Powerful voices rang out to the rhythm of pounding drums behind the Williams Lake Stampede grandstands Wednesday afternoon (July 6).
A chorus of singers and drummers overcame the wind whipping the surrounding hillsides into waves of shining grass and nearly 200 attendees came together as a community for a sacred fire healing ceremony.
Cultural leaders directed the ceremony, organized to help those who were impacted by the shooting on Sunday, July 3, which sent two people to the hospital with gunshot wounds.
“We are here to hold up our culture in a powerful way,” said Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) Chief Willie Sellars as he welcomed everyone to the territory.
Sharing comments from an elder in his community, Sellars said reconciliation is not just about reconciliation with First Nations but among First Nations people.
“We want to see healing in the region. A lot of the deaths and the shootings that have happened over the past five years have been our own people fighting our own people,” he said. “We hear the elders saying we need to reconcile as nations. It really rings true on the timing of this event today seeing not just Secwépemc here, Tŝilhqot’in here, see Dakelh here, Nuxalk, Métis - you go down the list of the representation you see around the circle today.”
Sellars asked, “how did we fall so far away from standing together in unity amongst each other. It is my job, it is our job together as leaders in our communities to sit at the table and have dialogue and be a good role model for our youth.”
Looking to the future, Sellars said he does not want youth from different nations to be fighting each other.
“We want them playing hockey together, we want them playing Lahal together, we want them dancing together at the arbors in our communities, holding each up other up because that is really what the health and wellness in this reconciliation discussion should be focused on.”
Joyce Charleyboy, a member of the Tŝilhqot’in Women’s Council, encouraged those in attendance to stand up against the violence.
“It is our duty to protect, it is our duty to stand strong,” she called out over the strong winds.
She then instructed the crowd on how to use the tobacco pouches which were being distributed for people to offer to the sacred fires with their prayers for healing, both for themselves and those who were not able to attend in person.
“Put it in the fire and let it rest there.”
Tl’etinqox First Nation councillor Cecil Grinder said “this gang stuff is not us. We need to bear down so our kids don’t end up in jails.”
Looking around the circle, he added “it’s up to you to change it. We need to get educated, move on and move forward.”
Cecil Sheena told everyone to pray even for the person in custody, to provide healing.
Williams Lake First Nation Cultural Coordinator David Archie echoed these comments, saying those responsible were “born innocent” and have been shaped by the conditions of the community.
He thanked the RCMP for their quick action and the Stampede Association for their ongoing support. He then urged the crowd to pray for all of those who took home trauma from the event.
Rosalie Montgomery, the innocent bystander who was shot in the foot Sunday, was there surrounded by family.
During the ceremony she spoke to the crowd.
“I’m glad to be here for my kids and grandkids,” she said, fighting back tears and pausing for a moment.
She described her experience of being shot, adding she had a feeling earlier that something was going to happen, but she did not know what.
That morning she’d debated whether to wear her sandals or cowboy boots and chose the boots, which turned out to be a good choice because her injury could have been worse.
“I am going to be seeking counselling to deal with it now.”
Montomery, RCMP Staff Sgt. Del Byron, Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Lorne Doerkson, Stampede directors and others who were on scene during the shooting were at one point asked to step forward for an extra blessing.
After the first few songs ended, attendee Michael Moses said he felt as though a weight had already been lifted from his shoulders as he moved forward to join the line to be brushed off.
Moses’ daughter had been at the rodeo on Sunday when the shooting took place.
The event was organized by Yeqox Nilin Justice Society with assistance from WLFN, Denisiqi Services Society, Nenqayni Treatment Centre, Three Corners, TNG, Three Corners Health Services Society, RCMP and the Williams Lake Stampede Association who were all present for the event.