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Drumming ceremony honours Indigenous resilience and cultural pride on National Indigenous Peoples Day

July 02, 2021

Content warning: residential schools

By Alyssa Quan

“Today is our day,” began Michael Kelly Gabriel. “I know our hearts are heavy, but finally our ancestors, who have been gone for so long, are finally being seen, finally being recognized.”

Resilience and cultural pride were major themes of the National Indigenous Peoples Day Drumming Ceremony, held June 21 at SFU Surrey. Led by Kevin Kelly and Michael Kelly Gabriel of Kwantlen First Nation, the Kellys shared songs, personal stories, as well as their sadness.

This year, National Indigenous Peoples Day bears an extra note of grief, in light of the May discovery of the unmarked burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

216 chairs

216 chairs were set up in the SFU Surrey WestStone Group Grand Hall, an idea from the Surrey campus Facilities team. Facilities also orchestrated  the collection of  toys and clothing, donated by community members, staff, and Shoppers Drug Mart at Central City Mall, placed onto each chair, and to be donated to the Maxxine Wright Shelter. This paid tribute to the 215 children found in Kamloops­–with an additional chair to represent children remaining to be found. At the time of writing, the number of children and adults has risen to over 1000, with remains found at residential school sites across the country, most recently, at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.

“Seeing the chairs really reminded me that it should be individuals sitting in them,” said Steve Dooley, director of SFU Surrey. “Of those children, how many of them would have taken these seats? How many of them would have had such an impact on their families, the world, their communities?”

Celebrating Indigenous culture

The Kellys reminded those gathered that Indigenous Peoples Day is a celebration of Indigeneity and Indigenous culture, which in light of the discovery, is all the more important. As residential schools sought to strip away Indigenous ways, celebrating and practicing traditions, becomes a demonstration of resilience.

“They really tried to take the culture away from us,” said Kelly Gabriel. “But I see my family here in their traditional regalia–don’t ever be sad or afraid to wear that wherever you go. Wear that with pride.”

The Kellys led attendees in a song of thanks and a song of water and healing. Additional remarks were delivered by Dr. Alanaise Goodwill, Faculty of Education, and Gary George, Office for Aboriginal Peoples (OAP). The event was made possible by OAP, SFU Surrey, MECS, Facilities Services and IT Services.

Kelly Gabriel encouraged learning as important steps in reconciliation. For allies, this means listening and educating oneself and others on Indigenous history and the trauma of residential schools. For the Indigenous community, he emphasized passing traditions down to the next generation. “Go back to your communities, bring those stories out, share those songs, teach those dances,” said Kelly Gabriel.

“Education is the way forward. Education is going to help us get out of this mess because that’s what got us into this mess,” said Ron Johnston, director of OAP, giving a nod to TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair’s (Ojibway) well-known comments to CBC’s Peter Mansbridge when the TRC’s final report was initially released in 2015.

Rewatch the Drumming Ceremony online.

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To learn more about reconciliation at SFU visit sfu.ca/reconciliation.