I ran screaming across the lawn at British Columbia‘s St. Eugene Resort, my lungs burning as my shriek faded away. Surely I had recreated a strength-training feat of a Ktunaxa warrior. “Nope,” smiled Jared Teneese – coordinator for Ktunaxa Nation’s Traditional Knowledge and Language sector – “this was usually a game played by young girls to burn off energy. Their moms told them to run around the tipis as far as they could go on one breath while screaming.” This made sense. Wear out the kids while knowing where they were in the east Kootenay forest.
Modern-day Ktunaxa are just as clever, turning a former residential school into St. Eugene Resort with 125 guest-rooms, pool and spa, golf course, RV park and casino. When the residential school initially sat abandoned and debate raged on its future, elder Mary Paul extolled, “since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within this building that it is returned.”
Her voice was heard, and two decades later, the resort offers more than fancy food, great golf and room service for RVers. Ktunaxa culture is weaved throughout the resort experience, and visitors are encouraged to learn more about indigenous experiences in Canadian residential schools and the struggle to restore their culture.
Alberta schools didn’t add residential school information to school curriculums until 2014. If like me you went to school when dinosaurs roamed the earth (kidding) there’s probably a gap in your understanding of residential schools and the impact on indigenous culture.
I headed to the resort’s interpretive center to learn about the Ktunaxa creation story, traditional culture, and how residential schools impacted people.
Archivist Margaret Teneese suggested I watch the movie, “Survivors of the Red Brick School. She warned me and several other visitors that it was hard to watch and pointed to tissue nearby for tears.
The movie showed interviews with former students who described physical punishment and harsh living conditions. I was equal part parts angry and sad when the lights came up, but Teneese exclaimed, “What you’ve just seen is the truth. Everyone wanted to go straight to reconciliation. No one really wanted to go learn the truth.”
The room was silent as Teneese continued, “if you felt sad (after watching), it’s okay. If you felt angry, it’s okay. If you felt nothing, it’s okay. But don’t take sadness with you. We’re working with it.”
And they are. The Ktunaxa have used the instrument of their sadness to create an asset that brings meaningful employment to their people and the chance to educate others about their culture.
That evening I played traditional games on the lawn in front of the old school, including the running scream. Worn out, I settled near the tipi camp’s fire pit for legends night. Don Sam – Director, Traditional Knowledge & Language for Ktunaxa Nation Council – recounted the tale of the coyote and the owl, and how coyote didn’t listen and was taken by an owl.
His long black hair pulled into a ponytail, his dark eyes fierce, he stressed the need to listen to indigenous people in a meaningful way, and to do more than watch drumming and dancing at a powwow, “We’re not just beads and feathers,” he stated. After two days of learning and playing at St. Eugene Resort, I was closer to greater understanding, and I’d had fun along the way.
The author travelled to St. Eugene Resort in August 2019. She was a guest of St. Eugene Resort, but they did not review or approve this article.
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