For Aboriginal Communities, ‘Spring Break’ Means Spirituality
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
“Spring break” has a connotation for Aboriginal communities that is starkly different than its meaning for the rest of society. At the vernal equinox, British Columbia’s First Nations spend time honouring the land through rituals and activities that are part of an ancestral history that dates back to eras long before before beach vacations full of adolescent hijinks were popular.
As Cease Wyss of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations explains, the rituals of the Coast Salish people focus on the terrain, specifically the gardens and forests in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, an area that includes Vancouver, North Vancouver and areas along the province’s Sea-to-Sky Corridor. Wyss is a cultural guide and ceremonial activist dedicated to rejuvenating First Nations practices in the province.
“When I come out with people in the spring, we are focused on the forest,” says Wyss, who is also an educator. “They tend to spend a mindful moment with the land, doing things like putting hands on trees or holding them — hugging them if they feel like it — or even just standing in the forest and listening to what the forest is doing at that particular time.”
Along with spending time with nature, Aboriginal communities congregate for a feast to mark the end of winter and the arrival of warmer days. As with most rituals, food is a primary component. Wyss says a potluck dinner takes place each March. The community dinner includes traditional foods such as salmon, bannock (flatbread) served with berry jams, and stews made with wild meats such as deer, elk and moose. Although abundant, the feast isn’t nearly as bountiful as the dinner heralding autumn, Wyss notes.
“Our biggest way of celebrating is in the fall and then we have people who go out and fish and hunt and harvest the fruits and vegetables that have been growing all through summer. The spring season is more sparse on food, so it’s more about the ceremony,” she points out. “We think about the next season, we envision what it might be, and we hope for resurgence of good food and good health for the land. We have spiritual people coming in and doing work on the land. There’s smudging and ceremonious planting. We will plant things we can use for smudging, like tobacco or a kind of sage that grows naturally here.”
The foods of the spring are earthy, with fiddleheads, buds and stinging nettle among the most used crops. “With stinging nettle, you can pick the shoots and cook them up, plus make tea. Teas become some of the most significant part of the spring ceremony,” Wyss says. “Since so many crops are still recovering from winter, bannock, traditional berry jams and tea do become the focal elements of the potluck dinners at the spring equinox.”
The ceremonies are particularly poignant for contemporary Aboriginal groups because the details needed to perform them were nearly lost during the period of the residential schools, when governments in Canada would take children out of their communities to educate them with a curriculum focused on mainstream Canadian culture, language and history. Wyss, whose mother attended residential schools, is now among those community leaders reintroducing ancestral practices.
“So many people I work with had been taken from their communities, or their parents had been taken, and they didn’t have the knowledge of what their people did for ceremonies. So we are finding gentle ways of reconnecting them to the earth and to their history and the rituals that go with it,” she says. “When I asked my mother about our history, she had to go far back in her mind, back to the age of five, to remember. She said families would go to Squamish to prepare for gathering fish, and berries, and hunting whatever might be left over from the winter. They would spend time preparing a home for the summer, as they ripened berries and collected some root vegetables.”
Visitors to British Columbia can participate in spring ceremonies through operators such as Takaya Tours, for which Wyss works. Based in North Vancouver, Takaya is owned and operated by the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and provides group tours in traditional ocean-going canoes, as well as interpretive rainforest hikes and other excursions.
Another Coash Salish operator, Talaysay Tours, provides “Talking Trees Tours” that detail legends of some of the oldest, most majestic trees in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. Their interpretive hikes include visits to forests in Stanley Park in Vancouver and Porpoise Bay Provincial Park on the Sunshine Coast.