Salmon Teachings at the Esk’et Sqlelten
Alkali Lake, British Columbia
In the Pacific Northwest Coastal region – from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Oregon – the tiny house movement in building reflects a growing interest in downsizing, minimalism, and energy efficiency.
The trend had not yet made it to Esk̓etemc First Nation when Robert and Bettina Johnson returned to Esk̓etemculecw. Coming home to Esk̓etemc in the Northwest corner of traditional Secwe̓pemc territory seemed the most important thing for the couple to do when Robert’s Grandmother passed away.
Robert Johnson says he knew there was artistic ability inside him, but never explored it until he came home to Secwe̓pemculecw. He believes that personal healing should expand to family and community. When he returned home, he asked then Chief Charlene Belleau what the greatest needs of the community were. Her response was housing and families.
Johnson’s response: “Let’s create something that’s different in this area and something that would work with the people.” The Johnsons gave their 280-square foot tiny house a Secwe̓pemctsin name – the Esk̓et Sqlelten (pronounced Es-KET Sk-LEL-ten) – to honour the land it is on and the language of the land. Sqlelten means salmon in Secwe̓pemctsin, language that Robert Johnson says is waking up. The sqlelten is a cultural symbol of pushing through hardship to achieve a goal.
While his community was happy for the couple’s return, the Johnsons didn’t always feel sure that their tiny house work was understood. He admits there was a time in the build when he was ready to give up. It was then that he received feedback that allowed him to complete the challenging task of building a curved roof modelled on a salmon’s tail: “There was an Elder walking through this field here and he saw that I was doing something and that really meant something to him that I was doing something. And he came up and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said ‘Robert, I’m so proud of you.’ And he had no idea what I was struggling through and it gave me enough courage to continue and through that I was able to finish this Sqlelten (salmon) roof.”
The sobriety movement at Esketem’c is legendary and Johnson says that the immense healing that has occurred in the community can be felt on the land and by guests who visit the tiny house that he and Bettina built together. “What the Elders have sacrificed has enabled healing and is allowing us to use practices in a new way in a way we feel free to. So it’s a good thing.”
Johnson believes we all have giftings inside: “It’s there, but it takes other people pulling it out and that’s what that Elder did for me. Salmon have to swim up river and they hit all these waves that come across them but they still do it.”
This home is a haven for those en-route to Bella Coola, adventurers interested in local gold rush and cowboy history, and a place off the beaten track where visitors can enjoy canyon vistas, the sound of a bubbling creek, and unique wildlife viewing opportunities.
In addition to a hot tub under starry skies surrounded by fields of sage, guests of the Esk̓et Sqlelten are gifted a learning opportunity most visitors will never have: the chance to stay on a First Nations reserve and enjoy the hospitality of an Indigenous community dedicated to healing and sobriety. The couple enjoys sharing the story of where the Esk̓etem’c people are at today and showcase modern Secwe̓pemc art by local, Crystal Kalelest, in the tiny house.
The Johnsons honour the healing work of their Elders through continued creative expression and contribution to community. Robert Johnson says “If you allow yourself to heal you can start being creative again. And I think that’s the process of dreaming.”