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Become a Cultural Navigator

In s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN, Indigenous Elders lead intergenerational journey back to the land and sea

s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN
Charlene SanJenko, Alfonso Salinas, and Ecko Aleck co-wrote s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN, a documentary focusing on the importance of Indigenous oral storytelling.

There are several memorable scenes in the documentary s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN. But perhaps none is more riveting than when musician, medicine woman, and tattoo artist Ecko Aleck asks her father, Terry, about being taken to an Indian residential school.

Her father, a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation, vividly explains what happened after the family heard cars coming up the driveway. Terry’s mother instructed her kids to hide in the woodshed and say nothing.

Terry, who was seven years old at the time, recalls: “We could hear RCMP bang, bang on the door. ‘We know you have school-age kids in the house. If you don’t release them, we’ll take you to jail.’ ”

As a result of this threat, his mother called the kids into the house. Next, Terry discusses being taken into custody, having his hair shaved off, and moving into a dorm. He later suffered unspeakable abuse before waging a 17-year court fight for justice.

After hearing this, Aleck tearfully replies to her father: “You crawled so I could walk, so my children can now run. I’m grateful to see the whole picture and walk through the timeline with you and co-create these opportunities to keep sharing your story.”

It’s a poignant moment that says so much about Canadian history. In an interview with Pancouver, Aleck reveals that the film actually began with a dream that she carried for several years.

s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN
Ecko Aleck can take satisfaction in achieving her dream of sharing her father Terry’s story with the world in s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN,

Expanding vision of s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN 

According to her, s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN was “prompted by my dad and my great aunt asking me to help them document their life stories”. Aleck’s friend and a co-writer of the film, Charlene SanJenko, introduced her to film director Liz Marshall.

Aleck spoke to Marshall (Meat the Future, The Ghosts in Our Machine) about sharing the Elders’ knowledge. Moreover, Aleck wanted these timeless insights linked to the wisdom of the land.

Marshall, however, responded with an even grander idea. “She, in her beautiful director mind, took a step back and said, ‘Actually, it’s bigger than that. It’s the intergenerational journey,’ ” Aleck relates.

This led to Aleck, along with SanJenko and co-writer Alfonso Salinas, becoming major figures in the Marshall-directed s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN. The VIFF Centre will present its theatrical premiere at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday (November 25).

The trio appear in the film alongside Terry and three other Elders. Barbara Higgins x wu’ p’ a’ lich, Calvin Craigan Hiwus, and Wayne Christian Wenecwtsin each offer deep insights. Sadly, Higgins is no longer alive.

“My number one hope with this was for people to understand the connection of the harms that are happening to the land are directly connected to the harms that are happening to Indigenous people,” Aleck tells Pancouver.

The Telus original film bears witness to how Indigenous Elders carry knowledge to reconnect people back to the land and sea.

“This is exactly how we continue to carry medicine teachings and ceremony teachings and practice that we utilize, even through 100 years of a potlatch ban,” Aleck adds. “The oral storytelling is how we have managed to revitalize as Indigenous people.”

Alfonso Salinas
Alfonso Salinas reaches deep into his soul and his traditions through drumming and singing.

Music augments gorgeous imagery

Salinas is a traditional wellness coordinator with the shíshálh Nation on the Sunshine Coast; SanJenko is a former Gibsons town councillor and Splatsin from the Secwépemc Nation. She discloses in the film that she reconnected with her culture after being adopted during the Sixties Scoop.

“As parents and as Indigenous multimedia creators, we are deeply committed to healing, finding our voice, and speaking our truth,” Aleck, Salinas, and SanJenko declare in a collective statement. “We are sharing the stories of our Indigenous Elders with the world to amplify their knowledge and wisdom in collaboration with non-Indigenous allies. The teachings of our Indigenous Elders are needed now more than ever to navigate a changing world.”

Marshall includes plenty of gorgeous imagery in the film. Aleck augments this with contemporary and lyrically compelling music. In addition, Salinas demonstrates his talent as traditional Coast Salish drummer and singer.

“It felt really important that the natural world was able to shine through,” Aleck says. “So, I utilized my cultural instruments—I had drums, vocals, some flute in there—and then combined that with modern music production. To me, I see that as reaching one hand back into ancestral guidance and one hand forward into modern technology.”

s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN
Barbara Higgins x wu’ p’ a’ lich is one of four Elders who share their wisdom in s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN

Indigenous resurgence

Meanwhile, Aleck feels like she’s riding the waves of an Indigenous resurgence. She speaks about incredible people using their own gifts not only out in the world, but also back in their own communities.

“It’s really hard work to constantly be at the forefront of those things,” Aleck acknowledges. “You’re having to have a lot of difficult conversations; you’re having to educate; you’re having to set boundaries.”

According to her, people must retreat on occasion. Aleck points out that it can be overwhelming in a world designed to oppress Indigenous people.

“The other part of the work that I do is to help folks understand the unravelling of the systems that we’re in—and how to redesign with land-based models of well-being,” she states.

As the interview comes to a close, Pancouver asks Aleck for her father’s opinion of s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN.

“He loves it,” Aleck replies. “He’s so proud of this work, of the team, of everything coming together. All of our Elders actually knew each other in some way or another. Their life paths had crossed prior to this film.”

Watch the trailer for s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN.

The VIFF Centre will present the theatrical debut of s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday (November 25). Filmmakers and Elders will participate in an Indigenous ceremony and respond to audience questions. The VIFF Centre will also screen s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN at 6 p.m. on Sunday (November 26), 7:20 p.m. on Tuesday (November 28), 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday (November 29), and 12:30 p.m. on December 7. Purchase tickets on the VIFF Centre website.

Meanwhile, the Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt will present s-yéwyáw / AWAKEN at 2 p.m. on December 13 and 7 p.m. on December 14. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.