Michael Kelly-Gabriel couldn’t imagine his 16-year-old self standing in front of a crowd, let alone singing.
Then the Kwantlen First Nations teen picked up a drum and started learning the songs of his community.
Now at 19, he’s outgoing and self-assured, happy to discuss his drumming, singing and more.
“For you to grow as a person, you have to go outside your comfort zone,” he said.
He credits his parents with setting the example when it comes to valuing his First Nations culture, noting his mom, Chief Marilyn Gabriel, didn’t say “do this” or “don’t do that” when Michael was growing up.
“She taught me through stories,” he said.
He said one of her most important lessons is kindness towards others, something he tries to live.
He’s young, so it’s understandable that he’s not committed to a career path but he’s determined that it will involve helping people.
“I’m following in my mom’s footsteps,” Kelly-Gabriel said.
Michael, and his father, Kevin Kelly, can often be seen at community events and doing work within local schools. Kelly-Gabriel said it’s his way of sharing the culture.
“If you don’t keep the traditions going, then we may lose them,” Kelly-Gabriel said. [If the community’s history and lore were lost] “I wouldn’t know who I am.”
That’s why he looks to the elders of his community, despite living in a dominant culture that doesn’t value aging.
“They’ve lived a lifetime,” he said.
Embracing his culture has allowed him to appreciate that of others.
Kelly-Gabriel noted that each person sits in a different place when it comes to learning about their own culture.
“Some people aren’t interested to learn. It isn’t their time yet,” he noted.
PHOTO: Elinor Atkins does performing and visual arts but plans to study law at university. (Heather Colpitts/Langley Advance)
In the classroom
Shifts in society’s perceptions of First Nations’ culture and have been mirrored in institutions, such as the Langley School District.
A five-year Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement was first signed by the local school district in 2003 and is regularly amended and renewed. The Langley district was the seventh district in B.C. to achieve an agreement.
But the district had created an Aboriginal program back around 1994, offering programming to native and non-native students.
The extra work within the local district on improving education for First Nations students is having a positive impact.
The district’s graduation rate has gone from 78 per cent in 2008 to 87 per cent in 2015. Aboriginal completion rates are also on the rise from 51 per cent in 2007 to 78 per cent in 2015.
Completion rates for female Aboriginal students in Langley have gone from 59 per cent in 2010-2011 to 89 per cent in 2014-2015 taking them very close to the female non-Aboriginal student completion rate of 90 per cent.
Male Aboriginal student completion rates are also on the rise from 65 per cent back in 2010-2011 to 67 per cent in 2014-2015.
The district works with First Nations to offer services, activities and programs in schools.
Elinor Atkins is about to turn 18 and soon heads of to the University of Victoria. The young Kwantlen woman grew up doing art so what will she study in post-secondary school? Law.
“I definitely do like to argue points,” and debate and defend positions, she said.
Her plan is to obtain a bachelor’s degree then go into indigenous law studies.
Elinor is the daughter of prominent artist Phyllis Atkins so she’s not ready to live a life without art but law is her vehicle to help others.
Interest from young people such as Atkins keeps the culture from becoming something relegated to museum shelves and history books.
The Langley School District started its Aboriginal program many years ago. Atkins knows she’s benefitted from having First Nations material available in school so much so that she ended up working within the program.
“If not for the opportunities, I don’t think I would have been able to figure out my path,” she said.
But she also recalls being picked on in school for being native. Even just in the time she went through the school system, there’s been significant change in society.
Atkins was one of the students involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission BC National Event in Langley. About 4,000 students from around the province attended. Local elders, students and staff were involved with the event that included a tribute to residential school survivors, drumming, contemporary performances, and the unveiling of the Project of Heart commemmorative dugout canoe covered with student decorated tiles.
Atkins said having learned about the history of First Nations has “opened my eyes” and makes her appreciate those who came before and what they encountered.
The young woman was also part of a spring initiative through the Butterfly Effect, a school program, that brought together indigenous people from around the world to share ideas on culture, cultural preservation, oral history and more.
And isn’t education all about finding one’s place in the world?
Culture is more than the three Cs – costumes, cuisine and choreography.
That’s why Kwantlen First Nation invites the neighbourhood doctor and pharmacist to their feasts and other events.
Culture impacts every aspect of life, including health care.
The community builds relationships with medical professionals who by breaking bread with KFN members get to build relationships, ask questions, and learn about their perspectives.
It’s one way the residents try to overcome wariness of institutions, for instance.
Donna Leon, whose family is both Kwantlen and Katzie First Nations, is the KFN director of community services.
PHOTO: Donna Leon works to share her First Nations culture for future generations, such as her grandchild Jacqueline Jago. (Heather Colpitts/Langley Advance)
Her work such as creating agreements between the community and Fraser Health so services are provided in a more culturally sensitive way.
“They need to understand what our culture is about,” Leon said.
That’s why they’ve created an integrated health team.
Leon also gets to be involved in the important community ceremonies and programs. The biggest is the annual salmon ceremony which now routinely attracts about 800 people.
She points to the community’s HeadStart as another way history and culture are taught to members. It has a cultural component.
“It’s becoming just a part of them,” she said of culture. “That’s how it should be.”
KFN is also working to preserve the most important aspect of cultural transmission – the language.
Last year the community started a living language program. It’s for all ages so there was intergenerational learning and interaction.
“This was ages 14 to 70,” Leon said.
Kwantlen First Nation series:
Sharing the tales, free summer walking tours
PHOTO: Emma Wight was among the kids enjoying Youth Wellness Day. (Heather Colpitts/Langley Advance)