Tribal chairman Joe Alphonse at Lhatsassin Memorial Day.I was grateful for the chance to attend the 2010 Lhatsassin Memorial Day ceremony at New Westminster on Tuesday Oct. 26. And for the warmth of the many Tsilhqot’in I met there.

As it happened, we parked our vehicle at the same time as tribal chairman Joe Alphonse. Contrary to the fantasies of some trolls in the Prosperity mine debate, Chief Joe does not drive a fancy late model sports car.

This was a special privilege for me as Chief Joe generously chatted for several minutes about various aspects of Tsilhqot’in culture and tradition. And he brought his spirit stick. A new entrant in an old custom. The Tsilhqot’in also later gave one to Chief Rhonda Larrabee of the host Qayqayt (Khae Khate) First Nation. Chief Ahan, whom the Tsilhqot’in especially celebrated on this day, was hung and buried here on Qayqayt ground in 1865.

The Tsilhqot’in and the Qayqayt are connected by this last hanging of the Tsilhqot’in War. But they also are connected by the event which marked its beginning. The Qayqayt were the first native community on the mainland struck by smallpox in 1862. The disease arrived here March 12, 1862, the day after it arrived in Victoria. Two men on the same boat from San Francisco brought the disease, one to each place. Two colonies. Two Europeanizing centres. Two simultaneous outbreaks. And eventually the disease would advance inland simultaneously from Victoria and New Westminster; in fact, in would move from each location pretty much the very same day. Smallpox not only respected international boundaries, it kept to a schedule.

The death toll was very high among the Qayqayt. It is possible, therefore, that those who introduced it here used the same means as at other locations reporting extremely high kill rates. That is, the infected man who brought it would have circulated through the village, making some contact at each dwelling.

And the direct connection? It seems no coincidence that J.B. Pearson, who later took the disease into the Tsilhqot’in, or one of his party, seemed the very first to know that the disease had broken out at New Westminster! Pearson’s lifelong friend, Ranald McDonald, had been on the boat with the smallpox carriers from San Francisco. And he was at every turn wherever else the disease advanced. So it would not be surprising to discover McDonald had accompanied the smallpox carrier to New Westminster and showed him what to do.

Chief Larrabee is a marvelous example of how the Colony of British Columbia, and Canada’s, extinction policy failed. The Qayqayt became a “landless” First Nation as the survivors struggled to stay alive. Finally, the community had no new members for 30 years. But Chief Larrabee refused to become the last of the Qayqayt. She set out to find others and recreate the community virtually from out of native memories. Now the population is growing again. As though the great cycle of nature, the eternal return, somehow had turned a page. Replacing extinction with survival and perseverance. Like a seed sprouting after lying dormant for years.

The Memorial Day began with a Tsilhqot’in spiritual leader, Cecil Grinder, gathering us into a circle for the ritual smudging. As I smelled the fragrant herb, I had an instant sense of why this ritual is so powerful. In a flash, we had all shared the same sensual experience. We became united as one entity in the same moment. And focused on the one who orchestrated it.

Later, it was a very powerful sentiment voiced by the spiritual leader which put in my mind the theme for my reflections. “Create new songs.” An affirmation of life. And of cultural growth. A repudiation of those who imagine cultures rooted in the eternal return would become extinct, or are museum pieces stuck in a past age. However dark it may seem, the sun will rise, water will fall and the earth will bear fruit. As long as there is one human being able to feel gratitude for existence, then faith and knowledge of the eternal return also will live. Or so it might seem to someone wiser than me.

Tsilhqot'in drummers perform at Lhatsassin Memorial Day.

At the time, the spiritual leader was addressing the cultural worry that some of the old songs, like those repeated at the beginning of the ceremony, would seem to risk dying forever as the elders and those who knew them pass. Yet, the essence of his message seemed to be that those songs are not dead… just sleeping, as he put it. And their spirits can awaken and infuse new songs, if people will but give them life. In a day tilted to honouring and recognizing Tsilhqot’in youth, it seemed a very powerful moment. Create new songs. Death and renewal. Live and the community or nation will find its path.

So the spirit of his message seemed to me. The 1862 B.C. smallpox epidemics were about seizing resources and subjugating the native people without paying or making treaties. The colonial founders supposed smallpox merely facilitated an inevitable extinction. The smallpox policy then became extended by new policies denying natives access to the resources needed for recovery. Then to residential schools. Then also to suppressing native cultures by force. All this and yet still alive and growing.

Somehow our documentary must capture the failure of these policies. Showing the perseverance not just of museum pieces but of living cultures adapting and evolving. Embracing both tradition and change. If there is a sincere desire for reconciliation, to learn and share, then recognizing the truth of what happened in 1862 must be an imperative.