In a field of dry, crackling brush, the wind blowing, members of the Tsawout First Nation gathered Monday to bless the land where their new longhouse will be built.
Members sang, prayed, rang bells and blessed one another as they officially kicked off construction of the longhouse, a core part of Coast Salish culture.
Community members said this will bring back a badly-needed centre for learning and teaching.
“It’s very emotional. This is something that is within our cultural teaching. It’s who we are,” said Eydie Pelkey, a member of the longhouse committee.
To the left of the new site is the charred, bare ground where the previous longhouse stood. It was destroyed by a fire in July 2009.
While the project has been launched symbolically, it is still short on funds.
The estimated cost is $900,000. So far, the band has only raised $80,000 on its own. But Eric Pelkey, Tsawout treaty and culture coordinator, is encouraged by the community’s status as a charitable organization that can give tax receipts. Several groups have already come forward with financial and in-kind donations.
He said they are also working with a contractor, who has agreed to chip in as the project goes along.
An art auction last weekend raised close to $10,000.
Tsawout housing officer Gwen Underwood said there are no government cultural funds available for longhouses they can tap into, such as those for museums.
Construction was initially expected to begin this month, but the start date has been pushed back to October while the band works with the First People’s Cultural Centre to get Tsawout youth involved in the carving.
Eric Pelkey said he expects construction to take six months.
The new longhouse will be built to the same dimensions as the previous one — 125 feet long, 75 feet wide and 30 feet high. Eric is hoping it can be crafted entirely of traditional cedar.
Local carver Doug Lafortune will create two 12-foot totem poles at the entrance and has agreed to work with the youth of the community.
The band refuses to rebuild on the same site because the last building wasn’t designed according to the traditions of their elders, said Eydie Pelkey, Eric’s sister.
“It has to look to the sunrise, to the east. (The last longhouse) wasn’t built that way. That may have been why it (burned down).”
She said the loss of the longhouse created a real hole in the community.
“Children are missing that cultural importance, even they were crying when the longhouse burned down. It’s important to everyone to bring life back to the community as far as culture goes.”