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Tsawout First Nation revives community, culture through reconstruction of Big House

Fire destroyed the nation’s High House in 2009
Councillor Mavis Underwood of Tsawout First Nation Band Leadership points toward the nation’s future new Big House now under construction. (Wolf Depner/News Depner).

A local First Nation has launched a fundraising campaign to help rebuild a cornerstone to culture and community.

Tsawout First Nation is fundraising some $100,000 thorugh GoFundMe toward rebuilding its Big House which fire had destroyed in 2009.

Councillor Mavis Underwood of the Tsawout First Nation Band Leadership said the nation is also accepting in-kind donations. “We are in real dire need of two large cedar timbers for the roof construction,” she said.

Work on the long-delayed project following a 2009 fire has been underway since last year and plans call for the completion of the building by Oct. 31 coinciding with WESELANEW, the Moon of the Shaker Leaves, when leaves are ready to fall and people retire into interior spaces, according to the 13 Moons of the WSANEC (Saanich people), a guide that also includes economic and cultural activities.

Big Houses made out of cedar are among the most familiar and primary architectural expressions of the Coast Salish People, serving as spiritual and communal gathering spaces and the blaze that destroyed the Tsawout First Nation previous Big House wounded the community, said Underwood.

The building had housed weddings, memorials and funerals for members of the First Nation as well its First Nations neighbours, said Underwood. Non-Aboriginal groups had also used the facility for cultural diversity training, she added.

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“So when we lost it, we lost a lot of that, the ability to gather together, the ability to pass on cultural teachings,” she said. “It’s really critical to the survival of the culture and family histories, because it is all done in an oral tradition.”

Its absence has also hurt the ability to comfort community members grieving the loss of loved ones, occasions of which have been too many, said Underwood. “We have a high incident of death my misadventure, suicide, and death through addiction,” she said.

By creating a communal space, younger members of the nation can receive a better grounding in their culture, with all the benefits that flow from that, said Underwood.

While Tsawout First Nation plans to give the building several features (such as solar panels) that cut future operational costs and protect it against unforeseen events, a special focus of the fundraising campaign is the building’s dining hall, said Underwood. “The dining aspect is an important part of the continuity of the cultural teaching,” she said. “A lot goes on when people share meals together.”

The building is already contributing to the growth and education of the 760-strong-member nation (as of 2016 census). Many of the nation’s young men have been working on the construction of the building, gaining certifiable skills and other insights along the way, she said.

The total estimated construction cost of the building is around $1.7 with $1 million (including in-kind donations) having already gone into it. But the ultimate value of the building goes well beyond any figures.

“This is a really important action to take to unite your community on something that is about the identity and the culture and the tradition of your community,” said Underwood. As such, it also helps to reverse a larger historical wrong.

“This kind of activity is at the foundation of decolonizing, countering aggressive assimilation (of First Nations) by government,” said Underwood, pointing to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

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