British Columbia

How this giant arbour 'coliseum' is helping a First Nation heal and fuel a cultural resurgence

Lhtako Dené Nation members say building a new powwow arbour is helping the community put their pain behind them and revitalizing their culture.

Lhtako Dené Nation's arbour, made of huge fir logs, will allow hundreds to watch powwow dancers compete

An Indigenous women stands in the middle of a large, circular powwow arbour that's under construction.
Terry Boucher, a Lhtako Dené elder, says the under-construction powwow arbour 'is a part of who we are.' (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

When Clifford Lebrun looks out his back window, he sees a giant structure taking shape.

Every day, the chief of the Lhtako Dené Nation near Quesnel, B.C., watches band members with hammers and chainsaws work alongside contractors, building a circular powwow arbour that's open to the sky.

At each entrance to the arbour, a community member has created colourful, intricate carvings for each of the nation's clans: bear, beaver, eagle and frog. 

For the chief, the building is a point of pride, a cultural treasure for the community of about 190 people — and a symbol of healing. 

"We suffered some real bad tragedy last year with a death and then a double suicide, all on the same day. It affected every single person in our community," Lebrun said.

"So when we started building this arbour, it was something the community could rally around, and put our pain behind us." 

The project is now involving all corners of community, from providing construction work to inspiring Lhtako Dené members to explore or rediscover different aspects of their culture.

Lhtako Dené Chief Clifford Lebrun says the powwow arbour is 'something for the community to rally around, and put our pain behind us.' (Betsy Trumpener/CBC )

'Leaving a legacy'

Lhtako band administrator Maynard Bara calls the arbour "our Roman coliseum," where hundreds of spectators will be able to watch powwow dancers compete.

"A lot of the work is being done by our members, and that's huge," said Bara. "They're putting their hands on it and leaving a legacy for their children and grandchildren."

The Lhtako Dené powwow arbour is being built using fir logs harvested from the nation's traditional territory and constructed by band members. (Contributed/Lhtako Dene)

On the construction site, Connelly Bingo Longe's sweatshirt is dappled with sawdust.

He's hand-milling giant fir logs, harvested from Lhtako traditional territory, to build rafters for the arbour. 

"It brings new things to the reservation," he said. "There's lots of work for the young guys ... We're learning our culture more."

Connelly Bingo Longe mills logs to make rafters for the arbour. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Young women from the community already perform at powwows elsewhere, competing in jingle dance and fancy shawl, but now the community's young men are showing an interest in competing, band councillor Raymond Aldred says. There are also plans to teach the youth grass dancing. 

Lhtako elder Terry Boucher says her Monday sewing group is now crafting moccasins for powwow dancers and regalia like ribbons skirts and grass dancing outfits.

"It's basically coming back to our culture, that the residential school and the government took away from us," said Boucer, a family support worker.

"They told us we were heathens and we'd all go to hell. In a lot of our villages, regalia was put in the middle of the village and our regalia was burned, in an effort to eliminate our people. But, guess what? We're still here.

"We're really pleased with the power of the arbour," she said. "We've been dreaming of it for a long time." 

A traditional carving representing the Lhtako Dené Beaver Clan marks one entrance to the powwow arbour. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Lebrun said the gathering place has special meaning for him. 

"I'm a Sixties Scoop kid. I grew up in a foster home. But I eventually came back here and I haven't left. The important thing is, I'm home," he said.

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Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.