It’s been three years since the students of School District 84 have been able to meet for their regional potlatch. So on May 18, Gold River Secondary School was buzzing with anticipation as students gathered outside while guests from all over Vancouver Island took to their seats.
The chatter throughout the gymnasium grew silent as the sound of the drums began. From outside the students of Gold River Secondary School (GRSS) and Ray Watkins Elementary school (RWES) sang their welcome song.
In rows of two drummers entered. The sound of their voices were strong, commanding the gymnasium's attention as the Maquinna paddle song filled the room. Dancers followed with paddles in hand.
After four songs, students faced the audience and recited a prayer chant in Nuu-chah-nulth. The prayer was created by Violet Johnson, elder in residence at RWES, with her husband, said Marsha Maquinna, a Nuu-chah-nulth education worker at RWES.
“I was so emotional...It was just amazing to see it all come together,” said Maquinna. “I’m very proud of them.”
The morning was filled with performances from students of all ages, sharing Nuu-chah-nulth songs and dances, among others, as each school took to the floor.
Peter John of Ehatis, a Grade 11 student at Zeballos Elementary Secondary School (ZESS), led the singing and drumming circle for four songs with his classmates and explained the origins of each song in between.
“Singing, to me, it really helps me because it’s part of my culture,” said John. “It brings me back to somewhere I haven’t been able to find for a while.”
John has been attending potlatches since he was five years old and began leading songs at age 10.
“I'm still getting the hang of singing, even though I started at a young age,” said John. “The people that are teaching me right now [are] trying to tell me to sing from my core.”
Brandon Smith recently started leading the students of Kyuquot Elementary Secondary School (KESS) through songs and dances. He said that the dance for the third song by KESS was created by the students, a piece called ‘We are Strong’ and composed by Aaron Watts.
“They worked so hard to get to where they’re at [and] to land three flawless performances,” said Smith.
Smith said the students’ confidence grew from practice to when they took the floor.
“It just tells me culture’s alive, and they have a passion for it,” he said. “And they’re ready to keep shining with it.”
Among the students was Summer Sutherland of Ka:'yu:'k't'h'/Che:k'tles7et'h', a Grade 12 student at KESS.
“I was just very proud of all my people,” said Sutherland. “They were very quiet at first, but now it showed who they really are.”
After lunch Captain Meares Elementary Secondary School (CMESS) took to the floor. For the remainder of the afternoon RWES and GRSS followed.
RWES and GRSS had been preparing for a full year leading up to the regional event. The two schools, based in Gold River, were initially expected to host the annual event three years prior, but because of the pandemic, this was postponed.
“It hurt our spirit,” said Marsha Maquinna. “This is who we are. We’re people who love to gather, who love to celebrate.”
“To see everybody coming back and connecting with each other was breathtaking,” added Maquinna.