Guests, some from as far away as Victoria, arrived in droves at the Maaqtusiis School gymnasium, for the annual ƛ̓iicuu (school feast) on May 25. They were warmly greeted by school staff and took seats in the gym, waiting to see cultural entertainment provided by the students and their teachers.
Launched in 2017, the Maaqtusiis School feast was an idea that came from the elders in 2016 who were taking part in a language preservation program and the development of a culture guide. According to Pam Frank-Perry, who worked at the school at the time, the school feast would be a hands-on cultural learning experience for the entire school.
For teacher and Cultural Team Leaders member Terri Robinson, prep for the feast began on day one of the school year.
“For the first two weeks of school my students picked the last of the black berries,” she said, adding that the berries were used to make jam to give to guests at the feast.
Robinson is part of a team that are not only Ahousaht members, but also teachers of culture. They are hands-on teachers, showing the children how and when to harvest and preserve wild foods.
“This year Luke Robinson from the high school helped the kids gather seafood and cedar bark used to make regalia for the dances,” said Terri.
Over the past 10 months children have been learning how to gather and prepare fish, herring eggs and prawns. They smoked one seal with teachers Connie Manual and Luke Robinson. In addition, intermediate grades baked hundreds of homemade cookies and served up some bannock.
When it comes to cultural teachings, students are selected based on their strengths and trained for certain cultural roles. In class, with the help of culture teachers, they learn the Ahousaht language, the names of the Ha’wiih (chiefs), as well as protocols like spiritually cleansing the floor and welcoming the guests. They learn how to prepare and preserve seafood, how to make regalia that they will wear during their performances, and they learn songs and dances. They make gifts to give to their guests. Most importantly, students learn how to be respectful hosts.
“It’s a lot of really hard work,” said Terri Robinson. “The kids worked really hard and they’re learning more and more every year,” she added.
Because they had cedar bark this year, some of the students learned how to prepare the material to make the regalia that was used in one of the dances.
“More kids are coming to regalia-making classes, they are so willing to learn," said Terri, adding that students designed the logo that went on the school t-shirts.
While the school feast is meant to be an annual event, it had been curtailed a few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the May 2023 Maaqtusiis School Feast came back strong with the entire community supporting it. Some came from their homes in cities to take part and students from schools in neighboring communities honoured the invitation.
There were school students from Hot Springs Cove, Tla-o-qui-aht and Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ as well as visiting Ha’wiih. In addition, there was a large group from St. Michael’s University in Victoria. Robinson explained that Maaqtusiis High School is involved in a student exchange program, and that is how the group from St. Michael’s came to be in Ahousaht for the feast.
Goal is to showcases students’ Ahousaht pride
Guests began arriving on the morning of May 25 and were greeted in the gym by smiling teaching staff wearing red t-shirts with a Maaqtusiis School design on the front. Zakariyah Thomas, Grade 9, did the school proud with a powerful prayer chant to start the event in a good way.
With eagle down clenched in their fists, young boys performed a spiritual cleansing ceremony of the floor, ensuring the safety of the people that were there. Then, they offered taʔałma, a token of comfort, to those that lost loved ones in the past year.
Tyee Ha’wilth Lewis Maquinna George stood before the curtain with other Ahousaht chiefs or their representatives. Through his speaker he told the students that he was proud to support what they did, and he welcomed guests to his territory.
The Ha’wiih then stood two young men up, Louie Thomas an Arnie Thomas, to praise them as students who are developing into powerful cultural leaders. To honor them, Ahousaht Ha’wiih gave Louie a name that translates to ‘great leader’.
The dance performances started with the Kindergarten class joined by older students doing Ahousaht’s welcome dance as the boys led the singing circle, joined by cultural education teachers guiding them.
First graders followed with a paddle dance and the second-grade class performed a lively warrior dance.
A soup and sandwich lunch was handed out to guests by students and school staff. Following lunch, the Grade 3 class performed the Swan family dance known as Song of the Waves.
When the Song of the Waves performance ended, Luke Swan Jr. stood in front of the curtain to say he was proud of the students. He announced that the school has his family’s permission to use their songs any time they are learning culture.
During a break, a representative from Usma, the NTC’s family protection service program, introduced several children under their care. She stated that all the children had roots in Ahousaht and they wanted to show them not only their culture by being at the feast, but also their large extended families.
After introductions were made, the children in care were gifted hand-made shawls or vests which were made with funding from Ahousaht’s Chah chum hiiyup (holistic healing) program.
More school dances followed by dinner, where guests were served the fruits of the children’s labor.
“Whenever there was excess fruit at the school, the kids would can them, so we had canned peaches and pears to give as gifts,” said Terri Robinson
The evening ended sometime after 10 p.m. according to Robinson, with a tired but happy bunch of students.
“The whole goal is for the kids to feel the pride of being Ahousaht, and to be proud of showing who they are,” she said.