Planting the seeds for social change at the Koksilah Music Festival

Reconciliation is a fancy word for action, says Coast Salish elder Rose Henry.

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The Cowichan Tzinquaw Dancers opened the ceremonies at the Koksilah Music Festival last Friday at Providence Farm, near Duncan. The Friendship Dance was a highlight of the performance. Each dancer went out into the crowd and asked someone to come dance. One of the dancers picked me. We held hands and danced in a wide circle with the others. 

Then, the song leader asked everyone dancing to go out into the crowd and pick new partners. Pairs of dancers lined up facing each other and formed a tunnel for others to travel through. Children stood on tip-toes to make the tunnel as wide and high as they could manage. People laughed as they squeezed through.

Dancers make their way through a human tunnel during the Koksilah Music Festival near Duncan, B.C.
Dancers make their way through a human tunnel during the Koksilah Music Festival near Duncan, B.C. Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

The dance was a good metaphor for the festival, which continued over the weekend. People representing different cultures, young and old, came together to share music, dancing and laughter. The theme of the festival this year, chosen by Quw’utsun (Cowichan) elders, was nuts’amaat. It’s a Hul’qumi’num word that means: One heart, one mind, we are all one.

I went to the Koksilah Music Festival to ask people what they’re curious about in the Cowichan Valley. Most people who stopped to chat had a question or something to say about local Indigenous Peoples and their relationships to their non-Indigenous neighbours. Things like: 

  • What does cultural revitalization look like? 
  • What does decolonization look like? 
  • I want everyone to know the effects of residential schools, that’s still happening. 
  • Removing the assumptions that we stopped practicing our culture. 

Everyone, it seemed, had reconciliation on the mind. I should have been less surprised. We were, after all, at a festival devoted to Indigenous resurgence, reconciliation and decolonization. 

So what does reconciliation in Cowichan look like? 

It’s a big question. Much bigger than I could even begin to tackle in this space. But near the end of the festival, I sat down with Rose Henry to hear a little of what she had to say. Rose is from the Tla’amin Nation and is a longtime resident of Victoria on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen people. She is an activist and educator. Most people call her Grandma Rose, she tells me.

Rose Henry says Cowichan is leading the way on bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together.
Rose Henry says Cowichan is leading the way on bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together. Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Rose tells me that reconciliation is just a fancier word for action. “This is a time that we can do action.” And it starts with events like this one, she adds.

“The seed for social change starts here at these gatherings,” Rose says. “And the Quw’utsun people seem to be the most receptive. They’re embracing that change, and they’re showing the world how we can work with non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities.”

It means something that the Quw’utsun people, who still suffer from missing loved ones, from poverty and from other ripple effects of colonialism, have stepped up to host this event on their territory, Rose tells me. 

The Koksilah Music Festival is awesome, she says. “This is people-run. This is what unity looks like.”

The festival is led by a collective of volunteers, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous, in consultation with Quw’utsun elders. Funds raised at this year’s event will be donated to the youth inclusion project at Hiiye’yu Lelum (House of Friendship) in Duncan and to Unist’ot’en Camp in Northern B.C. 

What are you curious about?

Curious in Cowichan
Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Here are some of the comments that festival-goers shared with me this weekend.  [end]

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