By Julia Magsombol 

Local Journalism Initiative 

[email protected]

Chief Donald Sam officially became the new ?Akisq’nuk Chief last year, and the Pioneer had the chance to talk to him about his thoughts and opinions on Indigenous Peoples Day. 

He went back and told his parent’s story of residential schools — his feelings on it and the peace he’s been working on for a long time. Chief Sam is one of many first-generation residential school survivors.

What does Indigenous Peoples Day mean to you and what should people do on this day?

Growing up and not having that recognition of the Indigenous People’s identity of the custom ?Akisq’nuk of my ancestors right here in the Columbia Valley was simply strange. It was strange having stories at home. And, you know, there’s a whole different history. It’s so important to raise awareness of the history of our Nation. 

Our language is critically endangered. There are few people that can speak our language anymore, which is very unfortunate. So now, here we are. We are trying to describe ourselves in our own language. People forget. Non-Indigenous people aren’t even aware of the Indigenous Peoples around them. 

The problem I see in any of these public displays on Indigenous Peoples Day is that people always look for the beads and feathers. People always want to be part of the celebration. They want to be seeing the dance and the song – that’s not really who we are, and I’m hoping that people can appreciate the complexity of us.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for celebration, but it should lead to a greater appreciation of the stuff down here, like our family ties and aspirations. 

And so, on National Indigenous Awareness Day, people should recognize and learn a little bit about us that are here.

What stories do your parents mention of residential schools? 

My father is non-Indigenous, so he didn’t have to attend residential school. My mom and my grandparents did. They all went to residential schools, and because of that, my family dynamics got really messed up. 

My mom said that she used to run away from the school a lot. She’d run away, and then they would bring her back. And she’d be disciplined for that. I remember the times she told me about the discipline they had. They told her to put her hands out. They put Bibles on her hands, and [said] she should not drop them. 

When they got strapped, they’d all line up. Some of the kids would be even mean to each other. They’d say, lick your hands, and it won’t hurt. But your hands would actually hurt more, and frankly, it stings a lot more. I can see why my mother would run away. My whole family was displaced – whether from the residential school or the effects of the trauma they felt from the residential school. They are prisons. Residential school is an imprisonment. 

What do you feel whenever you hear these stories? How are you and your family? 

It’s hard for me to hear a grown Elder cry and share their story. I have a lot of hope for generations that didn’t have to attend the residential school. I remember as a kid my mom suffered from alcoholism. And I remember my sisters and I got in trouble. I was crying and asked one of my sisters, “Why do we always get in trouble.” And my sister told me, “well, it’s because that’s how mom was raised. And that’s how her parents or her parents were treated. It’s up to us to break that cycle.” 

And so, I think I grew up with that —  knowing there’s a cycle of abuse. We had to break that cycle. I like to think we broke that cycle of abuse for our families and hopefully in the future. Other families are also breaking the cycle. Intergenerational trauma is something real. I call them triggers. Sometimes I react in ways, and my wife will call me on it. 

And it’s really good because I’ve done a lot of work on it — my own mental wellness. I’m learning about my triggers. 

How’s your healing? Have you found peace? 

Every day I find good in the world. But I wouldn’t say I found peace. I’m not sure if I found a sense of peace yet because I can still get triggered. When I lost my mom, I had a real problem with the church, with God, and with my spiritual beliefs. 

God didn’t do the residential school—the idea of genocide. Humans were wrong in that. I don’t know how that worked with the Creator and how we were subjected to that. But today, I am able to appreciate spirituality. 

One of the Elders was telling me about religions. Whether we call it God – people may have Catholicism or Christianity, Buddha or Allah or all these different religions in the world. And they all go up to the same light up at the top. If I believe in the big guy, we’re praying to the same Creator. It is just in different ways. 

Maybe that is finding peace in that religious spirituality realm. Whether I celebrate that relationship of going to church on Sundays or praying. However, all that matters is having a relationship with that higher power and finding peace with the residential school. It’s really important to find peace within ourselves; being able to appreciate one is having that spiritual and emotional balance. 

With a spiritual balance and being able to lead or find guidance in that realm is to help in mental wellness. It encourages people to heal those traumas. It’s important. But I don’t even know what that means. How do we all heal from all those traumas? Well, we start by talking about them. We start by making a safe space so that people can truly share. 

What’s your hope for the future? 

It’s okay to be unapologetically Indigenous. We can be Indigenous, and we don’t have to be apologetic.

But that’s also why I’m here. We still have a hundred generations from now. We still have our language. We still have our connection with a higher power. We still have our community. Due to the lateral violence we have experienced, healing is difficult. But we still have hope. I hope for the cohesiveness of our community. The cohesiveness is one of my dreams. My hope for the next generation is that we can come together and appreciate that everyone has a job. Everyone has a duty. We’re a small Nation, and so everybody has a role to play in that cultural perpetuity.

Chief Don smiled brightly and said, “We want to be proud of who we are. Because if we’re proud, then that helps perpetuate who we are, right?”