Kelsie Kilawna shares her 2022 storytelling intentions

Centering the beauty of sqilxw Peoples is on the horizon for this syilx and Secwépemc storyteller

Content Warning: This article contains content around the uncovering of children at residential “schools,” depression, wildfires, and loss to COVID-19. We lovingly ask you to read with care and listen to your body for cues of needing to step away from the content. As always, care for spirit first. 

Reflecting back on 2021 comes with its heartaches. 

2021 was a year where my syilx and Secwépemc kin were challenged over and over again. We endured tremendous pain with the uncovering of our relatives at the Kamloops Indian Residential “school,” with the fires that burned through my home community of the Okanagan Indian Band, and then later by devastating floods, while also losing several Nation kin to COVID-19.

The responsibility I felt as a storyteller in the days and weeks after 215 unmarked graves were identified at the Kamloops Indian Residential “school” is hard to put into words. It was springtime. When I tried to write, I was emotionally stunned. I couldn’t put words or thoughts together. I felt like a complete failure. 

This feeling of inadequacy eventually turned into a visit with depression. I befriended and made kin with my depression. Knowing that it was only a visitor to my life and that it would eventually depart. That hope is what got me through each passing day. 

My visit with Depression taught me a lot in 2021. 

My children watched and witnessed it as it visited me every day. 

As a single parent I hold responsibility for my children, and as a syilx and Secwépemc woman I hold a responsibility to my people as a whole. My role is to carry love for all, to bring empathy and understanding, and to uplift the hearts of our people and others. However, nowhere in our teachings does it say I should run myself down in the course of upholding my responsibilities.

From great pain comes growth

My children reminded me to take care of myself during my visit with depression, a practice they continue to this day. During my darkest hours and deepest heartache, my son, Skookamina, would grab his drum and sing songs to me, day after day. Although I was stunned physically, not able to leave my bed, and also spiritually blocked, his songs vibrated through me and awakened my spirit in the way it needed. My oldest child, Kolet, also spent many days taking care of household chores, cooking dinners and reading to their little brother. My youngest son was also patient with me and lovingly accepted the care from his older sister while I recovered in my room. At that time I asked for a lot of time from all of them. 

Then, in the summer, the fires hit. My darkest days were when I had nowhere on the land to go to do ceremony because fire was surrounding my home community. My children are the reason I was able to make it through those weeks

Through these hard times, I acknowledged that changes needed to happen within myself. Something had to give. I ended up leaving my homelands and set off to spend three days off-grid in a cabin up in the mountains of the Tsilhqot’in territory. I had no contact there with the outside world. I sat on the shores of the lake, cried and prayed with every ounce of energy I had left. I begged for freedom from this visit with depression. 

It changed me. I finally had days where I could hear my own thoughts again, and regain control of my identity. 

When I returned home from the cabin, in early October, my visit with depression ended. 

I felt a renewal of life in my body. It was at this time that I reached out to my sisters at IndigiNews and shared what I was going through. Although they knew I was surviving a visit with depression while doing my best to show up for work, I don’t think anyone aside from my sisters and Dad knew how serious it was. 

Kelsie Kilawna
Alicia Marchand, my oldest sister, supported me through my visit with depression and has always been more of a mother and caretaker to me, here at 2-years old she wipes my face after a meal. Photo by Denise Marchand

My IndigiNews sisters then empowered me to learn from that experience and to write stories that fed my spirit. They empowered me to write stories that would heal my spirit because in doing that I strengthen the collective, and also am writing for those who are going through similar things. The power of knowing you are not alone can be the difference between life and death.  

My counselor shared with me, “The more people who know of your pain, the greater your circle of protection is,” and I felt that deeply with my sisters at IndigiNews. 

‘No is a full sentence’ 

Later on that October, I was at a ceremony at the headwaters of the Columbia River. I shared with my Aunty and Uncle some of the challenges I was having with upholding my responsibilities as a storyteller while also caring for my spirit. 

My Uncle Bruce Manuel and Aunty Tricia Manuel shared loving words of encouragement and advice. 

I told them of the discomfort I was experiencing while reporting on and sharing certain types of stories – mainly those which reflected trauma and felt extractive of my energy. Uncle Bruce shared his wisdom with me as we stood nestled in the Columbia mountains. 

“‘No.’ Is a full sentence and always a valid answer.”

“You can’t take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself,” he said.

Aunty Tricia and Uncle Bruce, who I look to for spiritual guidance and cultural knowledge, often share about how caring for one’s self is not a selfish act, but a necessity if we want to be able to show up for our people. 

Collecting flowers for the children

Fast forward to January 2022. I awake from a dream, a very vivid dream. In it, I am walking down an aisle of bright lights. The bright lights are in human form, and I can feel a strong energy emitting from the figures. That energy is pure love. 

As I am walking down the aisle, the Light People are handing me flowers, one by one. 

By the time I get to the end of the aisle I have a full bouquet of flowers, and there is a group of children there. They are also in the form of light energy but are more recognizably human. I hand each a flower and they light up with happiness. I can feel the joy vibrating from their beings. 

I interpreted this dream as my Ancestors and guides working with me this year to give me offerings of love that would nurture the People to Be (children and future generations) in their journeys. I also saw it as a way of honouring the children who never made it home, and as a commitment to them, that we will continue to bring them home in all the work we do. 

Everything was beautiful, joyful and light. I know that this year I will be divinely guided in my work, and that dream confirmed that for me. 

My vision forward 

As an act of love for myself and as an offering of that love to the Nations that I’m responsible to, I will fill this year’s news feeds with beauty, love and authentic reflections of who we really are. 

I’ve always said it’s important to move beyond using our trauma as our identity and to move past the trope of “resiliency,” to show our beauty that has always been there. Our identity should not be based on how well we tolerate pain and abuse. 

This year I will focus on storytelling in three areas: profiles of people, places, and businesses; stories of generational knowledge; and stories that amplify traditional teachings within syilx and Secwépemc homelands. My goal is to uplift the heart. 

As I always say, my obligation is to bring joy to the people and make life a little gentler for sqilxw kin and the People to Be, while also creating a space for non-Indigenous kin to come into the collective consciousness. A place where the hearts of all can come to love the people and these lands as much as we do. After all, it is the responsibility of everyone, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who live on these territories to support all life. 

Let us never forget our sacredness. 

Dear cuzzins, if you or anyone you know is struggling with a visit with depression, suicidal ideation or attempts we want you to know help is available at KUU-US Crisis Line Society.

​Adults/Elders (250-723-4050), Child/Youth (250-723-2040), Toll free (1-800-588-8717), or the Métis Line (1-833-MétisBC). 

And if you just need a reminder of the love that you embody from an Aunty please hear the prayers in this video. Spoken word poem by Helen Knott.


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