Sunday, April 21, 2024

Vancouver Island First Nation revive language with graphic novel depicting their history


The Xwémalhkwu (Homalco) First Nation are a people that flourished on their traditional land in the Bute Inlet along the west coast of the mainland.

Through the 1800s and 1900s the Homalco Peoples were colonized and had many of their traditions stripped from them—including their land and their language. 

Now, the Homalco First Nation is located in Campbell River and efforts are being made to revive their language and culture. 

To do this, some members of the Nation are looking to their elders and knowledge keepers and are repackaging their stories in a way that is accessible to Homalco youth. 

Tchadas Leo was the project manager on a project funded by Education Without Borders which saw some recordings of Homalco elders turned into a podcast through their First Nation’s radio station, 100.7 FM, The Raven. 

“They were recorded in the context to preserve everything—the language, the culture, the stories, geographical questions, anything to do with Homalco, the territory and what the elders went through pre-contact and after contact, ” Leo told Victoria Buzz. 

This 12-part podcast series was created and released in 2022 and Leo says it was received well as Homalco youth were able to have free and easy access to their elders’ knowledge and stories of their people. 

More recently, Leo was given the opportunity to see these recordings and the podcast he helped create turned into a graphic novel which could help bring their language back in a different way. 

He says the graphic novel will feature English language with the Homalco translation printed underneath to make it easy for readers to translate directly from the text. 

Leo then began looking for who could write and illustrate a graphic novel and chose three Indigenous artists from throughout BC who all have diverse backgrounds and styles. 

One of these artists is Alina Pete, who is a Vancouver-based nehiyaw (Cree) artist and writer from Little Pine First Nation in western Saskatchewan.

They specialize in graphic novel illustration among many other mediums so Leo thought they would be a perfect fit for this project. 

Pete’s mother was an art teacher so they said they had easy access to any supplies they could ever need and from a very young age began exploring everything they could get their hands on.

From there they studied art in post-secondary with a focus on animation. More recently though they have been expanding their horizons to incorporate more writing into their art. 

“I used to think of myself as an artist first and a writer second,” Pete told Victoria Buzz. “But, since I got into comics, I’ve been doing way more writing.”

Sample of Homalco graphic novel (Courtesy of Tchadas Leo)

Pete says that they got into comics years ago because it was a nice way to work on both writing and drawing.

For this project, Leo and the Homalco First Nation brought Pete and the other chosen artists, Valen Onstine and Gord Hill out to the Bute Inlet to allow them to physically see the places where these stories took place.

“It was so cool,” Pete exclaimed. “I’ve been trying to get to know the landscape out here a bit more, so it was really cool to not just go out on the land, but to go to places where people can’t go very easily.”

“And to pick the brains of the elders while we were up there was amazing.”

The artists were assigned what to write and illustrate by Leo based on their art style and Pete says they were selected to cover the traditional Homalco coming of age ceremony.

“Specifically, I was doing the river bathing ceremony,” Pete explained. 

“So when boys or girls come of age, they will go out to the river, usually at dawn, and submerge themselves as a way to sort of build mental and physical strength, to purify themselves and a bunch of other spiritual reasons.”

Pete says that while they were out in Bute Inlet, they got to go to the river where this ceremony would traditionally take place and it was so cold it was iced over. 

They asked the elders if the youth would still do the ceremony in those conditions and they said it would take place no matter how cold it gets. 

Since getting back from the trip to the traditional Homalco territory, the scripts have been completed and the rough versions of all the pages have been finished. Now, Pete and their collaborators are getting to work on the final illustrations.

The project is expected to be completed and released this summer. 

Curtis Blandy

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