Spirit Dancing: How two UBC students gained access to report on this secretive Aboriginal tradition

The University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism offers a one-of-a-kind class on Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Developed in partnership with several B.C. Aboriginal communities, the course is designed to elevate Canada's not-so-great coverage of Aboriginal issues and focuses on a specific theme.

The University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism offers a one-of-a-kind class on Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Developed in partnership with several B.C. Aboriginal communities, the course is designed to elevate Canada's not-so-great coverage of Aboriginal issues and focuses on a specific theme. This year’s theme is water, and in this article, UBC students Rachel Bergen and Stephanie Kelly explain the challenges they encountered reporting on Aboriginal issues in B.C. and the lessons they learned.

Read the students’ original work here. Their radio documentary is one part of a week-long series prepared by UBC students and airing on CBC’s The Early Edition in Vancouver.

By Rachel Bergen and Stephanie Kelly

As part of our class project, we reported on a very secretive Stó:lō spiritual tradition called spirit dancing. This tradition a lifelong commitment and involves living in longhouses during the winter, spiritual bathing nearly every day, singing and dancing, counselling younger spirit dancers, and keeping the secret of the dance. But their sacred grounds are being lost because of illegal dumping and it’s no longer to safe to swim.

The process of getting this story wasn’t a simple one.  Initially we found potential stories we weren’t confident about pitching because they weren’t original. We researched stories on hydroelectric projects and depleting salmon populations, but we wanted to find a story that had not yet been told.  

A few weeks into our semester, we met with Ernie Crey, an advisor to Stó:lō Tribal Council who was a guest speaker in class.  He opened our eyes to some of the most worrisome issues in the 19 Stó:lō communities around the Fraser Valley.  

Not much is known about these spiritual dancers outside of their communities, but Crey told us their sacred places – natural pools occurring in swift moving creeks and lakes throughout the territory – are in danger.  Crey provided us with several contacts to interview and we thought we were on a straightforward path towards getting the story. 

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But it took us several weeks of failed attempts before we realized why our phone calls and emails were going unanswered.  Hundreds of years of abuse – when potlatching was outlawed, and native masks, regalia and artifacts were confiscated – have created a deep engrained sense of mistrust in the Stó:lō for outsiders.  Parents told their children to practice their spirituality in private because if they were caught, their spiritually would be outlawed again as it had been in the past or more important artifacts would be stolen. This fear of persecution still lingers for some Stó:lō elders and to this day, certain spiritual practices are kept secret.  

We quickly learned that access would be our biggest barrier. Our professor Duncan McCue encouraged us to be as transparent as possible, to do our research, and to be persistent. 

Much of our time was spent on the road, driving between Vancouver and Chilliwack. And on many of these trips, we arrived home empty-handed. Sources turned us down for interviews and advised us to give up the story because the topic was too sensitive. We were told no one would want to share their story. This lack of access would be a common theme for the next three months. 

One time we had set up three interviews, including two at the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre in Chilliwack, but when we arrived, we were told to go through a long process to apply to research Stó:lō spiritual practices. That was the first time we heard of this process, and we were told that we would likely be denied because of the subject’s sensitive nature. 

This is when we realized this wasn’t like any story we had told before.  

The staff at the research centre shared with us their previous experiences with journalists with whom they gave interviews, but never heard if their stories were published. The journalists didn't maintain the relationship and this made the elders feel used.

The relationship between media and First Nations peoples in Canada has not always been a positive one. And in many ways, we felt we were paying for the mistakes made by reporters who came before us.  

There were several points when we almost abandoned the story because we couldn’t find anyone to tell us their story on the record. But at some point we realized the lack of access was a part of the story.  

The turning point 

After two months of coming up empty handed, we had a breakthrough.

We met the two main sources for our story — Jeff Point, one of the oldest living spirit dancers in Stó:lō territory and Eddie Gardner, an elder-in-residence for the University of the Fraser Valley’s Indigenous Studies program. Point told us that his wife questioned him why he took us to several of his desecrated spiritual places. He said he wanted to help us because the story needed to be told.  

When we proved that we were informed, knew the appropriate way to ask questions, and expressed our willingness to learn more, they in turn were eager to help us understand and entrust us with this important information. Point and Gardner were generous with their time and took us to their spiritual places along the Vedder and Chilliwack Rivers.  

Lessons learned:

  • Be transparent about your intentions with sources.
  • Reporting in indigenous communities is a reciprocal relationship. One chief told us that First Nations peoples own their stories.  If they decide to share their wisdom and personal information, they deserve to know how and where it will be told in the future.
  • Do your research before asking for access.  Initially we asked for access to the longhouse to watch a spirit dance but that was a big mistake because it’s considered a very private and intimate ceremony.  We also asked to take pictures of spiritual bathing, but we didn’t know that it is done in the nude so it was inappropriate to ask.
  • Perseverance pays off.

Hopefully, by shining light on the issue, something can be done before any more Stó:lō spiritual sites are lost. 

Rachel Bergen and Stephanie Kelly have finished their freshman year at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism program. Bergen will be interning at Global National and CTV B.C. Online this summer. Kelly will be returning home this summer to intern with CBC P.E.I.