The Squaw Hall Project- A Community Remembers

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What happens when you give youth living in a community rife with racism the means to create their own documentary based on a historic landmark with a controversial history? The Squaw Hall Project is the unexpectedly profound and uplifting result of this undertaking.

      The roots of this project stem from a time when segregation was fully enforced in Williams Lake, B.C. First Nations people were not allowed in the businesses or dance halls run by the white community, and the town built them a corral to deter them from attending their own dances, naming it “Squaw Hall”. What began as a place created out of exclusion and racism soon transformed into a place of gathering. As one elder wistfully describes in the film “It was a place where we could dance and watch the stars at the same time… until daylight!” Over time, the stomping ground was taken over by non First Nations people who would come to the hall after their own halls had closed for the night. The latter history is only alluded to in the documentary when violence and partying took over until the hall was finally closed down. Instead it chooses to focus on the healthier more communal aspects of when the hall was alive, and the possibilities of reviving this in the present day.

      The film begins with Secwepemc and Tsilhqot’in elders recounting their early lives in Williams Lake: they tell histories of traditional life, experiences with racism and segregation, colouring these with humor and beauty. The film takes an interesting turn when it asks what message the elders have for youth today, and suddenly the viewer witnesses the elders giving a direct address to the young filmmaker behind the camera. What unfolds is a heartfelt disclosure of the elders’ hopes for the future of these youth, revealing the vital role that the younger generation must play in reviving their culture. At this moment it becomes clear that the making of this documentary is an active and indispensable part of this process.

      The project was conceived by Nicola Harwood, a member of Twin Fish Theatre and originally from Williams Lake, during a visit to her mother’s. While out walking her dog behind her mother’s property, she stumbled on a plaque commemorating Squaw Hall. Feeling that its rich history had been glossed over, Harwood approached Diane Roberts and Rosemary Georgeson of Urban Ink and proposed the project. Georgeson recollects how her initial reaction was strongly against supporting the project (partially because of the final years of its infamous history and the use of the word “squaw”).

    The word “squaw” has been the source of a great deal of conflict and debate, including its origins deriving from the Algonquian word “woman”. The word can bring up a lot of hurt for women who have had the painful experience of having this word hurled at them as a violent insult.  Even so, they decided to keep the original name, after consulting the advisory committee which consisted of Joan Gentles, Head of Aboriginal Education in Caribou Chilcotin; Barbara Mack, Aboriginal Liason for Caribou Chilcotin Region; as well as elder Sage Birchwater, among others. Collectively they felt their decision would “challenge the community to be uncomfortable and from that place be able to reexamine assumptions, memories, and speak truths”. While there has been some backlash for this decision, the landmark documented in the film has never been known to the community by any other name, and this name still holds with it many strong memories, both painful and wonderful.
As Georgeson explains: “The more little fires I’ve had to stomp out, the stronger I feel about keeping the title.”

      A play of the same name was also written by the youth, reflecting the different kinds of struggles that youth face in Williams Lake today, including pressure to join gangs, racism, drug and alcohol abuse, and mistreatment from police. As the play progresses, it is clear that the making of this documentary has had a strong effect on the participants involved, and the play comes to a close with the teachings imparted by the elders strongly in mind.

  What is so moving about this project is that it has allowed the youth in the community to reconnect with their elders through the site’s oral history. In a town notorious for its horrific police brutality, where racism is so prevalent that it is near impossible for First Nations youth to find work, the fact that this project was able to inspire them to pursue their dreams is indeed a great triumph.

  “My favorite part about the program was interviewing the elders. The things they told me were unbelievable and incredible at the same time. We have to respect our elders, we have to learn from them, it’s another way of keeping our culture and language intact.”
                                                                      -Taylor Myers, participant

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Participants Reanne Elkins, Taylor Myers, and Larissa Myers presenting the Honourable Steve Point with a copy of the documentary they helped to create

 

Chandra Melting Tallow, Siksika
Visual Design Coordinator
Redwire Native Youth Media
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