Wet'suwet'en Matriarchs, sacred berries and MMIWGScroll down to continue
Within the first day of arriving for a near two-week stay in Smithers, B.C., where I went to hear stories of the traditional Wet'suwet'en People, I learned about Niwus.
I continued to learn about this sacred medicine until the day I left. Niwus is the Wet'suwet'en word for soapberry — a tiny, delicate, bitter medicinal berry that grows on the Wet'suwet'en Yintah (traditional territories), and is scattered throughout wilderness areas in the western provinces of Canada.
While browsing through a local thrift store on my second day in the picturesque town, I met Mary David, a local Wet'suwet'en elder with a flamboyant style and an infectious laugh.
She stood out to me because she was wearing a black Elvis Presley T-shirt (one of my favourite musicians) under a bold black and white blazer, a cute fanny pack and layers of jewelry that shook when she walked.
She was ahead of me and I kept hearing her giggling. So I kept looking her way to find out what was so funny. Soon we started chit-chatting about cool items we saw, like a handmade purse with pink sewing machines on it for just $2.
“Oh, that would be good for the potlatch,” she said to herself, but then told me to get it for my daughter because I liked it so much.
Potlatching, depending on the culture, can be held to celebrate the passing of names, titles and responsibilities of one chief to the eldest heir or another, to distribute wealth, establish rank; to mark the passing of the head of a house; to celebrate weddings, births, death. Recognized as integral to the cultures, societies and laws of many coastal First Nations, potlatching was targeted with particular force under the Canadian government’s assimilation agenda.
Potlatches were banned under the Indian Act in 1880 up until the 1950s, forcing many to go underground and deeply impacting a once-flourishing and dominant governing system.
Potlatches continue to be held by nations today, though many communities have been impacted by the inability to gather in large groups due to COVID-19.
Mary reminded me immediately of my Kohkum (grandmother in Cree) with her short, dark, curly hair, her dark complexion, and her love of Elvis. My Kohkum died in 2008. We were very close. I see her face in every Indigenous community I travel to and it feels like home.
For about half an hour, Mary and I connected, laughed, and shared stories. I leaned in close when I spoke to her because I noticed she used hearing aids and was blind in one eye. I was fascinated with her because she was so vibrant.
She kept bringing up Niwus and how she needed to go soapberry picking.
I was curious about the way she talked about the berries — the urgency and craving in her voice. The hunt was on. I got her number. I explained that I’m a journalist and in town for a week or two. I said I would love to visit with her more.
Then I veered off into the shop's book section, and she walked over to the DVDs.
That was the last time I saw her.
I called the number she gave a day or two later but it was the wrong one. Maybe I wrote it down wrong. I’ll never forget the quick friendship and the stories exchanged in that little thrift store. I hope I run into her again.
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But Niwus continued a mystery that ignited my investigative senses throughout my week in Wet'suwet'en territories.
The next evening, I met another Wet'suwet'en elder outside a Tim Hortons by my hotel.
Florence Naziel, 70, of the Moricetown reserve was another flashy, warm and Elvis-loving matriarch who I immediately took a liking to. I ended up nicknaming her “Miss Hollywood.” She got a kick out of it.
With bleached blond, back-combed hair, oversized sunglasses and a dazzling sense of style, she agreed to take me Niwus hunting the next day. Taking quickly to her new nickname, she joked with me that she hires someone to pick her soap berries these days.
The next day, we met up, and she shared a bit of her story with me over breakfast.
She’s soft-spoken, and a proud Wet'suwet'en, Laksilyu (Small Frog Clan), mother of six boys and two girls, and a widower of 14 years. She fought for her seven-year-old grandson Cashish to come home to Moricetown from Winnipeg when he was a baby. Her son’s ex-girlfriend signed her rights to the baby to social services when he was born, said Florence. So, she fought to get him back.
Over 15 months, several plane flights back and forth, zero lawyers, nd a lot of courage and love, Florence convinced a judge to give her custody.
She beamed with pride when sharing her journey to keep him from growing up in a cold, unjust and distant child welfare system.
Florence also founded the first official walk for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls on the Highway of Tears 14 years ago after her cousin's daughter Tamara Chapman, 22, a mother of a toddler boy, disappeared near Prince Rupert in 2005.
Dozens of women and girls have been snatched away near or along the Highway of Tears since 1969, most of them Indigenous.
Florence walked hundreds of kilometres from Prince Rupert through rain, snow and sleet along with her niece Gracie Holland, and a handful of sporadic supporters, ending up in Prince George.
There were times when Florence and Gracie didn’t have food or water, but kept going, she told me. There were times when their bodies hurt, but they kept going because she said their suffering was little in comparison to the daughters, sisters, cousins, mothers and friends who were taken on the deadly highway.
The infamous road is a 724-km section of the Yellowhead Highway 16 that goes through Smithers and Wet'suwet'en and other First Nation communities.
The phrase Highway of Tears was coined in 1998 by Florence during a vigil held in Terrace, B.C., as she was thinking of all the families crying over their loved ones. Some bodies have never been found.
But putting this sadness aside, it was time to go on the hunt for Niwus.
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Florence hopped in my vehicle and directed where we should look from the passenger’s seat. She described Indian ice cream made from Niwus and said it’s a delicacy I must try. Indian ice cream, she said, licking her lips, is so good for us.
Soapberries grow in Western Canada on a deciduous shrub. They’re high in vitamin C, and Wet'suwet'en use them to treat high blood pressure, digestive orders, skin imperfections and even cancer.
Soapberries also contain saponin, a bitter compound that is naturally present in quinoa and other plants and get their name because they lather up in water, like soap suds.
It’s a delicacy to be consumed in moderation because they can upset your stomach. The berries can also be used to make cleansers or shampoo. Florence recalled fond memories growing up on the land, living in cabins along hunting routes with her parents and siblings. Berry season was a cherished time and Indian ice cream was a rare treat.
We spent half a day looking for Niwus with no luck. Florence called her sisters and asked them for their secret locations, but we didn’t find the berries anywhere.
We then drove up Hudson Bay Mountain to look in her Laksilyu territory. That’s where Florence showed me a spot where the body of 18-year-old Jessica Patrick was found in 2018.
Patrick was a member of the Lake Babine First Nation, located a couple hours east of Smithers. She was a beautiful woman with long dark hair and eyes. She was a mother of a one-year-old son when she was killed.
Her murder still isn’t solved.
We stood on a bank overlooking a breathtaking view of the green and blue valley, dotted with houses, and accented by snow-capped mountains in the distance. Not far down this embankment sits a white cross and tributes, plastic flowers and notes to the young mother whose life was snuffed out.
Her relatives found her body when they kept looking after they say the RCMP gave up.
I shivered at the thought of Jessica’s family members holding her body in their arms and the searing pain they must have felt.
We left and continued our hunt for Niwus, gabbing on like longtime girlfriends. Florence pointed out landmarks and noted her favourite places to eat and shop in Smithers.
She told me how she wished she was arrested at the Unist'ot'en checkpoint in February. How she went to the front lines and stood to protect the lands, the water, the medicines (like Niwus) and the women from the violent impacts of the Coastal Gas Link Liquified Natural Gas pipeline.
She said she was disappointed the RCMP didn’t arrest her, maybe they didn’t because she’s an elder, she pondered. But she’s proud she stood up for the Yintah and the coming threats, and she’ll do it again when the time comes, she said.
We would find Niwus yet, Florence assured me as we said our goodbyes that day.
Later that night, she messaged me on Facebook to invite me to have Indian ice cream at her niece Gracie’s house the next day.
I was tickled to finally try Niwus and to meet Florence’s niece, another friend named Dolly and maybe Florence’s daughter Priscilla (yes, named after Elvis’s wife Priscilla).
I had my 16-year-old daughter Dani with me for company and to also do some hands-on learning of the Wet'suwet'en culture. I told her all I learned about Niwus so far. She was coming with me, so I tried preparing her to be respectful when we taste the Niwus, even though it may be bitter.
We met at the Wiset Village gas bar and followed Florence to Gracie’s home on the reserve, which happens to be next to the Highway of Tears.
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Gracie Holland, 49, of the Tsayu (Beaver) clan is Florence’s niece and sings in a Wet'suwet'en women’s drum group called Ewh Hiyah Hozdli. Florence and Dolly are in the drum group too. She is a mother to two adult daughters and a grandmother to a two-year-old boy.
At first, Gracie seemed leery of me, and I was unsure how to take her. Was she suspicious of me because I'm the media? Or was it just me jumping to conclusions?
I felt instantly intrigued by her. She was stoic. Her eyes focused on me, but were distant at the same time. I made conversation and introduced her to Dani and we got to know each other a bit while Florence ran to pick up Dolly.
She lives in a log house built by her father — a sturdy, rustic and warm-smelling refuge with paper “angels” made from tracings of former house guests' hands that dangle from the main floor ceiling. It gets cold in winter, she said. To stay warm, she places electric heaters in the rooms because the wood fireplace doesn’t reach them.
Not surprisingly, Gracie is an Elvis fan, too, along with one of her daughter’s. Taped on two entranceways are life-size cut-outs of the King. Gracie said they’re leftover decorations from her daughter’s birthday a few years back that they never took down.
Gracie was raised in and out of foster care far away from her family and traditions, she said. She kept running away to get back home to Wet'suwet'en country and never gave up fighting to be back with her family.
She tells me she’s survived two strokes and two brain aneurysms, so she forgets things sometimes. There was also a car accident in 2011, which left her “mangled”. She had to learn to walk again.
She lost her parents in separate crashes on Highway 16, a.ka. the Highway of Tears. That’s when she momentarily broke down. So much pain there. She’s fiercely proud when it comes to her culture, family and justice for MMIWG.
I learned her spirit is gentle and gracious. Like her name.
I felt my perceived tensions ease up and concluded Gracie is a resilient woman who's been through the ringer and has still managed to retain a tender heart.
When Florence returned, I met Dolly. She’s actually a doll. She’s a Wet’suwet’en matriarch from the Tsayu Clan, a language teacher and a mother of one son. She was wearing a handmade birch bark headband and brought her deer hide drum, painted with the crests of her mother clan. The women were going to sing for Dani and me.
Gracie put on her regalia, a beautiful blanket-style cape she made in Wet’suwet’en black and white.
We went out to Gracie’s yard and the ladies stood proudly in front of a stunning mountain in the distance. The sun was setting and its orange glow radiated around them.
They didn’t play their drums because a community member had recently passed away. During a time of mourning, the Wet’suwet’en put away their sacred drums. But the matriarchs held their drums to their chests as if they were shields or symbols of courage and tradition that provided spiritual significance.
The trio sang the Women's Warrior Song. It was one I knew. We sing it up in Treaty 6 territories where I’m from. It’s a song of strength, peace and unification. I felt honoured to be there.
I noticed semis and other vehicles whisking by and thought about the Highway of Tears. It was ironic given the beauty and resilience of these Wet’suwet’en women singing. They live so close to a road where their women and girls have been violently stalked. Dolly led another song, a Beaver song, which was light and playful. We all clapped along in celebration.
It was finally time for Indian ice cream.
We went inside and Florence took out a hand blender she'd brought from home. With some green soapberries in a plastic mixing bowl, she started whipping. I was so excited. Soon, she offered me the chance to help make it.
The Niwus transformed into a bubbly substance and then into a white, fluffy form.
Florence told me it's ready when the Niwus Indian ice cream sticks to the bowl when you turn it upside down. A couple teaspoons of sugar were added to curb the bitter taste. Then Gracie was the taste tester to determine if it was ready to eat. Everyone was silent as they watched her dip her spoon in and take a bite. She nodded her head in approval.
Yes! This is what I had been so curious about.
Everyone gathered around the table, and they watched as I took my first taste. It was bitter. Oh, it was bitter. But it was heavenly. Because it was an honour for me to be taking part in this special part of their culture.
“It’s an acquired taste,” they laughed as they watched me trying not to show my soured reaction.
It was soft and subtly sweet. It was a beautiful experience to eat this with them and with my daughter.
Immediately, I felt as if I belonged with this group of women from this small corner of the world. Our conversations flowed as if we knew each other all along. So many quirks and Indigenous cultural nuances between us made it easy.
Florence announced, “You’re one of us now!” because I had eaten Indian ice cream, and we all chuckled.
Not long after, our conversation turned serious again.
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More talk of the Highway of Tears.
Recently, Dolly was travelling home with family members from a night out of Bingo in Hazleton.
After they drove over the Witset highway canyon bridge, a dark-hooded figure popped out of the ditch. It hovered for a couple of seconds, looked their way, and disappeared across the highway.
Everyone in the car saw it, said Dolly. And all were struck with chilling fear.
Dolly believes it was maybe a wandering spirit of one of the slain women.
According to Human Rights Watch — an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights — British Columbia has the highest rate of unsolved murders of Indigenous women and girls in Canada.
Most locals are afraid to walk alone around these parts.
Gracie and Florence’s daughter Priscilla said they have both been stalked by drivers while taking daytime walks on the highway.
Memories of their lost relatives haunt them relentlessly.
Dolly is angry with the RCMP because she says they don’t do much to help the MMIWG crisis.
She’s upset that the RCMP aided with the building of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory.
“Our Indigenous women are being raped and now they’re (CGL) raping the land. My dad says don’t let those CGL go by. Who is going to talk for the animals? We are talking for the animals. We must talk for them,” said Dolly.
Last February when the RCMP raided Unis'tot'en and other Wet’suwet’en blockades in the path of the pipeline, her son Robby was behind the barriers.
It was cold out, -35, she said. She was afraid the RCMP might hurt Robby.
“I was so worried because I was on this end. They took everybody out. I was at home in the evening. Finally, I got a hold of him. He said, ‘Mom, I’m OK, I love you and I can't stay on too long.’ That was it,” Dolly said, wringing her hands and looking away.
“I was feeling really scared. I was feeling: I don’t know what’s happening to him. Didn’t know what to expect. I was really sad, but angry because of the RCMP — they’re doing the same thing to my family and nation over and over and over again. They have no interest in the land or the people of the land.”
Florence spoke of the military coming to Smithers and Houston and how alarming their presence felt.
“At one time, they (RCMP) brought in 300 military personnel. They had all their guns. What did we have? We had our drums. No weapons… That hurts my heart. All we had was our drums,” said Florence.
After a few hours of visiting, the evening ended. We said our goodbyes, hugs and vowed to get together again before I went home.
On the last evening I was in town, I went back to my hotel in Smithers with my daughter. Florence came to meet us outside the Tim Hortons next door. What a sight!
There waiting for us, too, were Dolly and Gracie. They wanted to surprise us. To send us off with strength.
I was bursting with love and thanks.
We sipped coffee, traded more stories. They all cried when I shared with them about visiting the Yintah of a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief named Gis’day’wa earlier that day. I witnessed him, his wife and sister viewing their lands for the first time since construction of the pipeline started.
They were devastated at what they saw. Florence, Gracie and Dolly felt the pain and my heart sank when I saw their tears.
When the crying was done, Florence spoke up, “Well, it’s time.”
They all nodded in unison. They were referring to it’s time to stand as matriarchs to protect their territories. These three Wet’suwet’en mothers hold fierce determination to stand up against what threatens their way of life. Their Niwus, their children, their lost sisters and the legacy of the songs they so proudly sing.
“I’m ready to get arrested!” said Florence, with a big smile and a fiery look in her eyes.
The others nodded in agreement.
We all hugged again, and I promised I’ll come back again soon.
There’s much more to learn, much more to understand and capture as I follow the journeys of the remarkable people of the Wet’suwet’en.
I brought home two jars of canned Niwus and it’s my current prized possession. Now that I know how to make Indian ice cream, I’m working to appreciate it in all its sacred delicacy.