Meet our Organizers: Kenthen Thomas of the Secwepemc Nation

Culture Days

February 15, 2022

Meet our Organizers Series
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The annual Culture Days celebration would not be possible without the creativity, hard work, and passion of organizers. As a 2021 BC Culture Days Ambassador, Kenthen Thomas of the Secwepemc Nation in Salmon Arm, BC, invited participants on a journey inspired by ancestral knowledge of the Secwepemc territory. We asked him some questions about how he infuses storytelling into his work as both a creative and an educator. Here’s what he shared with us.

Describe your artistic practice in 3 words.

Necessary, ancestral, and educational.

What does it mean to be an artist working and living in Salmon Arm?

Working and living in Salmon Arm is an honour. The Secwepemu’lucw is a vast territory that is estimated at around 170,000 square/km depending on who you talk to. So, to be working somewhat right in the center of the traditional territory I can access any part of the territory within a day’s travel, safely. This means that if I get a call in the morning and need to be in a community either teaching or sharing stories, I can be anywhere in the territory by the evening.

As for ‘being’ in Salmon Arm itself—this is the traditional home of my ancestors who used to row their canoes here. They walked this land, they spoke our language, and they lived and breathed right here in the same place I am. I like to believe that when I story-tell or perform a story they listen. That the ancestors know that the words they created are alive. That the lessons and laws of the land that they tried to convey through the stories are being heard and the knowledge is being recognized. Being in Salmon Arm is a remarkable life to be living.

Photo courtesy of Kenthen Thomas.
Photo courtesy of Kenthen Thomas.

Where is your favourite place to go to find inspiration and indulge your mind?

I like to be connected to the land and especially the water. Often, I will go to the lake or a river and just listen to the sounds of nature. This could be a howl of a coyote, or the rattling of a chickadee, or the splash of a wave. This is the one constant of the land, the sounds of nature.

You are both a creative and an educator. Can you tell us more about how you infuse storytelling into your work as a teacher?

Storytelling is an all-encompassing teaching tool, in my mind. A long time ago it taught us about how things came to be, which is the creation of the land and everything on it and in it. It’s also a teaching tool about how not to behave—which falls in line with traditional ways of knowing and being in indigenous communities where non-interference teaching, modelling, and living were practiced. Instead of telling, directing, or instructing one on how to behave, the story teaches the listener what the consequences of any behaviour and the results.

Storytelling can be infused into many programs, subjects, and curriculums. It can also serve as a ‘hook’ at the start of a unit that piques the interest of the students and keeps them engaged throughout the lesson. And, sometimes, the story is just a story. Often, I will utilize the possibility of a story as a dangling carrot to help encourage students to stay on-task and accomplish an in-class assignment. Other times, if a class or a certain student is behaving in such a manner that is disruptive, then perhaps a story might teach lessons that speak to that student’s or class’ behaviour.

In 2021 you served as a BC Culture Days Ambassador, why did you decide to participate?

The answer to this is simple: to promote the traditional knowledge of the ancestors of the land we call Secwepemcu’lucw. A long time ago, the powers that be decided that Canada had, in their terms, “an Indian problem,” and with this came assimilation. With assimilation came the cultural genocide of our ways of knowing and being. Thus, the stories and storytelling would be non-existent if said powers had their way.

My choice to practice, celebrate, and share, speaks to the resiliency and strength of my ancestors who both figuratively and literally gave their lives to ensure that their words will be heard.

Photo courtesy of Kenthen Thomas.
Photo courtesy of Kenthen Thomas.

Is there anything that surprised or delighted you about being a BC Culture Days Ambassador?

The fact that non-indigenous people listened and heard the message of the stories that were shared. The message I tried to convey was a simple one of awakening our connection to the land. This was heard loud and clear—and it was evident when I had conversations with audience members after the presentation. It was a beautiful thing to feel and behold.

As a part of your Culture Days program, “Secwepemc Stepetkwll: Legends That Teach”, you invited your mentor Dr. Bill Choen to perform with you. Tell us more about this experience.

This was the hard part of this experience. Because of COVID-19 and the recent forest fires that forced Billy and his family to evacuate, this aspect of the program was shifted to be a virtual one. This was something that wasn’t planned for nor expected, nonetheless we did the best we could with what little time we had to collaborate. Mostly, I tried to bounce ideas off him and tried to garner his thoughts on traditional protocols.

What does the year ahead hold for you creatively?

This year I want to do some acting that has no attachment to our traditional stories, just a play in the local community. I’d also like to teach a group of youth to write, direct, and present their own play based upon the traditional stories. This would include teaching creative writing, acting classes, and promotional skills to the youth. I will also take ANY opportunity to share the stories and the words of the ancestors at every chance.

This article is part of the Meet our Organizers blog series. Find more profiles here.

Learn more about the BC Culture Days Ambassador Program.