Elizabeth Gravelle was the first elected female First Nations chief in Canada, 1960. Now 96 years old, she watched her granddaughter Heidi Gravelle be elected chief of the Tobacco Plains Indian Band on July 5. Both spoke with The Free Press about the past, present and future of the band. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Past, present and future of Tobacco Plains

Ktunaxa Nation elder reflects on granddaughter’s election, speaks to the future of band

Chapter one – a humble home

Tucked away off the highway and up a dusty dirt road is a house shrouded by trees; two dogs yawn in the mid-day sun. Hummingbirds dance through the air in search of food.

Sunshine stops short from entering the kitchen; dozens of plants scattered around the room and in the windowsills diffuse the light and make for a softly-lit room. At the end of the hall, stairs lead up to a bedroom with the iconic sounds of ‘The Price Is Right’ gameshow emitting from it. Slowly, a figure emerges, carried down into the kitchen by a stairlift. A motorized wheelchair whirrs as it takes her over to the kitchen table where she stops, looks up and smiles. On paper, the year of her birth reads 1923; in person, her eyes are as young as a child’s.

In this abode resides 96-year-old Elizabeth Gravelle; a humble, soft-spoken woman, despite a lifetime of achievements.

In addition to being the first female Indigenous chief to be elected in Canada (in 1960), she is also currently the oldest Ktunaxa Nation elder and the last remaining fluent speaker of their traditional language; a dialect that is nearly extinct.

Chapter two – looking back

Gravelle faced challenges in her life, being one quarter ‘white’. She is the granddaughter of prominent European explorer Michael Phillips, and Rowena David, daughter of Tobacco Plains chief Paul David.

She and her husband raised a large family; six sons and four daughters, in addition to many grandchildren and great-grandchildren spread throughout the area, some as far west as California.

Her husband, Nicholas, served overseas in the war for three years. When he returned, he didn’t receive any land of his own, or cattle from the government, something that was typical for a Canadian soldier to receive. He instead received a plot of land on the reserve; land which belonged the Crown, and could never be sold by him. This occurred despite him not being a registered member of the reserve. To this day, Gravelle fights for the land which rightfully belonged to her husband.

“Realistically they could have given grandpa land anywhere… but it wasn’t done that way,” said granddaughter Heidi Gravelle.

Four of Elizabeth’s sons passed away growing up. One of them was the father of newly elected Tobacco Plains Indian Band chief, Heidi Gravelle. When he passed away, Elizabeth and Heidi took care of each other.

“All my upbringing and all my teachings, came from her,” said Heidi.

Because of her upbringing, Heidi knows many of the traditional ways better than most her age.

“We’re super lucky to still have her, because she carries so much knowledge, so much knowledge from, I mean, being born in 1923, you’ve literally seen it all; from teepee days to cellphones and fast cars,” said Heidi.

“She’s one of the last few, within our nation, that will be able to tell those stories. And for us, as First Nations people, everything is spoken. You listen to your elders and your parents… and you have to carry that with you,” she added.

“That’s why I tell my boys; go visit (grandma), listen to her stories.”

(Elizabeth and her granddaughter, Heidi Gravelle. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Chapter three – reflections

Nearly 100 years ago when Elizabeth came into the world, times were very different. A resilient and strong group of people, the Tobacco Plains band continued to live in teepees during the winter season. The band, in those days, was very interconnected; everyone knew everyone else and they all cared for each other. Elizabeth remembers the chief asking her father to go check on everyone to make sure they were okay.

“I remember us driving into places where there was snow and teepees… that’s how people were way back then; they looked after one another,” said Elizabeth.

“It’s so different; when I was little I used to come and stay with my grandparents at the village. Every home, there were a lot more homes, about eleven, every home had a grandparent couple living with them. They didn’t send their old people off; they looked after them,” she explained.

“And their grandchildren, if something happened to their parents, they took the grandchildren in and raised them.”

In those days there was no foster care, no apprehensions, and no illegitimate children (childbirth before marriage), as this was prohibited.

“That’s what First Nations families do,” added Heidi. “As native people, that’s what we do. Our kids come first and our kids are taken care of first.”

“We (our family) are very blessed in the sense that we don’t have a bunch of lost children in the system. And it’s sad, because across Canada, the highest number of children in care are First Nations kids. And although my grandparents went to residential schools, and absolutely they definitely suffered trauma, and there were effects from that, but due to their upbringing with their parents, they fought that. They made sure that those intergenerational traumas didn’t affect us, in a way of where we were left (behind),” said Heidi.

“But, the one way where it did affect us is not having our language.”

Chapter four – native tongue

Elizabeth, the last fluent speaker of Ktunaxa, has been instrumental in the restoration of the traditional Ktunaxa language. She has received an honourary Bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana for all of her help with the language over time.

Years ago, she opened up her home to serve as a language classroom for the youth in Tobacco Plains. From the curriculum to interactive hands-on learning, she taught the children, one of whom was her granddaughter Heidi, how to speak in their native tongue.

If she could reach into the past, Heidi would tell her five-year-old self to pay more attention in these classes.

“That’s my biggest regret; not having the self-discipline at that age to understand the importance. That’s, I feel my biggest missing link for my inner being, is not having my language. That’s my goal, that’s my dream; I want to speak,” she said.

But, Heidi added, she has to learn from her grandmother.

“I want to speak, learning from her. Not from anybody else.”

(Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Chapter five – forgiveness

Elizabeth’s wealth of knowledge has not always been welcomed by everyone, because of her family history. Many years ago when she was hired to help write a dictionary of the Ktunaxa language, she faced much opposition, because she was of fairer skin than some.

“My first meeting I went to with them, I could hear people stand up and say, ‘we don’t want a white woman teaching us our language’. Well how come they didn’t know their language? I tell them, who are you then?” said Elizabeth.

“Now they’re coming after me; will you teach us, will you teach us? Ah, get away, I’m a white woman, I don’t know the language,” she laughed.

Heidi explained that this colonial way of thinking, of forming prejudices against someone because of the colour of their skin, has been embedded in generations of First Nations people. Growing up, Heidi was a conflicted child. With a mother who was white and a father who was First Nations, she didn’t know to which ‘side’ she belonged, despite growing up with Elizabeth and being immersed in First Nations culture. She struggled to figure out who she was. It took many years for her to find confidence in who she was.

“I am a First Nations woman and I’m proud of it,” said Heidi. “That’s who I am, that’s who I identify as.”

At one time, non-indigenous and Indigenous people were like one big family, explained Elizabeth. It was when the younger generations came along, that the prejudices began to form. This, Heidi added, was instilled in them, as the same was being done in return by non-indigenous people.

Before the prejudices began, anyone who was lost and alone, whether you were First Nations or not, would be taken in and cared for.

“I think the whole idea of this area and how the community was, as one, it can get back to that. I think we can rebuild those connections, and I think a lot of it is forgiveness. Someone has done you harm? Forgive them and move on. Because at the end of the day, you’re only hurting yourself by staying stuck (in your ways),” said Heidi.

“Move forward, it’s a new day – be thankful for a new day and move forward.”

If someone has wronged you, forgive them. If someone is hurting, help them up. If someone is hungry, feed them. All of this and more, Heidi has learned from her grandmother. And it’s these morals she has instilled in own children.

Chapter six – a century past

As a child, Elizabeth stayed with her grandparents in the village. In the centre of the village was a clearing; a well-maintained area for all the children to play.

“I dreamt about this lady who used to live in that house. I saw her crawling, right in the middle of the village. She asked me, which way was she going,” explained Elizabeth.

“I said ‘north’. She told me, that’s because you’re going to live a long time. And here I am.”

As soon as she could sit on a horse, Elizabeth went adventuring with her grandmother, Rowena.

“I used to be strapped to my grandmother’s back, and we went all over the mountains,” she said.

“She showed me stuff, what it was used for, everything. So I learned a lot of stuff from that.”

Elizabeth was 14, and Rowena was over 70. She remembers her grandmother wanting someone to travel up into the mountains with her, one last time.

“Nobody would go, so she came to me and asked me, stupid me said yes,” said Elizabeth.

Rowena prepared two horses with saddles, and one packhorse, and off they went.

“Two of us – off into the mountains. When I grew up I always think back, what if something happened to her up there, what would I have done?” she said.

“That’s amazing grandma,” chimed Heidi. “Don’t ever ask me to do that.”

When the two arrived to where they were going on horseback, Rowena set up a teepee and told Elizabeth she was going to go find berries. She told Elizabeth: when you fry the bacon, the bear will smell it and come. But she left Elizabeth with instructions; when the bear comes, take a big spoon, pound on the pot and he’ll take off. Thankfully, no bear came.

“That explains a lot, even just that story explains a lot of who she is, and the things we did as kids with her,” said Heidi, smiling at her grandmother.

The granddaughter spoke to times in her childhood when Elizabeth used to haul them up into the mountains to go picking for berries.

Back then, everyone was more connected with the earth.

“One time I went up (into the mountains) in the states with a friend of mine, Teresa, and she was always so timid,” said Elizabeth.

“Everyone was down picking and berries were getting pretty scattered. I saw a bear up on the side of the mountain so I told her (Teresa) I’m going to go up there. I asked her, do you want to come with me? She said no, there’s a bear up there! I said you watch, when I get there I’ll tell that bear to take off. I want some berries too. You can come back.

“So I went up there, I said in the (Ktunaxa) language; Bear! Take off. And the bear took off. It didn’t run, it just walked off. I picked, and pretty soon, here comes Teresa,” laughed Elizabeth.

(Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Chapter seven – cultural genocide

When Elizabeth was growing up, everyone spoke Ktunaxa. This stopped after the introduction of residential schools.

Elizabeth is a residential school survivor. She attended St. Eugene’s Mission school from the age of six to 15. There, she was not allowed to speak her traditional language.

“You get caught speaking your language, you get in trouble,” said Elizabeth.

“They could have mixed native kids with white kids at schools so they learn the language, but they didn’t. They were separated. How could the native children learn when they were – they couldn’t speak it (Ktunaxa) even to themselves.”

Elizabeth leaned forward in her chair, tapping the table with her index finger.

“I always said, and I’ll say it again; they put the native children in those residential schools so they’ll die.” she said.

“They put you in there – instead of calling you by your father’s surname, they gave you your father’s first name. So how are you going to know when you grow up, which family you belong to?”

Asked what a prominent family name was in the Tobacco Plains, before white settlers came and took away their history, Elizabeth paused; “Well I, I don’t know.”

Chapter eight – stranded

At one time, just four families resided on the Tobacco Plains reserve land, which encompassed 10,045 acres. When the reserve was made, many in Eureka were forced to come back, and the area was then forced to find room for over 200 members. But the land base stayed the same. Worse still, no river running through the area, and no water source close by, made it seemingly impossible for the Indigenous people to survive.

“The intention of the government was to do away with natives, from way back,” said Elizabeth.

Elizabeth used an analogy to help explain what putting Indigenous people on reserves did to them as a people.

“If you get a jar, throw a bug in there, it will start to crawl out. It’ll get halfway and fall back down. Then it dies in there. It starves. That’s what they tried to do with the natives,” said Elizabeth. “Because you don’t own anything, you can’t go to the bank and get a loan on what belongs to the queen.”

(Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Chapter nine – the future of language

“Pretty slim,” said Elizabeth, when asked about the future of the traditional Ktunaxa language.

The elder has been working with the Ktunaxa Nation for many years to help restore and document their language, but she said, true preservation of a language must come from teaching children.

Heidi recently applied for, and acquired, a grant to establish a ‘language nest’ for children aged zero to five. Inside the ‘nest’, children will be surrounded by elders and speak nothing but the language – no English, whatsoever.

This initiative will launch in the Tobacco Plains this September.

“It might be our little five year olds teaching us in a few years,” laughed Heidi.

Heidi remembers, as a child, her grandmother visiting relatives in Montana and only speaking Ktunaxa. At the time she didn’t realize the importance of this.

“It’s really unfortunate. I tell my kids, yes, get your education, yes, strive to do whatever you want to do in life, but don’t ever forget where you come from, and what that entails,” said Heidi.

“Because that’s who you are – that’s what connects you to this earth – who you are and where you come from.”

Language, and the traditional language of her people, is what connects Heidi to all of her relatives who have since passed away.

“That’s how they’re going to hear us – not through English,” she said.

Going forward, this is one of her biggest goals – to help restore their language.

Chapter ten – the future of the Tobacco Plains

“The future? Survival,” said Elizabeth. “Survival.”

There are many things, in Elizabeth’s eyes, that the people could be doing to help restore the land and make it rich again. If it were up to her, she would clear all of the ‘Queen’s trees’ and plant fruit trees instead. She referenced Edwards Lake, close to town, as an ideal spot.

“I wish they would do something to improve the land, do something with it where everybody can benefit,” she added.

Elizabeth spoke at an environmental conference in Creston over 50 years ago.

“I told them, if they don’t stop destroying the mountain; that’s for the animals. You guys don’t stop destroying their habitat, they’ll be coming down to eat you guys.

“I said, another thing is water. They drill oil wells and everything up there and water will be more expensive than gas in the future. What’s happening today? I said are they going to sit there and eat your money when everything runs out?”

Chapter eleven – Queen Elizabeth

Years ago, Elizabeth received an invitation to have tea with Queen Elizabeth in Vancouver, to honour her contributions to the Ktunaxa Nation, and to Canada. She declined.

“I showed her who Queen Elizabeth was around here,” she laughed. “They told me, you stood the queen up? And I said yeah, I showed her who Queen Elizabeth was.”

“I was to fly to Vancouver and have tea with her. If she offered to pay my way I would have went.”

Chapter twelve – the next generation

Elizabeth’s face lit up with a smile, her fist shaking in the air; “Proud,” she exclaimed, when asked how it felt to see her granddaughter elected chief.

(Elizabeth Gravelle in her home. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)

Their family holds a long history of leadership. Elizabeth’s grandfather, and his son, were both chief. Her father’s mother was also a chief in Montana. Elizabeth was elected chief in 1960, and 59 years later she saw her granddaughter elected.

“I’m super proud to be home, and to be able to take on this new position and have my grandma here physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, with me, to guide me,” said Heidi.

“I couldn’t ask for a more knowledgeable, kinder, amazing mentor to have at my hands. I think I’m where I’m meant to be, she’s where she’s meant to be.”

Elizabeth, when asked if there was something she knows now that she wishes she knew when she was younger, said she wished she had moved somewhere to get an education. Referencing this, Heidi believes it wasn’t in her grandmother’s cards.

“I think creator wanted her here, because she had a lot to do, and she still has a lot to do. Because she holds knowledge and expertise that none of us do,” said Heidi.

“I have really big shoes to fill. If I can be half of the woman that she is, I think I’ll be happy with that. I have a long ways to go, and a lot to learn,” she added. “Thank you grandma, for everything that you’ve given me thus far in life.”



editor@thefreepress.ca

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