Written by Justen Peters
Growing up on the Rez, my stemtima (maternal grandmother) played a huge role in raising me. She would take me places all the time, often meeting other elders at gatherings, bingos, or cultural strips. I remember when she would take me across the border into the interior of Washington state to show me our traditional territory on the American side. She made sure that I was connected to our culture as much as possible, even though no one in the house spoke the language (nobody knew how).
She wanted me to grow up knowing that I was sqilxw, an Okanagan person. My grandmother was a strong woman, truly. She had a difficult life but managed to make it through as a warrior, matriarch, successful nurse and counsellor, and respected member of the community. Most of all, a spiritual and loving person. If not for her love and guidance, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now. I honestly could not imagine how my life would have turned out if it weren’t for her, and for that, I am eternally grateful that the Creator blessed me by making her my stemtima.
When I was about 12 years old, I started going to “R Native Voice.” It was a teen youth group held across all seven Okanagan bands on the Canadian side of the border. The program taught youth about Indigenous history, culture, mental health, and leadership. At R Native Voice, I learned to come out of my shell. It’s where I learned to use my voice, and developed a deeper relationship with our culture. I also had the privilege to meet other sqilxw youth from our territory and explore different parts of it that I would not have had the chance to otherwise.
A group of sisters facilitated the R Native Voice youth groups in the beginning. I want to mention them because the work and commitment they put into that initiative catapulted me into finding a purpose in life. To learn more about the history, culture, politics, people, land, and community, and for that, I have the utmost respect and gratitude for them. Strong sqilxw women, just like my stemtima.
I grew older in my youth. Travelled to many places, met a lot of people, worked hard at times, lucked out at others. I’ve had a lot of opportunities thrown my way. But most, if not all, of the good things that have happened to me are based on the foundation that my stemtima laid out for me, and the helpers along the way.
But not everything has been good. As I am sure some of you have, I’ve struggled with addictions. Loneliness, anxiety, resentments, hatred, self-pity, self-doubt, paranoia, fear, and a myriad of other made-up problems that I invented up in my head. But that’s what they all were: self-inflicted problems. I had forgotten the teachings given to me. Not only forgotten but buried deep inside of myself.
Even though I have been lost and struggling at times, there have been people out there willing to help me. So if you’re reading this and struggling, I trust that there are people out there ready to help you as well. I think about all the places I’ve been, positions I’ve held, people I’ve met, when I was down and out, literally going crazy, someone would come to save me, and a lot of times it was a woman, tkəłmilxʷ.
There are a lot of women who have helped me throughout my life and who I am grateful for. They say that there are sacred feminine and masculine energies in the universe and that respect keeps those energies balanced. There have been a lot of strong male teachers and mentors in my life. During this time of “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence,” I would like to thank all the women mentors I’ve had over time. It’s because of them that I have respected. As a great male mentor once told me, “Great nations are built upon strong men, and strong men protect women and children — they don’t harm them.”
Way’ limlimt. Also, a special shout-out to my mom, sk̓ʷuy.