The Tsawout First Nation has begun construction on a new longhouse, the cultural centre of the community.
For the past 11 years, the 600-member community has been with out traditional meeting place. The longhouse holds spiritual meaning for the Saanich Peninsula First Nation as a place where elders give younger members their traditional names and ancestors are honoured.
“This Tsawout longhouse was the central part of our culture and our teaching,” said Tsawout Hereditary Chief Eric Pelkey. “It was where our elders used to hold the meetings of the community and pass laws.”
In July 2009, a fire destroyed the Tsawout longhouse and the loss of the community’s cultural centre was a devastating loss for its members.
“We lost our way of life and our culture,” said Tsawout councillor John Etzel, whose traditional name is YEXPILEM. “In the past five to 10 years we’ve lost a lot of our youth to drugs and alcoholism because we because we don’t have our house here.”
According to Pelkey, the loss of the longhouse has meant that Tsawout members have had to travel to other First Nation communities to participate in ceremonial and cultural gathering.
“Our members never did feel completely at home as they would in the Tsawout longhouse,” said Pelkey. “They’ve missed the traditional setting where they can come to have the teachings of our ancestors and our elders passed down to them.”
The Tsawout council is using reserve funds and is applying for grants to fund the $1.7-million project. They are also looking to other communities for in-kind donations to complete construction by the fall of 2021.
“I’ve been pushing tooth-and-nail ever since I got in council to have this longhouse built for our community,” said Etzel. “We are stretching our budget that’s why any donations will help our community with this longhouse.”
The new longhouse is being built on the same site as the one destroyed by the fire. It will include a kitchen, a meeting room for people preparing for ceremonies and the large “house” with a traditional fire for cultural gatherings.
For the hereditary chief of the Tsawout First Nation, the opening of the longhouse will mean a cultural rebirth for his community.
“As my father taught me, helping one another is what this is all about,” said Pelkey. “The longhouse will mean that all of the people of the Tsawout will be able to say this is our home.”