Siyosmot (Maggie) Pettis was 12-years-old and peeling potatoes when the first Seabird Island Festival came to her community.
Held each year in May, the festival brings First Nations athletes together from across the province — some even coming from Saskatchewan or the United States — to compete in soccer tournaments, canoe races and two-pitch tournaments.
Chief Archie Charles had started the Seabird Island Festival in 1969 to bring the war canoe races back to the First Nation. That same festival saw a soccer tournament for the men, and a salmon barbecue organized by Charles himself.
The salmon barbecue is still run by Charles’ family, and Pettis’ mother, working with the Elders’ Council, was in charge of preparing the food: hamburgers, hot dogs, Caesar salad and all the rest.
“It was a lot of work,” Pettis, now 62, remembered. “We made everything from scratch, so they would have to do all the ordering, the pick up. They’d be peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes to get everything prepared.”
Helping her mother prepare the food was Pettis’ first introduction to the Seabird Island Festival, but her own involvement would span all 50 years as she moved from food preparation to collecting payment to organizing the two-pitch tournament.
This year, thousands are expected at the First Nation over the course of the weekend, and it obviously takes a lot of work to prepare for such a big event, but this year is giving staff even more to do, as the First Nation gets ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Seabird Island Festival.
“It’s a cultural aspect, getting our people together again,” Seabird Island chief Clem Seymour said about the Festival. He was one of the original participants in the first Festival, then a 15-year-old goalie on the Seabird soccer team.
“All of us played that first year,” Seymour said. “We were all in our mid-teens to probably close to 20 years old.”
“I played goal then,” he added. “And I was only about 130 pounds soaking wet.”
The camaraderie that 15-year-old Seymour felt back then was integral.
“One thing, that’s all I understood, is I enjoyed it,” he said. “We played with men out there who were getting kind of a little rough on us, but we played.”
Now, Seymour is the 65-year-old chief of the First Nation and preparing to bring the festival into the next stage of its life.
“It’s always interesting, how much change we went through over the years,” he said. “We keep on building to get to what we have today.”
“I’ve always said, if we get 300 people, it’s because it belongs to them,” he added. “We’re just the hands and feet and eyes that look after it.”
Originally started as a way to share important cultural teachings and guide First Nations youth to the qualities that would help them in adulthood—honesty, courage, respect, and gratitude—the Festival has evolved over the years, expanding from just soccer and canoe races, to two-pitch tournaments, ball hockey and a gambling game called Slahal, which would go throughout the night.
Before settlement, First Nations communities would come together regularly for festivals like the one at Seabird Island.
“Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, this was a regular thing,” said Sandra Bobb, communications supervisor.
“They had all come down the river or up the river — they all paddled here, because back then there was no roads. An then they’d hang out for a week and have a huge festival.”
In 1876, the Indian Act prohibited powwows and other kinds of traditional gatherings — a prohibition that was confirmed in subsequent amendments to the act. It was only in 1951 that an amendment to the Indian Act allowed First Nations to continue their traditional ceremonies.
Then, only 18 years later, Archie Charles began the first Seabird Island Festival, which began to attract First Nations visitors from as far away as Kamloops, Lumby and Saskatchewan, growing exponentially over the years.
The 50th annual Seabird Island Festival will be held from Friday, May 24 to Sunday, May 26. Canoe races begin at 10 a.m. on the weekend, with awards for the sports competitions being given out between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday.