A Musqueam Spurs player scores a goal off the goal post early against Squamish United during the Ladies 15+ final game Sunday at the 49th annual Seabird Island Festival. (Greg Laychak/Black Press)

Seabird Island to celebrate 50 years of festival

This May marks the 50th anniversary of one of the largest First Nations festivals around

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.”

RELATED: Soccer still goes ahead at Seabird Festival despite other cancellations

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.

Although some of the events during the festival have changed over time, that desire to share cultural meaning with First Nation’s youth has remained a key part of the gathering.

“Archie Charles is the one that had the vision of bringing out people together and getting involved in a lot of our youths and building capacity amongst them,” Seymour said. “We just kept it on.”

This year, the Seabird Island Festival is expecting to see around 9,000 people over the two days — the largest number of attendees since the 41st annual festival in 2010.

It will be maintaining its traditional sports competitions — soccer, war canoe races and two-pitch will be taking place on both Saturday May 25 and Sunday May 26 throughout the First Nation — but will also be adding some other events, such as a kick-off ceremony on Friday, May 24, an evening powwow on Saturday, May 25, as well as barbecue salmon and cultural performers throughout the weekend.

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“This year with the powwow, that will sort of add another dimension,” said Henrie de Boer, acting director of community development.

The 50th anniversary will also bring free parking to the event, as well as a 50/50 draw, food vendors and free admission.

Even without the added events for the 50th anniversary, the Seabird Island Festival always fills the streets with people.

“You can hardly drive in here,” de Boer said. “People are all along the slough, they’re in lawn chairs. People are standing and screaming and shouting.

“It’s just an old-time community feeling,” she added. “It just brings shivers up and down my spine because I think, wow, look at all these people with a common purpose and mission.”

And for de Boer, that’s the most important part of Seabird Island Festival.

“What I think is remarkable about the festival is a lot of the reasons for gathering were outlawed,” de Boer added. “Seabird is really one of the last gatherings of people that’s still taking place on such a big scale.”

“I just find it fabulous that you have all your aunties and your uncles and your grandparents and your cousins, three, four, five times removed,” she added. “There’s this interconnectedness. And that’s where I’d love to see more people from Agassiz and the broader community come to experience that.”

Pettis, who now has grandchildren participating in the 50th anniversary of the festival, agrees.

“One of the things my family taught me was helping and supporting,” she said. “We’d go and support them, whether we’d just watch and cheer them on.”

“The Festival, I think, is all about family,” she added. “Spending time together, quality time and not on their cellphones, and getting their kids out there and being active.”

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.

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