On April 4, members of the Aboriginal Genealogy Society will take over the church hall at St. Anthony’s Parish in Agassiz, with the goal of helping people around the Fraser Canyon discover their history.
“We started a few years ago because so many of our people that were brought up in foster homes or adopted had lost their roots,” said 82-year-old Siyamtelot (Shirley Leon).
“They were adults and starting to have children of their own so they needed to know where they belonged” and if their family had any history of disease.
The Sts’ailes woman became part of the Aboriginal Genealogy Society when she retired as a way to help those people research their family histories — “that was a good thing for retirement (to) still be useful” — but her own genealogy studies had begun more than 40 years ago.
Siyamtelot was a member of the Okanagan Indian Band, and was born on Skookum Mine Trail. Just a few yards away was a creek named after her maternal grandfather: Bradley Creek.
“I thought, maybe there’s an omen here. Let’s see what it is,” she said.
Research led her to an old newspaper article, which said he died in 1999. Then, she found two death records: one saying he died at the age of 43, and another saying he died at 50. A trip to the Pleasant Valley Cemetery yielded a number, but no marked grave.
“All I really want is a picture,” Siyamtelot said. She had found the number of a family connected to her grandfather, but they hadn’t wanted to talk.
“It was just a young fellow, might have been a high school student,” she said. “He said, ‘We’re just leaving, we haven’t got the time.’ And he just hung up.
“I guess it wasn’t the time,” she added. “But some people don’t want to talk about their relatives, especially if it’s with First Nations.”
Siyamtelot’s struggle to find information about her grandfather isn’t unusual — records are often few and far between, held in B.C.’s vital statistics database or in church ledgers. But Siyamtelot said making the effort is important.
“The more people talk about their hurts, the more they can find solutions,” she said.
“We (at the Aboriginal Genealogy Society) don’t claim to be professional counsellors or anything, (we just provide) the opportunity to have people gather in a more positive environment.”
The society has between 20 and 30 volunteers based out of the Mission Library. Over the course of the year see hundreds of individuals, both in the Fraser Canyon and outside the province, who want help to find their families.
The group’s Facebook page is also very active, posting photos of Indigenous people and families, and asking the public to help in identifying them.
Because the society is volunteer-only, there has been some difficulty in making people aware of their services. But a grant from the New Horizons for Seniors fund is helping.
Thanks to the grant, the society will be hosting a cultural circle at St. Anthony’s Parish (7237 Morrow Rd). The society will be sharing a bit about what they do, and also inviting the public to ask questions about their past.
“We don’t want to keep it controlled,” Siyamtelot said. We want “to make it more open so people will get that feeling back again of what it’s like to interact with people and visit.”
Right now, Siyamtelot is hoping to keep participation down to about 25 people, so the society will have enough volunteers to make sure everyone feels welcome. But they want to make sure the event is open to the entire community, including local historians and youth.
“Our vision is that we will not only get First Nations but the public,” Siyamtelot said.
“People that do their own research, like high school (students), they learn so much more when they’re scanning through the books and they recognize a name.”
“It’s enlightening. It’s motivational.”
The Agassiz event, which will take place on Thursday, April 4 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., is the first of what Siyamtelot hopes will turn into several different cultural circles across the Fraser Canyon.
But for now, Siyamtelot said she hopes this first event will inspire people to look deeper into their past.
“I firmly believe it’s knowing yourself,” she said. “To be able to know where you want to go in life.”