Smoke rose from a sacred fire in Williams Lake on Sunday, Feb. 27 as around 80 Indigenous people gathered to honour a number of First Nations people who have recently died.
Among those people being remembered were three who died from overdoses on and around the Family Day weekend.
Colby Hance passed on Feb. 19 in Williams Lake at the age of 31.
Micheal Tenale died on Friday, Feb. 18 and was 54.
Tanya Mary Tenale died in Williams Lake on Tuesday, Feb. 22. She would have been 25 in April.
The sacred fire also honoured Shenita Myers who died on Feb. 19 and Carmelita Abraham, 33, who was murdered in Quesnel over the Christmas holiday.
“As First Nations people it is our tradition to stand with those that have lost loved ones,” said Joyce Cooper of the Tsilhqot’in Dechen Jedilhtan (Women’s Council), who helped organize the sacred fire.
Cooper said it is their duty as women to assist by having a sacred fire and offering food to the ancestors so that those that have crossed over will transition from this world to the next.
“Songs and prayers bring our departed ancestors to the gathering so they can make the transition as smooth as possible. This also helps families left behind to start their grief process as the coming year is walked in ceremony.”
Cecil Grinder of Tl’etinqox First Nation led the ceremony, which took place in the parking lot of the Tsilhqot’in National Government negotiation office on South Lakeside at the former Kwaleen Elementary School.
This sacred fire ceremony could not be photographed or reported on, however, it can be shared that the event included drumming, singing, praying, food offerings, smudging and candle lighting. Words of wisdom, support and supplication permeated the two-hour ceremony, interwoven with tears and hugs.
With snow on the hillside above the parking lot, several children played happily as they slid down and many of the people in attendance said they were glad to hear the laughter from the young ones.
Afterwards people ate a late lunch and visited as the sun had broken through the clouds.
Grinder thanked the women’s council for taking the steps to hold the sacred fire.
“They are standing up for us all and we should be holding our women up,” Grinder said.
All of three overdoses are being investigated and the families are awaiting reports from the BC Coroners Service.
In advance of the long weekend, Interior Health issued a drug alert for the entire region, noting that multiple drug samples in communities across the region had been found to contain up to 55 per cent fentanyl.
“The samples have been sold as down, heroin, or fentanyl – a wide range of colours and textures have been identified,” an IH media release noted.
While the B.C. Coroners Service could not comment on the recent overdoses in the Williams Lake area, a spokesperson noted there were nine overdose deaths due to toxic drugs in the Cariboo Chilcotin in 2021.
Cooper told the Tribune Tuesday, March 1, that as some of them were leaving the sacred fire site Sunday, they learned another young woman from her community of Tsideldel First Nation had passed from drugs.
“It has been very hard on communities.”