The Beecher Bay Burning Ceremony: 2000

From the minutes of the fourth meeting of the Race Rocks Advisory Board , February 23, 2000 FIRST NATIONS UPDATE :

  • Tom Sampson gave an update on his work with First Nations’ participation in the process. He indicated that there would be a traditional burning ceremony on March 9, 2000 by the Beecher Bay First Nation. The intent of the ceremony is to bring parties together to work on this project and provide an opportunity for non- natives to gain an idea of respect that First Nations have for the land, resources and their ancestors. The invitation is open to all members of the RRAB. The intent is to have all First Nations’ chiefs present from Sooke, Esquimalt, Songhees, and Beecher Bay. The ceremony will be held on Indian Reserve #2 at Rocky Point. Please let Marc Pakenham know about attendance and he will distribute a map to site.
  • Angus Matthews felt that this was a very generous offer by First Nations, it provides an opportunity for all of us to work together and it is not an offer that is given frequently.
  • Gord Hanson indicated that the MPA initiative goes beyond Race Rocks and suggests that First Nations people are looking at Race Rocks in terms of what role they will play in the future processes and their interaction with senior levels of government.


    Beecher Bay First Nations traditional burial site along the shoreline of Beecher bay

Responding to Tom Sampson’s invitation from the Beecher Bay Band, on March 9, we went in two vehicles through the DND property at Rocky Point on the South Side of Pedder Bay. I had asked for student volunteers from Lester Pearson College and 14 had signed on. The access to the part of the reserve where the ceremony was to be held was through the DND property. When the Beecher Bay reserve was created in the early 1950’s, IR #2 was established on the South side of an intervening seafront strip which is private property owned by another local family. DND property occupies the area to the East of these shoreline properties.

When we arrived, there were members of the Beecher Bay Band, and several representatives of other Bands, including several from the Lummi reserve in Washington State. We were welcomed by Tom Sampson who asked us to observe from an area back to the side of the long table and be quiet while the table was prepared. We talked to Lea Charles and her husband, the band chief Burt Charles. Lea said that the food consisted of salmon prepared in several ways, bannock, which had been baked that morning, and vegetables as well as desert food, such as chocolate. She told me they were up at 5:00 AM in order to bake the Bannock. She was worried by noon that it would not all be done, but they had just made it in time. It looked like a lot of work had been done by the local band in getting everything ready. From a standing table, covered with large bowls of food, several women dished out food onto 100 paper plates The plates were placed on two blankets on the ground. Beside each plate a glass of juice was prepared. The last process in preparation was attaching to each plate a small yellow post-it note bearing the name of an ancestor. Two elderly women sat off away from the food, preparing themselves mentally for the ceremony . All of the first nations people taking part in the ceremony had two dark red smudges of paint on their face. When all the plates had been placed on the ground, the leader from up island, ( the Kuper Island Band) who was conducting the ceremony talked to our assembled group, which included the members of the Race Rocks Advisory Committee; Mark Pakenham and Kelly Francis of Federal Fisheries Department, Dave Chater, Doug Biffard and Jim Morris of Provincial Parks, Jeannie Sparkes from Environment Canada and three representatives of the DND, Duane Freeman ,Lieutenant Commander Bill Laing , the base commander from the Department of National Defence and Howard Breen of the Georgia Strait Alliance, and Gordon Hansen. From Pearson College, Angus Matthews and Garry Fletcher from the committee, along with our Board member Dr. Joe Macinnis and Francoise with the students of Pearson College.

The ceremony leader addressed us saying that the logs for the fire had been laid out in the long row just above where the grave-yard was located. He said the logs should have been placed so that the servers would be facing the East however it was difficult to do that in this location, it seemed that by noting it and emphasizing the importance of things happening when one faces East , it was compensating for this slight deviation in tradition. Two long rows of logs – 20 meters in length were neatly laid making a frame in which crumpled paper and Cedar sticks were contained. The row was a meter in width forming a box for the combustible material inside. On top were laid cross pieces of Cedar to form a table top. He asked us to be very quiet and not to smoke during the ceremony as the spirits of the dead can come up and inflict paralysis as they try to take the cigarette. He also invited the young people to help as servers. This was very important as it was their role to serve their elders to show respect. When the students stood at the front they formed a row, and a server picked up the food and drink, one at a time giving it to the students who walked over with the food a few meters, passing it on to two other servers who then gave it to the two elderly ladies who raised it up in the air and then placed it on the cedar table. The ladies appeared to be acting as intermediaries with the spirits of the ancestors. The students then returned to the end of the line and repeated the process. The main servers were dressed in ordinary clothing, but just prior to starting the food transfer to the burning table, had the traditional ceremonial pink blanket placed over one shoulder and pinned across diagonally. The serving process took almost thirty minutes, after which the two women elders lit the fire along the full length of the table.

Everyone stood back a few meters and for 15 minutes or more the whole table and food burned . Bottles of orange drink bubbled up before the plastic melted. When the fire started going down, more sticks were piled on the top after they went along the edge with a bucket pouring water, probably to cool the outer log along the side, Then the two blankets were carefully folded and placed on top, again the fire burned.

As we sat watching the smoke went straight up in the air and drifted out to sea over the grave yard for the first 10 minutes. Then at a certain point it turned back and swept back down to the earth, enveloping everyone. Lea Charles later told us this was a good sign, and that the ancestors had touched our faces welcoming us to their land, and they now knew who we were. The fire burned vigorously and then subsided to smoking embers. Tom and the ceremony leader talked for a few minutes about what message to convey to us. The leader spoke, saying that the elders were pleased and that indeed they would be with the young servers for the rest of their lives whenever they needed help. There was a very positive feeling about the ceremony in those present. At this time the elders came around with a basin of water and we were all asked to wash our hands and faces, thus ending the ceremony.

Then as we had invited everyone back to Pearson College, an hour later, the students served all the visitors a chicken dinner in the dining Hall. Afterwards there were speeches by Tom Sampson and many of the invited guests from the other Bands. Many spoke in their own language, and were thanking the Beecher Bay group for inviting them. Lea and Burt Charles supervised the handing out of envelopes to each of the visiting groups. This seemed like a very important part of the day, perhaps a confirmation of the friendship of the different Bands. The burning ceremonies sometimes take place twice a year, and it seems that they travel for great distances to attend these occasions. They told us that recently up in Duncan there was a ceremony where 100 blankets were burned. The people wanted to burn clothes as offerings to the ancestors but they reasoned that they didn’t have the right sizes so blankets were deemed more appropriate. Some of the ancestors they were remembering were from the 1800’s, according to Lea Charles.

We all felt that this had been a very special experience in which we had been allowed to participate. Tom had emphasized that whenever major decisions were being made it was the custom of their people to ask the ancestors for advice. This ceremony had taken place on the point of land of their reserve closest to Race Rocks. He said that before they can talk and make decisions about important issues like this marine protected area proposal, we must get to know each other on their terms. This account of the process is not an official one, but rather it is my own interpretation of events. I feel that the story of this event must be passed on as the oral traditions of the First Nations have been passed on for centuries. Although no electronic media could be used to record the event, I have been given permission to record my impressions of the event on this website for educational purposes.

Garry Fletcher
Faculty Lester B. Pearson College
April 9, 2000