The Bow Valley lost one of its foremost Tribal Historians in 2021. Now the community is coming together to continue the work of building cultural bridges, fuelled by a shared belief in wazin îeichninabi—the spirit of connectedness between us all. Words :: Nicole Fougère.
His shoulders curved like ancient mountain slopes and the creases on his wise face slid away from his eyes like tiny avalanches. Lloyd “Buddy” Wesley leaned over the table with a sad grace as he sorted through his papers in preparation for his weekly Stoney language and culture class at Canmore’s artsPlace. I stood in the doorway on that warm evening in early June 2021, and watched him for a moment, taking him in. I could tell something was bothering him; he was carrying the weight of the world on his back.
Buddy didn’t like to be called an Elder. Dressed in his favourite black leather jacket with his silver hair combed back, his appearance displayed a sense of pride in his style. Perhaps he didn’t want to be called out for being old enough to be an Elder, or perhaps he understood the traditional significance of being an Elder in the Stoney culture and, as a humble man, he didn’t want to take on that role prematurely. Tribal Historian was the title he preferred for himself; Buddy saw himself as someone who carried the language and stories of his community forward from one generation to the next. More than that, he believed in being a bridge-builder, someone who could help foster respect and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. He loved teaching the Stoney language to non-Stoney people. Every Tuesday, he would come into artsPlace, greet the staff with smiles and hugs, then retreat to the theatre for the evening’s class.
But on that evening in June, in the quiet of that big theatre space, Buddy seemed unusually sad.
“Buddy, good to see you!” I called out brightly, hoping to lift his spirits, as I stepped from the doorway into the light of the artsPlace theatre. “How are you?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m good,” he said, unconvincingly. Then, his eyes darkened, “You heard about that family in London, Ontario?” he asked. “The Muslim family that was murdered?”
“We have more work to do,” he said, “to help people come together, to understand each other. This is the work of wazin îeichninabi.”
Wazin îeichninabi is a Stoney language phrase Buddy used often in his classes. He would say it means, “I’m one with you. I’ll eat, I’ll laugh, I’ll cry with you.”
“Will you help me?” he asked quietly, his eyes darting up to meet mine just for an instant. “Will you help me do the work of wazin îeichninabi?”
At the time, I didn’t understand the immensity of this agreement.
“Absolutely!” I answered and rambled into a pitch for a project without taking a breath. “I was just talking with Travis Rider the other day and he had this great idea.”
Travis is the Indigenous Liaison to artsPlace. He helped initiate the Cultural Learning Circle series, and is Buddy’s nephew. Like Buddy, Travis is a natural bridge-builder.
“Travis thought we could have a conversation between Indigenous people and people who were born in other countries but who call the Bow Valley home.” I continued, “We could talk about stories and teachings that we all have in common and consider ways to live together on this land.”
Buddy nodded and smiled, and said the project sounded good and that he’d like to be a part of it.
A few weeks later, Buddy died. Grief ripped through the Stoney community and the Bow Valley. Everyone who met Buddy loved him and respected the knowledge he carried. When he passed, it was as though a library had burned down.
I knew I would honour my agreement with Buddy, and I felt intuitively that he would honour his too. I believed he would still guide me, gently, in spirit.
In alignment with that last conversation with Buddy, Travis and I worked to gather a group of diverse panellists. We hoped to talk deeply about what wazin îeichninabi means, and to foster mutual understanding and strengthen community bonds.
On August 23rd, the panel was to meet by the firepit in my backyard, but I woke that morning to the sound of heavy rain. A white veil of snow draped over the mountains. While the rain and cool wind were a welcome respite to the heat and dangerous dryness of the 2021 summer, it would be too wet to hold our conversation outside.
All that day, I felt Buddy’s spirit with me, lovingly cheering me on. I could feel his playful nature work through me as I ran around my home gathering sacred objects: a seashell from the Atlantic Ocean filled with handpicked sage, the jawbone of a beaver, the soft fur of a white rabbit, my drum, my rattle—all gifts from different Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers. In the theatre space, we wouldn’t be able to sit around a fire, but I still felt the centre of our circle must be sacred. I laid my treasures on a swatch of rainbow-coloured fabric and waited for the sharing circle to begin.
Javan Mukhtarov arrived first. An emigrant from Azerbaijan, Javan works with Settlement Services in the Bow Valley and his passion is helping other immigrants thrive in their new life in Canada. Next to arrive was Jyn San Miguel, a local musician and painter born in the Philippines. Next came John Rice and Erin Dixon, both respected Indigenous knowledge keepers—John from the Anishinaabe traditions and Erin from the Métis traditions. Travis arrived with his mother, Margaret Rider, a respected Stoney Elder, and good friend and relative of Buddy. She wore a ribbon skirt, a traditional piece of clothing, to honour the sacred nature of our gathering. Rounding out our circle was María Elisa Sánchez, a water scientist originally from Ecuador. Her ancestors were Indigenous to Ecuador, but much of their story had been wiped from her family’s memories due to Spanish colonialism.
Travis opened the circle with a prayer, then shared his thoughts about wazin îeichninabi.
“Buddy was a very kind person, and he was always talking about building bridges,” Travis said. “As Indigenous people, we need to learn to coexist, not only with white people, but also with all the other cultures that are coming to our ancestral homelands.”
When John spoke, his wisdom as an Elder permeated the room. He taught us that in his culture, whenever someone tells a story, they must begin with acknowledging the Golden Time—a time when we lived in peace with each other and in harmony with the land. When everything we needed came from our Mother the Earth.
“When you talk about the Golden Time,” he said, “it will return again.”
I listened as other members of the circle talked about their belief in a higher power and their faith in better times to come; I also heard people place enormous value on connection.
“I hear a lot of talk tonight about relationships,” I said. “Relationships to each other, relationships to the land, relationships to the sky. I think about the many ways that people show their divinity or relationship to the land, whether from prayer or through action.”
Hailing from the Andes, María spoke of how the presence of mountains and glacial water make her feel at home—connected to the community and nature. Javan spoke about growing up under the rule of the Soviet Union in Azerbaijan, when times were hard, and he needed to walk five kilometres to get a bucket of water.
“The other day, there was snow in the mountains, and it made me cry,” said Javan. “It was so beautiful! That reminded me of my childhood, and how blessed we are that we have so much water here.”
We shared many stories and found our core values were similar. We all believed in practicing gratitude and kindness. Although we came at it from different directions—from religion, from tradition or from science, we all agreed that faith is an important part of wazin îeichninabi. We need to believe in the spirit of connectedness between peoples of the world.
Each person present in the circle was changed, however humbly, by our conversation and I knew the work of wazin îeichninabi would ripple into the community like water.
The members of the circle stayed late into the evening. I knew Buddy would be proud to see his legacy in action. But, I wondered whether artsPlace would ever again be able to offer Stoney language and culture to the community, the kind of wazin îeichninabi work Buddy loved.
Travis had been attending Buddy’s language class, not only to better his own understanding of the Stoney language, but also to learn how to be a good teacher. Travis had also been talking to Stoney Elders and gathering their stories. He understood learning the Stoney language was much more than just memorizing words, it must include the cultural teachings of the people.
Late in the evening, long after we had closed the circle, I caught Travis for a quiet conversation.
“Travis,” I started slowly, not wanting to put him on the spot, “do you think one day, you might be willing to teach Stoney language and culture classes here, just like Buddy did?”
Travis’ eyes glinted playfully.
“That depends,” he said and took a deep breath. He looked up for just a second, up and out beyond the latticed metal beams of the artsPlace theatre, then he looked at me and smiled, “It depends on what Buddy’s spirit asks of me.”
Nicole Fougère is the Programs Director at artsPlace Canmore.