Sunrise, Saturday, July 3. Sasha Eugene, 26, athletic, determined, begins her walk. She’s at the gates of the former St. Eugene Mission Residential School. The school her grandmother was forced to attend. The early morning air is cool. Birds are singing. Sasha’s wearing her fancy dance outfit usually reserved for powwows. Her face is painted, she’s wearing moccasins. Around her neck is a Shuswap Princess sash given to her as a teenager in 2009. To be named Shuswap Princess means her community has deemed her a role model. Someone to look up to. A leader.
Sasha Eugene, blood member of the Shuswap Indian Band, walks through the gates. She won’t stop walking until she’s reached the Shuswap Indian Band’s Administration Office over 120 kilometres away.
People join Sasha along the way. Some for shorter distances, others for longer. Residential school survivors. Blackfoot, Ktunaxa, Shuswap, and Métis members and, white people. When I caught up with Sasha on Monday, she had four others walking with her. Smokii Sumac, Chelsea Pilote, Samantha Sam and Christina Birdstone. If they didn’t know each other beforehand, they were getting to know each other now. A medicine walk, as Smokii told me. In a support vehicle following the walkers is Tegan Oja, Sasha’s fiancé. Audrey Eugene, an auntie of Sasha’s, is in another car flagging down traffic, helping wherever she can.
While they walk, they share stories. They see their land in a new way. “We’ve been noticing all kinds of things about our territory,” Smokii said. “Like, I didn’t realize sweet grass grew here!”
“I got the idea to do the walk about a month ago when my grandfather died,” Sasha said as we walked along the highway approaching Fairmont. “But when the news came out about the 182 graves, I knew it was time to act on my idea. There was no time to second guess myself.”
She was going to start walking on Canada Day, but then there was a historic heatwave. On Facebook, she wrote her plan changed to Saturday, the third. “It is time that these innocent children’s spirits get to come home, all of them, even the undiscovered. It’s high time that these ceremonies are done. They have waited too long. The survivors, elders, mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins have waited too long, we the youth, have waited too long. Our Indigenous Nation in this valley, British Columbia, Canada, and the United States have waited too long. “
Friday night, Sasha posted a short video on Facebook of her intentions. “These children, our elders, our survivors, they have waited too long,” she said. “These elders are having to go through all of this all over again. They thought they got over it. They deserve to see their youth out there being who they are. Elders have told me there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Support will come once I start walking. They deserve so much more than this.”
When Smokii saw the video, he dropped everything to be with Sasha Friday morning. “From St. Eugene, we walked through the reserve road first,” Smokii said. “Once we got on the highway, we made it as far as Skookumchuk on the first night and Coy’s Hill on the second night. And tonight, we feast. Food is celebration for our people.”
Did Sasha have all the logistics sorted out before she started walking? No. “I trusted that as long as I began, it would all come together,” she said.
Monday morning, Fairmont Resort provided the walkers breakfast. “We’ve had so much support along the way,” Sasha said, smiling. “Whether it’s people honking as they drive by or strangers even giving us ice cream.” To Sasha, her medicine walk is about rebuilding from devastation. “It’s about coming together. We’re all one now.”
Through all kinds of weather, rain, thunder, hail, lightning, wind, Sasha continued her undaunted walk. “In our teachings, thunder cleanses,” Smokii said. Later Monday night, I caught back up with Sasha at the Shuswap Admin building. Close to fifty people joined Sasha on the final stretch of her long walk. Inside the building, prayers were sung. Speeches were made. “My heart is full of love and pride,” Audrey Eugene said to everyone assembled. “We need more young people like Sasha.”
Chief Barb Cote: “Sasha, you made us all so proud. It took a young person to get all this going and organize. Elder Pete: “An amazing person, absolutely amazing. She’s not afraid to say what she thinks.” Sasha’s grandfather: “I am so proud of my granddaughter. I was with you in spirit as you walked.”
Before breaking for a feast of moose, elk, bannock, corn, mashed potatoes, there was one final thing to say from an Elder in the crowd: “Let the walkers eat!”
James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer