The sun is peeking out and clouds are lifting from the sky. The snow is melting around Mission Creek, a tributary that crosses the syilx homelands and empties into Okanagan Lake. Justin Peters
Justen Peters, who is from the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), crosses a walkway while proudly announcing his name in the nsyilxcən language. In doing so, he presents himself to the earth and to those who listen to his message. It is a traditional practice of the Syilx people.
“I wanted to come here because it’s the tmixʷ (life force), it’s the tmxʷulaxʷ (power of place). It’s the siwɬkʷ, it’s the water, it’s the cure,” says Peters. He meets with IndigiNews to share his journey and says it’s important to be out there talking about his power to heal intergenerational trauma.
“It is here, in nature. And it’s in us, it’s with the breath and with the connection with others.
Hear Peters introduce himself in nsyilxcən here. Justen Peters, Justen Peters, Justen Peters, Justen Peters
Peters is currently serving his final term on the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN,) as elected BCAFN Male Youth Representative. It’s part of his commitment to show up for his community, he says.
“Know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses,” he says.
Memories of a child ground
“I grew up in Salmon River with my mother and my grandmother, my father died when I was young. So I was not connected to that part of my family. But my uncle Gerald and my great-uncle Riley were my male role models growing up.
“I have very fond memories of my early childhood, being with my grandmother.”
Peters says he has fond memories of growing up on the reservation with his cousins, who he says were more like siblings — typical of Native kinship.
“As Aboriginal people, we see our cousins as our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles as our mothers and fathers, and I guess naturally our biological fathers and mothers are perhaps something closer. … there’s just another layer of closeness and family with us,” he says.
But when he started attending school off the reserve, Peters’ life took a turn.
“I think it was just the structure, it’s just the way the school system was, it just didn’t sit well with me.”
“I was able to do the job easily and well, but I was just an exuberant kid and fell into a depression,” he says.
At 13, he discovered the R’Native Voice program which was run by the Okanagan Nation Alliance, and designed to allow young syilx to find their voice. Using syilx teachings, he helps young people build a foundation of cultural belonging in their home country.
“(There’s) this real importance of connecting, and the two most important things about those programs were being with other Indigenous kids because I went to school in Armstrong and it was mostly white. .”
“The second most important thing is that we were constantly told to use our voice. We would sit down…and do talking circles, we were asked to talk about everything we had learned and what it meant to us. felt and made history,” he says.
“We had these really open dialogues between us. And I took that skill, and I brought it back to school. And it allowed me to be more talkative and to be more myself,” he says.
With his teachings, his language and his connection to the community as his foundation, Peters eventually entered the world of government and politics.
The “Professional Indian”
One day recently, while Peters was browsing through his Facebook, he came across an old photo of himself at age 17. He and other young people were part of a series of photos in which they each held up a sign indicating the career they aspired to.
“[Other] the kids were saying, ‘I want to be a plumber’, ‘I want to be a fitter’, ‘I want to be a doctor’, and then there’s just me with a big smile on my face, and it says ‘Professional Indian’ , he remembers laughing.
In his late teens, he started using his voice openly and loudly.
“I just tried to get out there and talk, you know, when you’re young, and you think you know everything, and you know nothing?”
“You just have a very narrow view. And my very narrow perspective was like, ‘Oh, we have to take our land back,’” he recalls.
This is how Peters learned that in this anger around the loss of land, there is truth.
“’I don’t care if it’s a no trespassing sign, it’s my land anyway,’” he told others when asked about access to land.
“To a very small extent, I probably thought I was super cool and badass, [and] more radicalized than angry.
Taking these teachings from his uncle, he says it was important for him to stay focused on the bigger goal and not get lost in anger. So he did his best to keep learning and enrolled in as many education programs as possible. Eventually, he found himself in college, and of all the learning materials assigned to him, he only saw one article on Aboriginal economic development.
“(It was about) how communities that had their own money and could control their own money were healthier in almost every way, they could spend the money on culture, infrastructure, more business, more jobs,” he says.
Peters was inspired by how his community could significantly benefit from economic prosperity and decided that part of his life’s work would be to make it happen.
“That was my turning point…it brought my attention to what interested me,” he says.
Enter the political realm
“We live complex lives, they say every native is political…so that inspired me,” Peters says of his interest in the political realm of native self-determination.
His journey began in the summer of 2018 when he began an internship at OKIB group of companieswhere he was able to get his foot in the door and learn about economic opportunities for Indigenous communities.
In this position, he paved the way for 30 youth to join the BC Cabinet and First Nations Leaders’ Gathering, where Indigenous youth had the opportunity to speak to provincial leaders about what is happening in their communities. . Peters has also been able to participate in entrepreneurship programs such as the Youth Entrepreneurship Symposium (YES), which empowers Indigenous youth in the world of entrepreneurship through skills building.
Considering all the opportunities and political seats he’s served in, Peters says he’s aware of how easy it is to miss the true needs of a community. To this end, he joined his community Okanagan Indian Band Youth Council where he learns from the community.
“It does so much for the young people in the community. It shows that path to leadership and it gives you the chance to develop an awareness of yourself, yes, and of your community… treating young people as a real investment,” he says.
The group’s public safety department supports the OKIB Youth Leadership Council which exists to “engage our young people to inspire, motivate and empower them to participate and be actively involved in future decisions that will shape their life, their family, their community and their nation”, according to the website.
Peters hopes to continue to support the council in any way possible.
“I like that the public safety department is all band members. They were all supportive. And I would like, no matter what, to go all the way with them, but not see it as an ownership issue,” he says.
Peters says it’s important for communities to invest in youth and bridge the gap between what it looks like to have a healthy and safe community and what it looks like to do so with embedded spirituality.
“I feel like those are the two biggest gaps that we don’t talk about. We sometimes talk about (the organizational aspect), but (we talk less about it) the real spiritual gap that exists within our communities. .
“If there’s one change I’d like to make or inspire, it’s to close those gaps. And that starts with ourselves,” says Peters.
“The importance of self-awareness is that it harbors honesty, it makes us really honest. And I feel like honesty is a spiritual power. With honesty we can look at things and that can show us a way.