The longhouse

Photo provided by Leandra Ndayifukamiye.

Why were there so many more sunny days when I was younger? It felt brighter, more joyous, and peaceful. Living in the Fraser Valley often feels miserable when the sun goes away so fast. It is as if the high mountains block the festivities of the sunshine. The mountains are like a strict guardian that keeps us valley people disciplined, restricted from bathing in the sun for too long.  

When it was day, my sisters and cousins would wander all over the reserve playing on our  bicycles, selling rocks door to door so we could have money for the soda vending machine that situated itself in front of the band office. It was easier to get into mischief during the day.

Nighttime came and it was time to ponder in solitude. The wintertime was when day was short and nighttime was forever, like a depressing punishment forcing everyone to sit in darkness. I was 10 years old when I first started going to the longhouse gatherings — my mama and papa are the caretakers of the longhouse on Squiala where we are from. 

We call it the  “smokehouse,” or the “big house,” but for the sake of writing for a non-Indigenous audience I say longhouse because that’s what the white people called it. Hours and hours went by of me and my family sitting on the wooden bleachers watching people sing their songs, the men drumming. It would often become redundant for my young naive ears hearing the cries and screams of the dancers. However, when I sat in the longhouse hearing the songs of the dancers it became healing and beautiful rather than loud and scary.

When I first heard the practice I was scared because I had no idea what would go on inside of the longhouse. I had not been inside one yet, nor have I ever even acknowledged it. One day my  cousins and I were outside of the newly built longhouse playing capture the flag. I was standing  in the dirt field, and I heard screaming coming from the inside of the longhouse. I was frozen in fear. I stared and opened my ears because nothing in my mind could justify what could possibly be happening for a grown man to be screaming so blaringly loud. Like his entire family had been slaughtered and he had been forced to watch. 

“What is that sound,  do you guys hear that?” I said. My cousin Joshua said he didn’t hear anything and everyone else didn’t seem to notice.  

Little did I know that years later I would be sitting in the bleachers of the same longhouse  watching grown people scream and cry and take turns dancing. I finally put the pieces together. We only gathered at nighttime because that is the best time to be discreet and it is also when spirits are making their way into our realm. I will not go too much further into the many intersections of this practice in our culture; however, what I will discuss is the way in which  going to the longhouse was going to become a lifelong practice of mine. One that not only defined who I am today but will forever be a catalyst of learning for generations as long as we continue to practice and pass it on. 

Nowadays when there are big gatherings such as memorials, openings, or closings, people show up early in the morning to get a spot on the bleachers, and warm up their new dancers and everyone else in their group. We are there all day and all night. I remember not getting home till 4 a.m. one time, when we got to the longhouse gathering at 9 a.m. that day. 

Earlier this season I learned that back in the day people would not gather until nighttime for the sake of going unnoticed by non-Indigenous people so they would not get curious to what is going on in that longhouse. 

At 10 years old I loved being at the longhouse with my mama and papa. I stayed there for a couple months sleeping on a cot and taking care of the home. I remember feeling peace and happiness for the first time. Not that my life was not peaceful, but being at the longhouse was just a whole other level of peace. The dirt floor surrounding the two wood fire stoves that kept the home warm, the huge logs of cedar that reached up and down the interior of the home that I would look up at as I fell asleep at night. I would count the pieces of wood on the ceiling, and it would put me to sleep. 

At the lonely age of 10, it was 2012, I would visit the smokehouse everyday, and I learned the  way in which discipline and solitude is not a punishment but rather a gift that invites peace once you practice. Like the way that the mountains provide shade and darkness from the exposure of the sun, it also uncovers the cloak that covers the spirit realm. To be with the spirit realm is to be in darkness and solitude, so it is easier for the ancestors and spirits to help guide you. Therefore, darkness is a gift.