Knowledge keeper Richard Armstrong talks to students at the start of the day. Mark Brett/Western News

Sharing the voices of the mountains with Spirit North

Celebrating the first season of the Spirit North ski program for Indigenous youth at Nickel Plate

Knowledge-keeper Richard Armstrong returned this week to the mountains of his childhood, where he first learned not all words of understanding are spoken out loud.

It was also there, over a half century ago, he felt in his heart what he believed was Mother Earth’s message to him.

Those were the teachings the 73-year-old Penticton Indian Band elder shared with the 165 young faces staring up at him from the snow bank at Nickel Plate Nordic Centre during the season-end celebration of the Spirit North Indigenous ski program Monday.

“So when I count to three I want you to yell as loud as you can, so the mountains can hear you,” he asked the elementary school students, who happily obliged him when he counted down in his traditional nsyilxcən dialect. “That’s good, now the mountains will always remember you when you come back.”

Armstrong recalls being with family members in the mountainous region west of Penticton — when “there were no ski resorts” and where they hunted and fished.

“To me, coming back and looking at the kids here and having them feel that goodness and closeness of the mountain, to know those mountains are alive, that is why I’m here today,” he said. “When you look at everything around us, the trees, the snow, the plants, our way of thinking is that everything that’s alive out here is our parents and that good feeling that you feel is them taking care of us.”

This particular day was all about culture for the youngsters, many of whom had a chance to try cross country skiing for the first time through the free program operated in conjunction with the school district, Nickel Pate and the PIB.

The program’s purpose is really two-fold, according to Spirit North CEO Beckie Scott who brought her Olympic gold and silver medals to Nickel Plate for the kids to see and wear.

“It’s about these children connecting to the land,” said Scott. “This is very much a celebration of sport and activity, but also an opportunity to share culture and bring everybody together.

“It warms my heart beyond … beyond anything. I had a very successful career as an Olympic athlete and this is easily as rewarding and inspiring and to be able to bring it to communities, to kids, who would not otherwise have this opportunity.”

Related: VIDEO: Spirit North take Indigenous youth back to the land through sport

The Alberta-based, non-profit Spirit North branched out into B.C. for the first time this season, coming to three communities including Penticton.

Founded in 2009, it reaches over 6,000 youth annually in 30 Indigenous communities in Western Canada.

For his part, Armstrong could not say enough about this opportunity for the children to experience nature.

“As a knowledge keeper for the nation, looking at the kids here, having them feel that goodness and closeness of the mountains,” he said. “So that the children will hear those voices of the mountains and to know like I do when I come back, they are still there.”

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Cadence Squakin (centre) and her West Bench Elementary School classmates warm up by the fire in the Nickel Plate Lodge.

Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School’s Javea Elliott competes in one of the cross country ski games.

Nine-year-old Aaliyah Pierre of Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School tries on the Olympic gold and silver medals belonging to Beckie Scott of Spirit North at Nickel Plate Nordic Centre during the season-ending celebration of the cross country ski program for Indigenous youth this week. Mark brett/western news

Ncicn Kruger of Outma Sqilx’w Cultural School leads the charge in the snowshoe race.

Traditional and modern First Nations dancers performed and provided instruction for the students in the Spirit North program. Mark brett/western news

Traditional First Nations dancer Levi Bent.

Moonlight, 16, a student at Penticton Secondary School, performed her modern First Nations dances.

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