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'Built on trust': Lheidli T'enneh and Exploration Place model journey of reconciliation

'They work hand-in-hand with us.'

There’s a lot of unique things about Prince George but one of the most important is the relationship between the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation and the city's regional museum, the Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre.

Over the course of 20 years, the Exploration Place and the Lheidli T’enneh have worked together to preserve and showcase the living culture of the Lheidli T’enneh and promote a better understanding of history.

The success of their partnership has even received national acclaim as a model for how Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can work together toward reconciliation.

When the museum shut down in 1999 for its expansion project and rebrand as the Exploration Place, it reopened with a gallery called All the Time We Have Lived on the Land. That display featured some Dakelh material culture but did not represent the Lheidli T’enneh’s efforts to keep its culture alive in the face of colonial oppression.

The museum eventually brought in an exhibit called Where are the Children, which told the story of Canada’s Residential School System and included Elders from all over northern B.C.

Exploration Place CEO Tracy Calogheros said when the exhibit opened, an Elder approach her and told her it was the first time she had been able to talk to her grandchildren about her experiences.

“It became clear very quickly we had a role to play for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members in telling these stories and building some understanding,” said Calogheros.

The museum then began working with the Lheidli T’enneh to tell the story of the expulsion from the park – formerly known as Fort George Park – which is the Nation’s original village site, burial ground, and traditional territory.

“In 1913 they were raised out of their homes, they were tricked, and their homes were set on fire and the Indian agent himself hired folks to do the burning,” said Calogheros, adding that most people in Prince George did not know the history.

“When we launched that exhibit, we were right, most people in Prince George had not heard the whole story.”

The exhibit was called September 1913 and Calogheros said it called to the foreground some of the uninformed racism that was existing in the community.

“That really began our work as an ally as an organization.”

The success of these exhibits fostered trust between the museum and the Lheidli T’enneh. In 2013, the museum opened a temporary exhibit called Cultural Expressions, which coincided with the Lheidli T’enneh’s hosting of the Provincial Elders Gathering.

The exhibit showcased the Lheidli T’enneh as a living culture and won a British Columbia museum award for the partnership it exhibited.

“We always feel that it is an act of bravery every time an Indigenous person or organization shakes the hand of a non-Indigenous person or organization and we want to more than live up to our end of that bargain,” said Calogheros.

Repatriation and Governor General’s Award

In 2016, The Exploration Place and Lheidli T’enneh Nation began construction of a new permanent gallery titled, “Hodul’eh-a: A Place of Learning” which built on the now decade-long partnership.

The Lheidli T'enneh Nation Chief and Council as well as the Lheidli Elders Group participated in multiple consultations and made significant contributions in the areas of content, language and style.

“It was up to the Elders of what was going to be put on display in that gallery and the story we were telling,” said curator Alyssa Leier.

 “Overall we had about 50 elders that took part in those consultations. We had a variety of voices and we were really appreciative of that.”

Along with the opening of the exhibit in 2017, the Lheidli T’enneh signed a memorandum of understanding with the museum, which transferred legal ownership of all Lheidli T’enneh materials in the Exploration Place to the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation.

“We are the Lheildi T’enneh’s official repository and as a non-Indigenous organization the importance of that cannot be overstated,” said Calogheros.

Lheidli T’enneh Chief Dolleen Logan said the relationship between the two is built on a foundation of trust.

“They work hand-in-hand with us. They are part of the Lheidli T’enneh and we are part of the museum,” said Chief Logan. “The history should be taught and if it wasn’t at the museum, if we had it at our band office, no one would see it. At the museum everyone sees it and everyone stops to read it.”

The Exploration Place and the Lheidli T’enneh also received the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming for the exhibit and repatriation.  

They were recognized for serving “as a model for how Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can work together to reclaim traditional spaces, protect cultural assets, and promote a greater understanding and respect for Indigenous history and experiences.”

Calogheros said it’s vital there is a space in the community where people can ask questions and learn about the Lheidli T’enneh culture.

“I think education is a key and very important first step that all of us can take toward reconciliation,” added Leier.  “If you are not familiar with your local First Nations culture and you are not familiar with your history, you are going to have a really hard time taking part in reconciliation and that is something all Canadians should be doing right now,”

A relationship built on trust

Another significant moment in the relationship between the Lheidli T’enneh and the Exploration Place occurred when the construction of the Lheidli Memorial Park Pavillion unearthed ancestral remains.

The Exploration Place temporarily housed the remains until the Lheidli T’enneh determined a final resting spot. Chief Logan notes that the Exploration Place was instrumental in helping with the burial.

“Tracy and I were involved in that process and one way we really felt honoured and cared for is, afterward, they approached us and asked how we were feeling about the situation and had Elders come and smudge us to make sure we were okay,” said Leier.

“The fact that they came to us afterward I thought was really special.”

That trusting relationship was again demonstrated in the wake of the recent discovery of the 215 children whose remains were found at the site of Kamlooops Indian Residential School.

The Exploration Place quickly stepped up to offer the Lheidli T’enneh a space to display and store the memorial of children’s toys and shoes that formed on the steps of city hall amid the tragic news.

Chief Logan says the Lheidli T’enneh are now working with the Exploration Place and the city to determine the future of the memorial.

“We are trying to figure out what to do to respectively, put it on display for everyone to see and for no one to forget. We have to keep the story going.”

Chief Logan said she hopes the relationship between the Lheidli T’enneh can serve as a model for other regional museums, businesses and organizations.

“It's been twenty years and it's probably going to be at least another hundred — this relationship will never stop. It is a strong relationship built on trust,” added Chief Logan.

“The input of the Lheidli T’enneh into this award-winning contemporary museum is a game-changer,” said Calogheros. “I value the relationship with the Lheidli T’enneh and have said many times the work I have done with them is some of the most meaningful of my career.”

The Exploration Place Museum and Science Centre is currently closed for renovations but is now in the process of hiring its first Lheidli T’enneh curator.