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‘Koeye feels like home’: Heiltsuk land-based camp immerses youth in language and culture

Allie Elluk grew up at Koeye Camp. Her mom used to work in the kitchen at the old lodge and she spent summers there before becoming a camper.

“I remember bits and pieces of playing at the beach, seeing all the bears. There’s this rock up river that has a dip in it, and we call it the Sasquatch bath,” she said.

“I went out every year just because it was so much fun and I was able to be myself, learn my culture, my language and find that piece of my identity.”

Koeye Camp is a land-based language and culture program for Heiltsuk youth located south of Namu, B.C. Run by Qqs Projects Society, the camp has been happening every summer — except during COVID-19 — for the past 25 years along the Koeye River.

“You have to travel by boat. The camp is right by the river but the lodge is a bit of a walk,” Elluk said.

“You follow the shoreline then hike up this trail to get there, and there’s a big house up there as well where campers are taught the sacred ceremonies, the oral history behind all the dances and stories from around the territories.

“Every Friday, there’s a feast day where community members come out and watch what the campers learned.”

Click to play video: 'A Heiltsuk land-based camp immerses youth in language and culture'

A Heiltsuk land-based camp immerses youth in language and culture

Koeye Camp started during a time of social challenge in the community, explains Jess Housty, executive director of Qqs Projects Society.

“As a community, like any Indigenous community, we grapple with a lot of deep intergenerational trauma and the camp is one of many ways the community has sought to create healing pathways from that,” she said.

“The original intent was to get kids out of town, away from social, technology and other pressures, and bring them out on the lands where they could really develop a sense of community and a sense of self-reliance and be their best Heiltsuk selves.”

Koeye Camp is celebrating its 25-year anniversary. So far it has helped hundreds of kids connect with Heiltsuk culture.

Jess Housty / Supplied

The camp is a space where youth can practise their culture, harvest foods and medicines, and spend time with one another, immersed in their language and culture.

Campers are taught Heiltsuk songs, stories and genealogy as well as the importance of being together.

“There are kids who come because they’re looking for a fun recreational thing to do and there are kids who come because it’s the safest place for them to be,” Housty said.

“It’s really our responsibility to understand what those kids need and make sure that we’re making space for them.”

The camp is free and Qqs Projects Society spends the year fundraising to make sure that’s possible.

“It’s our responsibility to organize ourselves so that a kid could literally show up with the clothes on their back and be able to participate in camp,” Housty said.

“We have gumboots, we have raincoats, we have spare camping gear — there’s no cost to coming.”

Koeye also prioritizes hosting Heiltsuk foster children.

“We partner with Heiltsuk Káxḷá Society. They do the work of tracking all of the Heiltsuk kids who are in care and in partnership with them we make space,” she said.

“If the appropriate situation is for a foster kid to come out to the camp and have space for their social worker or their adoptive or foster family to be down there as well, we can make that happen.”

Koeye works to make camp barrier-free. It will bring in extra staff to accommodate neurodivergent campers or campers with health issues.

“It’s our job to figure out how to make it so that any kid could just show up at the dock and have an amazing time.”

Heiltsuk youth gather every year along the Koeye River to immerse themselves in their language and culture.

Jess Housty / Supplied

Giving back to the community

Elluk spent several years as a camper at Koeye — she’s also been a member of camp staff, staff, camp director and this year taught several language camps.

“Koeye feels like home. It feels like a safe environment that allows me to carry on teaching the traditions, the oral history,” she said.

“I stay involved because want to incorporate language into youth’s everyday lives. … It’s really important to keep our tradition and our language alive.

And she’s a good person to do that, having graduated from a two-year intensive Heiltsuk language program in June.

Allie Elluk grew up at Koeye Camp and came back this summer as camp director.

Jess Housty / Supplied

Not only does the camp teach youth about their Heiltsuk language and culture, but it also gets them out in nature.

“We canoe up river, swim. We basically live on the land — we fish and harvest medicines,” Elluk said.

“There’s an old village site out there, an unfinished canoe, a lime quarry, an old shack with all these tools in it. … It’s pretty cool to just explore.”

The impact of Koeye is felt throughout the community and helps youth as they grow up and navigate career and life choices.

“It helped me shape who I am now as a person and as a young Heiltsuk youth,” Elluk said.

“I probably wouldn’t be as involved as I am in language or culture if I didn’t spend time at Koeye.”

“It’s really a gateway program to help young people thrive and do amazing things, … whether they do it with us or elsewhere,” Housty said.

Koeye campers spend time learning culture and language but also practical skills like fishing.

Jess Housty / Supplied

A major part of Qqs Project Society

The camp is one part of what Qqs does.

“We are here to say yes to the community, which in some ways is so beautifully simple and in other ways can be really challenging in terms of a cohesive identity for the organization,” Housty said.

Qqs Project Society adapts to what the community needs. It runs a food security program including a food bank and hamper program as well as hiring underemployed commercial fishermen to bring traditional foods to the community.

It has a community garden and decentralized gardening program where it supports over 100 families in growing food at home.

It runs a library and used to have a social enterprise coffee shop.

We do a bunch of different things and over the years we’ve done all sorts of things that we don’t do anymore,” Housty said.

“But the one thing that’s never changed for us is Koeye Camp. That is a piece that we’ve held from the very beginning of the organization because it fits across everything that we’re trying to do.

“We’re fundamentally just trying to help the community create pathways to wellness and thriving on their terms.”

Youth can spend a week or all summer with Koeye Camp. The program adapts to fit community needs.

Jess Housty / Supplied

Like Elluk, Housty grew up with Koeye Camp and now her son is old enough to attend the camp.

“We’re at the place now where we have second-generation campers coming. One of my favourite things is just witnessing how invested community members are in Koeye Camp,” she said.

“It’s really beautiful, in a sense, that we’re taking a generational approach to the work we do and the community is growing with us and staying invested with us.

“The biggest compliment we could ever receive is that people trust us enough to send their kids to us.”

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