Hailee Leon first went to Natural Changes summer camp at a difficult time in her life. Instructors there not only helped her learn traditional indigenous practices like hunting and cedar weaving, but how to cope with new, personal challenges – like hitting puberty just as her parents split up.
Hailee is now 16. Four years ago, she first went to "puberty camp," a four-day retreat for young indigenous women and men. The camps are about blending health with culture, say elders of Sts'ailes, a reserve two-hours' drive from Vancouver, tucked into the mountains of the Coast Range. After a break of a few years, Hailee came back for a second stay.
Coming-of-age ceremonies have always been a part of Sts'ailes/Sto:lo culture. But with the Indian Act, residential school system and potlatch bans, those ceremonies were outlawed and driven underground. It wasn't until the 1970s that elders began an effort to revive longhouse spirituality in the community. Puberty camps were an extension of that, a way for kids to be initiated into the culture.
Up to 30 girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 16 attend the camps every summer. Elders say the camps help to build a foundation for life.
At first light, the girls run to the rushing creek for a spiritual bath, meant to wash away any pubescent self-loathing and anxiety. During the day, they pick through the woods looking for medicinal plants with Halq'emeylem names passed down for generations.
"Frog leaf," or common plantain, can be made into an antiseptic poultice. Cascara tree bark has utility as a laxative tea to cleanse the system.
"Everything we did came with a teaching," Hailee said.
Current instructors include Sts'ailes elders, former attendees and nurses, both indigenous and non-indigenous, who have experience working in the community. "We know young people are growing and their hormones are really blasting," said elder Virginia Peters, 74, who helped found the camps in the 1990s.
She said the camps work to break down the stigmas that her generation learned in residential school: that sex was dirty and shouldn't be talked about. The camps give kids an introduction to Sts'ailes traditional beliefs and culture around coming of age and sexuality, but they also blend in Western-style sex education.
"A lot of the girls want to know, 'Can I go swimming [on my period]?'" said nurse Jasmine Frye. "A lot of them want to know the practical stuff."
The elements of camp that are unique to indigenous education are the particular spiritual or emotional components.
"When on your period, the teaching that we got was to be careful and, you know, ground yourself and hold yourself together," Hailee said.
After her first time at Natural Changes, Hailee still wasn't sure how to do this. Camp leaders say that it often takes a couple of years for the girls to understand the teachings. "A lot of them need to be de-programmed and realize how important our ways are, and how it can really complement what's going on in the modern, Western ways," Ms. Peters said, referring to some of the descendants of residential school survivors.
"At school [the rules are] different, but in the smokehouse, it's really strict," Hailee said. "You have to be wrapped, and you can't walk around when you have your period."
Menstruation is a women's "power time," according to Sts'ailes spiritual beliefs. Girls are expected to wrap a blanket around their waist to contain this power. During their moon, they are forbidden to prepare food, and can steal energy from sacred objects such as drums and paddles by stepping over them.
The camps have become popular, and it can be hard to collect enough resources every year.
Snowoyelh is the name of the Sts'ailes' health and culture department, which supports families and children. Every year, it gets $4,000 from the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development to run the camps. Organizers try to keep costs down by hunting deer and gathering berries in the spring. This supplements the camp food budget and provides for the preserves that they will teach the girls to make. But Nancy Patricia Charlie, director of Snowoyelh, said funding remains a problem.
Many of the kids return to the camps, learning a little more each year. Hailee Leon stopped going after her parents broke up. She started skipping class. "It's pretty weird crying at school, so just, why go?" she said. Then, at 14, she realized that she was on the wrong path.
"I wanted to just be a kid again and hang out with some friends and learn some more," Hailee said. "And not have so many responsibilities at once – because it was starting to build up and everything, and I didn't know what to do."
That summer, she went back to Natural Changes camp for a second time.
"It reassured me that it's okay to feel hurt and it's okay to grieve when it's needed, and that it's okay to just have moments," Hailee said.
With limited resources, organizers prioritize admitting vulnerable youth, including those who have a difficult family life or haven't had a chance to experience traditional culture.
"This is what we want for all of our families. It's life-giving," Ms. Peters said.