Reclaiming Roots: A mother’s anguish transforms a painful history
This is the start of a series about the Qayqayt First Nation’s journey of discovering and reigniting a lost culture and history. Chief Rhonda Larrabee and the Qayqayt community are working with Urban Matters to reimagine a potential physical space for Qayqayt, the only First Nation in B.C. without a current land base.
In her early 20s, Rhonda Larrabee set out to fill in some gaps about her family that always felt mysterious to her. Although she believed what she was told about her Chinese-French heritage, she sensed there was more to the story. Rhonda constantly questioned her mom about her family, but the questions were evaded.
Until one day, when she approached her mom, Marie Bandura-nee Joseph and asked for her parents’ names and where they came from in order to create a family tree.
After 24 years with a buried history, Rhonda’s persistence worked and Marie opened up to her: “I will tell you once. Don’t ask me again, don’t talk about it,” Rhonda says, recalling her mother’s words. “And then she sent my dad and my brothers out of the house — told them to go to the park. And she told me her story.”
Amidst an outpouring of tears, Rhonda learned her mother had been sent as a young orphan to a residential school in Kamloops where she was punished for speaking Halq’eméylem, her native Coast Salish language.
Rhonda grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown believing she was half-Chinese from her father’s side, and half-French from her mother’s side. At 24, she learned her mother had hitchhiked to Chinatown after high school with her older sister, Dorothy. The sisters resembled people of Asian descent, so they blended in unnoticed.
Rhonda struggled with whether to act on her urge to discover her past once she realized how much pain prevented her mother from talking about her roots. “Then I never did speak about it again. I never asked her any more questions,” Rhonda says.
In 1985, Marie passed away and Rhonda felt lost without her. She also felt sadness, knowing her mom bore a painful sense of shame about her ancestry.
“She lost her language. She lost her culture. She lost her family at residential school. She lost everything,” Rhonda says. “She made a good life for us. I’m so proud of her and I just want her to be proud of where she came from.”
A few years later, Rhonda told her father she wanted to learn more about her mother’s family. He encouraged her: “He said, ‘Do it. Make her proud. You can do it.’”
In 1994, after 13 months of waiting, digging for legal documents and many exchanges with what was then known as the federal Indian Affairs and Northern Development Department, Rhonda received her Indian status card. Her family— her three brothers, her kids and nieces and nephews — was ecstatic.
“I was just so emotional when I got my card. I felt like I was part of Mom,” she says.
“And that was my goal of getting my status — to feel close to where my mom came from, her roots.”
Shortly afterwards, Rhonda’s three brothers acquired their status cards and gradually the Qayqayt (pronounced ka-kite) community grew. A band council election was held and Rhonda was elected chief of the Qayqayt First Nation, also known as the New Westminster Indian Band.
January 2014 marks the 20-year anniversary that Chief Larrabee received her status card. As fulfilling as that moment was, Rhonda quickly realized it was just the beginning. By receiving her status, Rhonda single-handedly reinstated the Qayqayt First Nation, which previously had no known living members. Her aunt and uncle were on the band list, but were now deceased.
Rhonda’s phone started ringing as the news about her spread. People were asking if she was going to file a land claim or request fishing or water rights.
She was faced with a pressing question: “What do I do? Do I just ignore everything and carry on?” Rhonda asks, recalling her dilemma. But of course, Rhonda couldn’t stop there.