Sheldon Louis is the Multicultural Community Champion for February. (Contributed)

Community Champion: Healing through art

February Community Champion Sheldon Louis mentors others on Syilx history

Sheldon Louis told his family he wanted to be an artist after attending an exhibit at Head-of-the-Lake at the age of six.

A member and elected councillor of the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB), Louis grew up on the reserve and was mentored in art by his father throughout his life in many mediums and always encouraged his love of arts.

Through his teens into adulthood, as a distraction and to numb the pain of the socioeconomic impacts of the reservation system, family breakdown and societal unrest, Louis turned to alcohol and drugs.

Recognizing these coping mechanisms were unhealthy, he vowed to get sober, reaching his goal about six years ago. A turning point in his life.

He became immersed in his artwork and galleries took notice.

“It seems that things just started lining up one after another.” Louis said.

There were sales to private collections, exhibits in galleries throughout his traditional territory and paid commissions including one at Kelowna General Hospital.

With his new sobriety and a growing reputation as a Syilx artist, Louis began to be a sought after artist and youth mentor in the Syilx Nation where he shared his artwork and his journey out from his difficult past.

An addictions councillor had once told him the best way to help others was to live his life the best way he could. Louis had realized the positive influence he could have on others as a leader.

“I’m using my art to come into classrooms, giving me a platform where I can share my story of where I came from and how my art was a big part of lifting me up.”

Louis isn’t just inspiring artists, he’s educating about Indigenous history pre-contact and post-contact and about the Okanagan people.

“Meaningful relationships can only be formed when the history is understood,” Louis said.

It’s why the OKIB and the City of Vernon’s relationship building has included the Kairos blanket exercise and growing acknowledgment that the city is on unceded territory. Louis credits much of this early collaboration to former City Councillor Juliette Cunningham who was inspired by her seeking out her ancestry. Since then there’s been conversations around economic development, the watershed, Sandy beach and new cultural exhibits at the Vernon Museum.

Enduring recognition of the Syilx people is a mission Louis takes seriously. Commissioned to carve the Convocation Mace for UBCO, he realized it also presented an opportunity to preserve a connection to the Syilx people and their history by insisting the mace be blessed by Elders before each ceremony.

Working with Syilx artist Barb Marchand, Louis values colours that connect to the land, and images that connect to the Syilx people and their Captikʷɬ stories. He understands keeping culture, language, customs and art alive in schools requires leadership, a role he has embraced as both an artist and a Band Councillor. He is personally active with the Arts Council for the North Okanagan, the Greater Vernon Cultural Plan and as an Educational Advisor for School Districts 22 and 23.

Ensuring authenticity in art is important, yet it’s just one way that Louis continues to speak his truth, mentoring youth and educating others about the Syilx people, all while being the best he can be.

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