Cassie Gregoire (left) joins Joan and Ned Alexis (centre/right) on Sept. 7 for a feast prepared by the couple to welcome home OKIB members evacuated due to wildfire. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.

Cassie Gregoire (left) joins Joan and Ned Alexis (centre/right) on Sept. 7 for a feast prepared by the couple to welcome home OKIB members evacuated due to wildfire. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna.

Feasting after the fire: Okanagan couple welcomes evacuees home with tacos and ribs

A story of caring for the Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) community after the 2021 fires

~Kelsie Kilawna, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The smell of fry bread, the sound of sizzling oil and the rising temperature in the kitchen would tell any sqilxw person that a feast was on the horizon at Joan Alexis’ house.

Joan says she feels called to take care of people in her Okanagan Indian Band (OKIB) community as they hurriedly clean their homes, empty their freezers and come to terms with losses incurred by the White Rock Lake wildfire sweeping through their homelands — which has burning down homes, a business, and significant gathering and ceremony places.

Some people were returning to their homes after being evacuated for more than a month.

“It was more about making sure our people are taken care of while they are taking care of what they need to deal with, and it’s one less thing they need to worry about,” says Joan, who runs a sqilxw crafting business.

Last night, IndigiNews joined Joan and friends in her kitchen as they chopped and diced vegetables, kneaded dough, and fried bread amid the sounds aunties laughing in the close-knit community at Head of the Lake.

Welcoming feasts like these reflect very old syilx teachings, says Joan. As syilx Peoples honour the mourning protocols that follow loss, she hopes to see youth reclaiming these old ways of supporting their people.

“They need to start stepping up because I know we’ve lost a lot of important people and a lot of families are going to be struggling this year,” she says.

“We have families that can’t go up into the mountains and go fishing, or go hunting. Our community needs to stand up and take care of all of our community,” she shares with the stern but loving tone of a well-intentioned aunty.

Over the summer, Joan spent much of her time cooking for wildfire firefighters at the temporary camp set up for firefighters in Vernon, B.C. on syilx territory — including her husband Ned Alexis, who continues to battle blazes on frontlines across Turtle Island, as he has done for decades.

After returning home for just a few days, Ned will soon be returning to the frontlines for his next tour.

“I put my husband on the spot because he didn’t know we were doing this. We were both working, then I told him, ‘Well, we’re doing a taco feast,’” Joan says.

As Joan prepped ribs, Ned bounced between the driveway and the kitchen, fixing Joan’s van and sharing laughs with people who showed up. It’s a practice that Joan and Ned were taught to do from a young age — to always care for the people. They know what’s like to be away from home without the good medicine that goes into feeding the community and feasting together, Joan says.

“This is just a way of giving back. Some people haven’t had a home-cooked meal in over a month,” says Joan.

“It’s hard for our people to eat in a restaurant for every meal. So I brought fry bread to Fairfield [the hotel where many folks were evacuated to] because that’s where the Elders were and they were so appreciative because it’s hard for us to not cook for ourselves.”

Community shows up to enjoy the feast prepared for them with love by the Alexis family. Photo by Kelsie Kilawna

Joan says this was just the right thing to do for her community with her last paycheque from working in the firefighting camp.

“I’m not needing anything, so I wanted to help out the community and say, ‘You know, there are a lot of people that really missed you.’ … To have everyone home, and [let] them know that people really do care about you and miss you, and we’ve prayed for you every day,” she shares.

“I could feel how much they missed home.”

READ MORE: syilx family explains how wildfire impacts their ceremonies

READ MORE: Survivor offers advice on how to honour National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

If you or someone you know needs mental health and wellness supports please know help is available. Check out all the resources available to you here. For example, the KUU-US Crisis Line Society offers24-7 support at 250-723-4050 for adults, 250-723-2040 for youth, or toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

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