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Documentary shares stories of Indigenous multimedia creators and their elders

The film ‘s-yéwyáw Awaken’ will be screened at VIU’s Malaspina Theatre on Jan. 16
Ecko Aleck prepares to give her father, Terry Coyote Aleck, a traditional tattoo using a single needle, as featured in the feature-length film documentary ‘s-yéwyáw Awaken.’ (Submitted image)

With an aim to create ripples toward intergenerational healing, three Indigenous multimedia creators have documented traditional teachings and legacies of their elders.

The film s-yéwyáw Awaken touches on the core of the legacies of four Indigenous elders and their relationships with the Indigenous creators as they make their way toward knowledge transfer, rediscovery of heritage and identity, and healing from intergenerational trauma.

The title of the film, s-yéwyáw, is from the she shashishalhem language, the traditional language spoken by the shishálh Nation, and means awaken in English.

Liz Marshall, co-writer, director, executive producer and a cinematographer for the film, said the concept evolved very quickly after meeting with multimedia creators Ecko Aleck of the Nlaka’pamux Nation (Lytton), Alfonso Salinas of the shíshálh Nation (Sunshine Coast) and Charlene SanJenko of Splatsin of the Secwépemc Nation (Shuswap) in the winter of 2022. The film was in production throughout 2022-23 and had its world premiere in Toronto at the Paradise Theatre on Oct. 13 as part of the Planet in Focus Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award.

Marshall said Canada’s first and longest-running environmental film festival was a great platform to debut their work since the character of mother nature is held in reverence and a woven signature throughout the film.

“We are in a climate emergency and we are looking for solutions, and if we could listen to the elders and what they know through Indigenous wisdom, I think we should take that lead … That is a strong thread that weaves throughout the film,” the director said.

She added that s-yéwyáw Awaken is shot very naturalistic with cinematic compositions that detail the landscape and different nations that were filmed on.

As a non-Indigenous filmmaker who moved to Sunshine Coast in 2020, and who made a commitment to become more involved with the Indigenous and non-Indigenous allyship community, Marshall said working on the film has deeply rooted her to the community.

“This was very much a cross-cultural collaboration, and the first film that I worked on with Indigenous co-creators and Indigenous elders,” she said. “Being invited to witness their journey and to work with them and to be invited into sacred space was an honour and a privilege … their protocols were centred as a very important part of our filmmaking journey.”

The stories of the three Indigenous creators is woven throughout the film; Charlene SanJenko’s journey as she worked on her own film, Coming Home for the Children, which documented how she rediscovered her Indigenous identity and worked through the process with chief (Wenecwtsin) Wayne Christian; the knowledge transfer between Alfonso Salinas and elder (x wu’ p’ a’ lich) Barbara Higgins as he worked toward creating a canoes for his nation and learning the traditional way of how to awaken a canoe; and the healing between Ecko Aleck and her father Terry Coyote Aleck as he talks about the horrors endured while in residential school and his legacy in winning a precedent setting case against the church, the RCMP and the Canadian government.

Marshall said the film also considers the importance of knowing one’s own culture for Indigenous youth, which is shown between Salinas and his grandfather (hiwus) Calvin Craigan, who was the youngest elected chief, at the time, at 19 years old and who helped the shíshálh Nation charter a path toward self-governance.

“Alfonso comes from this line of leadership and one of the things that his grandfather says to him is that he can see the young people having dignity again,” Marshall said, adding that Salinas has become a song carrier and a drummer as part of his healing.

A statement written by Ecko Aleck states that the goal of the project is to inspire meaningful dialogue that carries back home to the kitchen table, where true change begins, and that sacred stories carry the power to heal, inspire and empower the next generations of dreamers, weavers and warriors.

Following its world premiere in Toronto last October, s-yéwyáw Awaken was then screened in Vancouver and Sunshine Coast over the late fall. The director said that in Vancouver the team was able to come together and honour the passing and legacy of Higgins who died after the world premiere.

Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University campus will hold a screening for the film on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at the Malaspina Theatre at 7 p.m. for the general public.

It will also receive a televised national premiere on Telus Originals and Hollywood Suite next month on Feb. 13.

More information about s-yéwyáw Awaken can be found online at

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