12 min read

What defines the Lethbridge Spirit? In Part 1, I explored the spirit of adventure. In the second installment in this three-part #ExploreLethbridge series, I continue to explore the culture and history of this great community.

by Dax Justin

This is all starts with the opportunity I had to take part in the 50th anniversary of the Sik-Ooh-Kotoki Friendship Society (SFS), making it the longest standing Indigenous organization in Lethbridge, providing programs and services to the Indigenous population of this region since 1969.

This celebration was taking place at the Exhibition Park South Pavilion, and included a traditional Powwow ceremony and Indian Relay Races, where Indigenous people and groups from across North America came to this event to participate. I was placed right in the middle of everything, and I came out of this experience with a feeling of pride and community that I have never felt in this place until this day. This is a glimpse of Spirit.

“Oki, Napi.” Welcome friend

The Powwow

At the Powwow, I was woven between the threads of history, passion, pride, and spirit. The arena filled quickly as people from all walks of life gathered and waited anxiously for the grand entry to begin. The grand entry is a complete spectacle – this is when the Indigenous communities are united in entry and this formal presentation is a powerful display of pride throughout the nations. An entrance as one.

After the master of ceremonies from the Friendship Society introduced the nations, the event was now in full-vibration and it wasn’t long before the traditional drumming and dancing began. To say this is a spectacle is somewhat incomplete – it’s WAY deeper than that…it is a full-body, totally-sensory experience. Young and old alike made their way around the floor performing an intricate display of movements along with a deep drum beat – you’ll feel the beat in your bones as you watch in awe.

For one brief moment saw a glimpse into the life of a man named Peter Anthony. I was standing on the outskirts of the red carpet, where everyone was dancing, and one individual particularly stood out to me. Full regalia. Layers of meaning. Proud and strong. Not a beat to miss. He was the most charismatic dancer on the floor. His name is Peter Anthony. He danced with soul, you could tell. This man was in this element and he ended up winning the Sr. Men’s competition. Although I rattled off about 1000 photos of the entire event, he was the only man I photographed a portrait of. Why? For some reason unknown to me, I solely shot his portrait and no other.

ABOVE: Photo by Dax Justin

I posted Peter’s photo on Instagram and this is where the context changes and power of community comes to life…

A couple hours after I posted the photo on Instagram I noticed a direct message from someone. I opened the message and it was from Peter’s Granddaughter! Her name is Kira and she wasn’t yet following me on Instagram but had seen the photo through the hashtag #powwow and exclaimed to me, “That’s my Grandpa! His name is Peter Anthony!”

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It’s likely that her and I were in shock at the same time. What a small world! She wasn’t opening Instagram that day expecting to see a photo of her Grandpa, and I never would have thought these connections and community would formulate from taking this photo. When I asked Kira about her Grandpa she said, “I’ll never forget watching him run towards the little table in the arbor at Beaver Lake, AB after getting First Place – with a great big smile on his face! It really warms my heart to watch him dance…he dances from the heart and he dances because he loves to. He told me after this powwow.” Since communicating with Peter’s family I have also learned that he is from the Adams Lake Indian Band, Secwepemc Nation. The face paint he wears has a story, his regalia is made by him, which also has a major story. Then it hit me – everything about this experience has been sacred, and I feel weaved into this new presence.

Being present at this celebration has enabled me to not only experience the spirit and vitality of the Indigenous people, it has also given me the opportunity to gift the Anthony family with the photos from this gathering. Thank you to the Friendship Society for being a stand in strengthening Indigenous cultural distinctiveness.

Taking a Glimpse into the Past at the Galt Museum

If you’re going to Lethbridge looking to unearth the past, you’ll achieve more than what you came for when you visit the Galt Museum. I’ve been here a total of three times and every time it’s completely different. Shaped by time, literally! Stories are consistently unearthed at this place, it’s like a never-ending time machine through the past.

When I visited I was fortunate enough to get a personal guided tour from Graham Ruttan, the Marketing and Communications Officer at the Galt Museum. Graham took me through the various exhibits ranging from Indigenous history to the formulation of the Lethbridge region itself. The difference is that this museum shows, through intricate and creative displays, the connections between these communities and how this place came to be the flourishing cultural hub it is.

ABOVE: Photo by Dax Justin in Lethbridge, AB

One very unique displays is the St. Michael’s exhibit, and it’s all about this early hospital in Lethbridge. This is an especially meaningful exhibit to people who have had family born in the region and one of the really special pieces they have is infant identification bracelets. Instead of modern birth/hospital anklets that we all know of, this infant identification kit from the 40’s uses thread and beads to create hand-made I.D. bracelets. I can’t imagine you’d be doing this now as there are many small beads and choking hazards, so it is unlikely you’ll ever see this system present anywhere else today. This piece was an in-use kit as you’ll see in the photo from some letters being used more commonly than others. This infant identification kit has been preserved as it was found from when it was in use – absolutely incredible! Thank you to the hospital for donating this collection to the museum to preserve this piece of Lethbridge history.

During my visit to the Galt Museum I was really present to the fact that we are standing on history. If the soil beneath us could speak – what would it say? I was impressed how Graham was able to thread between various exhibits and weave them into reality that gave me presence to this land. I have respect for what has taken place beneath my feet, and I felt complete. When I left the museum, I remember thinking to myself, “I feel whole. Lethbridge feels like home.”

Experiencing Traditional Indian Horse Relay Races

This day of the journey has been rich in history and now I would have the opportunity to see history come alive! The finale of the 50 Year Anniversary were “Indian Relay Races.” Now if you have no idea what these races are you are in the same place I was prior to attending – I had never heard of these types of races before. Being from Calgary, Alberta, home of the Calgary Stampede, I am very familiar with chuckwagon racing, but that’s the closest reference point I had to what was about to take place…

So imagine you’re at the chuck’s and in front of you is a horse racing track and several groups of horses. Now take away the horse’s saddles and the chuckwagons, and what you’re left with is a bare-back display of sheer grit!

Alright let me paint this picture for you – there are 5 teams of racers. 5 racers and 1 horse to a team. All decorated through pride. The loud horn sounds and they’re off! One rider from each team fires around the track as fast as possible, eating mud as they come around the corners. As they pass by their team the rider leaps into the air, disembarking the horse and jumps up onto another horse, in a mad dash to go for another lap. Fast as lighting, best way I could describe it. The emotions and power behind the facial expressions I saw held my gaze as I peered through my lens. I was energetically-engaged the whole time and it’s easy to miss (everything) if you’re not paying attention.

I would like to acknowledge and congratulate the Carlson family who traveled from Montana, US and entered two teams, Two Medicine Relay and Carlson Relay, into the event, with Carlson winning the championship relay! Each team was extremely impressive and I was in amazement at what I saw. I like to think that I see a fair bit of “athleticism” in my profession as an explorer, but this was at a completely different level. These were highly tuned athletes who blew everyone’s minds through their courageous and enthusiastic presentation of this coveted sport in Indigenous culture.

You’re With Good People at the Water Tower Grill

I’ll say it now – there’s no better way to end your evening in Lethbridge! After the races I went to the Water Tower Grill to wind down from a day spent in the past and take in the sunset – a great belated place to take photographs! This is where I met Lisa and Amelia who will be alongside with me for the rest of the journey. I could tell instantly it wouldn’t be boring. 🙂

In my journey to define Lethbridge spirit today I saw through one glimpse that cultural expression is so important; for people to have a sense of self-identity and cultural-identity. Standing in that, it’s about one thing – TOGETHERNESS.

Stay tuned for Part III where we dive into endless Summer fun in Lethbridge!

BELOW: Photo by Dax Justin in Lethbridge, AB.

Dax Justin is a Canadian explorer and adventure photographer, currently based in Calgary, AB. His photos and stories are focused on connecting humans back to nature. His work is concerned with ocean health, Indigenous rights and distinctiveness, and our environment, covering stories such as eco-tourism in the Great Bear Rainforest, the human impact of marine debris, and trekking with Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay tundra. Dax is a newly-elected Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (FRCGS), Contributor to Canadian Geographic, a National Geographic Certified Educator, TEDx speaker and creator of the the ‘Explore in School‘ (EiS) initiative. You can explore more of his images and adventures on instagram.com/daxjustin or facebook.com/daxjustin.