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Squamish Nation leader spearheads documentary series on Indigenous knowledge

Chief Gilbert ‘Gibby’ Jacob travels across B.C. to share the wisdom of other Indigenous leaders
Chief Gilbert ‘Gibby’ Jacob joins Gwawaenuk Chief Dr. Robert Joseph on a trip to the Kwakwaka’wakw territory in Back to the Fire’s first episode. | Gwayasdums, Gilford Island BC

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) hereditary Chief Gilbert ‘Gibby’ Jacob is on a quest to preserve Indigenous knowledge.

Alongside Juno Award-winning filmmaker Andy Keen, the Indigenous leader is in the midst of putting together Back to the Fire, a six-part documentary series that follows Indigenous leaders and community members as they discuss their most valuable lessons and personal stories on life, language and culture.

The program’s impetus is to reclaim and preserve the ancient wisdom lost as a result of colonialism, so Indigenous youth who have since been denied the opportunity to learn from their Elders have a permanent recording to refer to, said Keen.

It also provides a vital educational tool for non-Indigenous communities, with some schools already aware of the documentary and “excited to add it to their curriculum,” he said.

“In Canada, the conversations have never been more prominent or loud about people wanting to know more about the history of the country, and the history of First Nations,” he said. “This series is designed to tell the Indigenous stories that exist across this country, because there are Indigenous cultures, communities and Nations around the world who are at serious risk of having these important teachings disappear.”

Initially the concept was to produce a single documentary, said Keen, but with so many vital stories to tell and with Jacob’s filled-to-the-brim contact book, it wasn’t long before they began discussing turning it into a fully fledged series.

Jacob said many of the prominent leaders he interviewed for the series are life-long friends, “all on speed dial” already.

“Having been in a leadership position with the Squamish Nation for 30-plus years, I was able to meet some of the greatest leaders across the country, and I was schooled by them in a lot of different ways,” he said. “There are a lot of lessons that can be learned by just listening to these people.”

Jacob said “a range of things” are discussed, with conversation touching on everything from their own cultural traditions to being in a leadership role, and what that entails.

Back to the Fire’s first episode follows Jacob as he joins Gwawaenuk Chief Dr. Robert Joseph on a voyage to Coastal B.C’s Kwakwaka’wakw territory. Led by fellow chief and Indigenous tour guide Mike Willie, the group travels to the sacred estuary from which their first ancestor emerged, and where one of the oldest longhouses in the country still remains.

Jacob said there is knowledge imparted along the way, as with all Indigenous storytelling, that would benefit people from all walks of life, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

“With this journey in particular, I hope that people learn to understand that people back in our day cared for and looked after each other,” he said. “It wasn’t like it is today. My neighbours don’t visit each other’s houses, everybody lives a separate life. Before, we’d have big longhouses where blended families lived. Everybody looked after each other, and that was the most important thing. Everything was shared. We could learn something from that.”

Keen said that the values and the messages relayed through the stories are of value to “everyone and anyone.”

“Above all they remind us of these basic human values. To be good to one another, and to be open minded,” he said.

With the crew just filming the third episode, Keen said a broadcasting partner that will show the documentary is still to be determined, although he can promise it will be on screens in 2025. Plus, there are already talks of a second season, he adds, with big plans in store for the documentary’s future.

With so much to learn and so many stories to tell, Keen said the two are looking ahead to the likes of New Zealand and Hawaii for future seasons, where other Indigenous leaders will be given a space to pass down their own cultural traditions and life lessons.

“The idea is to get to meet some leaders, Elders and Knowledge Keepers from all over the world,” said Keen. “There is so much to learn.”

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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