J.D. and Ethel Billy

Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation

Interviewing a King and Queen can be challenging - especially when they are as popular as J.D. and Ethel Billy of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation.

The interview took place at the 34th Annual Elders Gathering in Salmon Arm and was interrupted countless times as delighted ‘subjects’ stopped to greet the honourary royals and take their photograph.

Adams Lake Band Elders J.D. and Ethel Billy were chosen as King and Queen of this year’s Gathering, for qualities like leadership and community spirit. As the King and Queen they led ceremonial songs and dances and started each day with a prayer. The Stó:lō Nation was elected to host the 35th Annual Elders Gathering in 2011, and J.D. and Ethel Billy passed their crowns to the new Stó:lō King and Queen as part of a moving closing ceremony. J.D. and Ethel kindly took time to answer a few questions.

SeniorsBC: How were you chosen as King and Queen of this year’s Elders Gathering? What are some of the qualities you are being honoured for?

Ethel: Each year a band elects a King and Queen to represent their people before they present their bid to host the next Elders Gathering. We may have been elected because we know a lot of people and are active Elders. We work with the Adams Lake Band Elders Group, hold family circles and have been involved for many years at the Round Lake Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centre. J.D. was a founding board member of the Round Lake Treatment Centre, and was a drug and alcohol counsellor for the Adams Lake Band for many years.

Others elaborated on how Ethel and J.D have touched their lives. One young girl thought they were elected King and Queen for being very knowledgeable and friendly. Another Adams Lake Band member described them as strong cultural role models who teach the language and actively transfer their knowledge. Both Ethel and J.D. have been instrumental in promoting sobriety in their community and have been sober for decades – a fact held in high esteem by other Band members. Ethel and J.D are seen as honourable, truthful, down-to-earth and everybody’s friend.

SeniorsBC: As Elders, can you tell us a little bit about the ways you participate in and give back to your community?

Ethel: We both worked as counsellors for the Adams Lake Band and I was also a nurse’s aide at the community health centre on reserve. 

J.D.: We are retired, but our contact information is at the police station so people in need can call us any time - day and night. We are there for them – we are here for others. People who need help come to us first to find out what to do and where to go.

SeniorsBC: Is physical activity an important part of your day-to-day lives? What kinds of things do you do to stay active and engaged in your community?

J.D.: It’s up to individuals to do their own activity. I like to walk. I walk about three miles in the morning. Sometimes we walk together. I keep active with my nephews, especially when we go on hunting trips together. I am also active in sports and coach the slow-pitch softball team.

Ethel: I like to walk into town to get an ice-cream. That’s about two miles away. Many of us Elders also have home gardens.

SeniorsBC: How do you connect with youth and other community members to pass on cultural teachings, knowledge and values?

Ethel: I worked as a language instructor at the Chief Atahm School [the only Secwepemctsin – Shuswap language – Immersion program within the Secwepemc Nation], which is located at Sexqeltqin (Adams Lake Reserve) across the river from Chase, B.C. We almost lost our language. The school started in 1996 and has a daycare, nursery and kindergarten. The Elders are involved as teachers, mentors, and supporters and without their strong support this immersion program would not be possible. We are active Elders and also offer our help. For example women will approach me to participate in traditional cultural activities such as holding sweats together [in the sweat lodge] and working with the healing plants and medicines. I make baskets and I dig for roots and food in the spring with the younger people and show them what types of foods to harvest in nature. I also teach skills like making bannock and canning; I just canned three batches of cherries before the Gathering. I teach Shuswap style songs (I record my songs) and Shuswap style dances.

SeniorsBC: How does the Elders Gathering affect the health and well-being of Elders in your community, or across the province?

J.D.: The Elders Gathering contributes to their health and well-being. It is like a holiday for many Elders and often it’s the only one they get. We raise the funds - we raise funds in our Elders group for their expenses - for the travel by bus, to rent the space. The Elders dance and sing when they are here; they connect with one another and share stories. We have only missed two Gatherings and will attend the one next year - if the Creator is willing.

SeniorsBC: Do you have any tips to share for a happy, successful life in older age?

Ethel: Keep busy, keep working, keep helping other people, keep yourself healthy, eat good food, sleep well and have fun too. We have fun. We laugh. We dance and we sing. All this is good medicine. We keep the mind, body and soul busy, but the Creator is first. Many young people don’t know this. None of this is possible without the Creator. We provide the younger ones with a good example.

SeniorsBC: Thank you very much, Ethel and J.D., for sharing your time and insights.