Kevin Kelly and his wife

Fort Langley: Kwantlen First Nation Chief shares personal journey

Marilyn Gabriel has been Chief of Kwantlen since June 11, 1993.

Kwantlen First Nation Marilyn Gabriel carries on the legacy of her father, and grandfather.

As Hereditary Chief of Kwantlen First Nation, Marilyn has followed the path forged by her late dad Joe, the band’s Chief for more than 30 years.

The street she and her family live on is called Gabriel Lane, named after her late grandfather Alfred, who was Chief for roughly 30 years before his son took the role.

Marilyn has been on council since April, 1989, and was appointed Chief on June 11, 1993.

Six months before Joe passed away, the Stó:lo Chiefs bestowed Grand Chief onto him, and during that ceremony he said he wanted to someday pass the position of Chief on to his daughter, Marilyn.

“I didn’t even know that I was thought of, in that position” Marilyn recalled. “As I look back, he was training me. Because my dad also had sports teams, and I managed the soccer teams and the baseball team.”

Today, there are roughly 270 Kwantlen people including more than 100 on the Fort Langley reserve.

“We have six reserves,” Marilyn explained. “This [Fort Langley] is the main reserve, this is called Indian Reserve No. 6. Then we have five reserves across the river.”

As Chief, Marilyn has many responsibilities.

“It’s exactly like a government,” she said. “We look after meeting with governments, municipalities, we look after the health and the education, social development, family child services, housing, economic development… all those things.”

With Marilyn and her husband of 20 years, Kevin Kelly, at the forefront, a group of Kwantlen people work as First Nation ambassadors, passing on their culture to people living in Fort Langley, Langley, and parts beyond.

Marilyn said having a solid relationship to the non-Aboriginal community is important to her.

“My teachings from my late father, they are simple teachings, really, is that we need to work together, as a community,” she said. “We are not only Kwantlen, we are part of the Fort Langley and Langley community. What’s important for everyone in Fort Langley and Langley holds the same importance to us.”

Marilyn said her husband does much of his work in traditional Kwantlen territory including Langley, Surrey, New Westminster, and as far west as Richmond.

“To me, it’s going back to our traditional territory that was kind of taken away from us,” Marilyn said. “So we’re back on our lands, and it feels really good.”

Marilyn said she and her family started learning about First Nation traditions after her father passed away.

She shared, “When you lay a loved one to rest, you have to take care of them, you have to look after them until they go to the other side. My family from Chilliwack told me about a burning. You pay respect to your loved one going to the other side, so you prepare a meal for them to send them off.”

With that, comes a “big fire,” Marilyn said.

“My late father loved clearing land up at the head of the island,” she said. “And that’s where our cattle were. That’s where we cleared land and got our wood for the winter. That’s where they had the burning. To me, I wasn’t connected to our culture. I was brought up in the Fort Langley/Langley community.”

Marilyn said at the time, she wasn’t familiar with the Kwantlen people’s language or culture.

At five in the morning, the day her father was laid to rest, “they had a fire ready for us,” Marilyn shared. “As soon as I saw that fire, it just touched my heart and I knew we were doing the right thing for my late father.”

That, she said, was the starting point of her getting “hungry for the culture.”

“We’re lucky we have families like [B.C.’s 28th lieutenant-governor] Steven Point and his wife Gwen. They have the gift of doing all this cultural and spiritual work. We have good teachers like Chief Frank Malloway, who had the patience to sit down with us and teach us about our traditions and our culture,” Marilyn said.

She said she passes these teachings on to others.

“That was the starting point of Kwantlen,” Marilyn said. “I went to a meeting up in Seabird Island where my late uncle, Grand Chief Archie Charles, was Chief for many years there. They were doing traditional land, traditional territories. They were talking about ‘Kwantlen’ and I was thinking about the college.”

The workshop facilitator told Marilyn that ‘Kwantlen’ was her Nation’s land and what her people were called.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re not the Langley Indian Band!” Marilyn related.

She knew what she had to do: reclaim the traditional name of ‘Kwantlen’ for her people.

“In June of ’94, we took back our Kwantlen traditional name,” Marilyn said.

The year after that, 18 members received traditional names.

Today, Kevin and Marilyn’s son Michael is helping to pass on Kwantlen First Nation’s teachings and culture to others.

“We’re so proud of Michael,” Marilyn said. “He’s come a long way and he’s a young man. But same as what happened to me, about us connecting with our culture and our traditions, it almost makes you come alive. It’s like you’re reborn.”

As a young boy, Michael suffered from severe anxiety.

“He picked up the drum when he was 16, and used to tell him, ‘When you connect with your teachings, and your traditions, and your culture, you won’t need anything else,” Marilyn said. “Nothing else will make you feel whole and one with yourself. As soon as he picked up that drum, he understood what we were talking about.”

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