For the first 24 years of her life, she didn’t even know she was First Nations
Rhonda Larrabee was researching at the New Westminster Public Library when she came across a book describing the history of New Westminster.
Published early in the 19th Century, it showed its age—not just the dusty old cover but the words inside.
“Dirty heathen cur dogs” read a passage describing New Westminster’s native population.
Larrabee was furious as she read the words.
She slammed the book down then flung it across the room. A librarian, hearing the outburst, threatened to throw her out of the library.
“I’m not leaving,” Larrabee replied.
Larrabee had been exploring her roots, trying to understand where she came from.
For the first 24 years of her life, she didn’t even know she was First Nations.
But once she found out, it became her quest to put together the past and assemble the pieces for a better future for herself—and for her people.
She was in the library researching the history of New Westminster’s native band, the Qayqayt (KEE-Kite). She discovered few details, because little information is available—it’s almost as if they never existed.
Much of the history, written by British and American newcomers, paid little notice to a people that had lived on the shores of the Fraser thousands of years before non-natives arrived. And when the Qayqayt were mentioned, it was usually derogatory.
The British Columbian newspaper editorialized in 1864 that Indian camps in and around the city “subjected decent people… to the intolerance nuisance of having filthy, degraded, debauched Indians as next door neighbours… compelling them to sleepless nights on account of their drunken orgies.”
In another example, census reports from 1869 and 1870 tallied “whites” and “Chinese” but no Indians—although hundreds lived within the city’s borders.
But if you dig deeper, as Larrabee has, you learn natives helped the first Europeans survive in the wilds of British Columbia. Later, the Qayqayt were decimated by smallpox, forced to live on reserves and eventually had the land they called Skaiametl taken away.
In one particularly dark historical chapter, the city wouldn’t allow Christianized natives dying of smallpox to be buried in the local cemetery. Instead they were laid to rest on Poplar Island, the small, marshy piece of land in the middle of the Fraser River.
For Larrabee, learning these stories was important, but also angered her.
“There is little left of our history. If you go to Irving House and the New Westminster Museum there’s a few arrowheads and a picture of an Indian in a canoe,” she said.
Source of pride
Despite their treatment and decline from approximately 400 to numbers so low they were widely thought to be extinct, the Qayqayt First Nation is now officially recognized. Larrabee, who grew up not knowing she was native, got the band recognized by the federal and provincial governments when she applied for Indian status in 1994.
Governments had thought the band extinct until Larrabee proved, through the research she had gathered, she was Qayqayt.
“The toughest job was getting recognition from all levels of government. For the City of New Westminster to recognize me as the chief in their community was something when they had denied there being any Indians in their city for so long,” she said.
And her work isn’t done.
Larrabee—now the chief of the Qayqayt—has her sights set on righting a historical wrong.
“We want a land base of our own. As a legacy to our children.”
But it’s not just about having a land base for the band as the end goal. It’s the pride that comes with it.
She wants all members of the Qayqayt—which now count 48—to be proud of their heritage, and proud to be native.
Learning the truth
Her mother didn’t feel that pride. Like the three high school grads, she wanted to hide where she came from.
Her mother was Qayqayt and her father Chinese.
But her mother always told Larrabee and her brothers their origin was Chinese and French.
It wasn’t until she was a young woman that her mother finally told the truth.
In one emotional evening, Larrabee’s mother explained how she was brought up in a Kamloops residential school after her parents died. She witnessed native students beaten by teachers for speaking their native tongue and was taught that native culture was inferior.
So when the Larrabee’s mother started a new life in Vancouver, married and had children, she lied about her heritage—not wanting to revisit a sad chapter in her life.
“My mom was so ashamed, she was so embarrassed that she would never say that she was a native woman because of the treatment she received,” said Larrabee.
“But we finally knew who we were,” she said of herself and her three brothers.
After the shock of finding out who they were, Larrabee and her brothers started uncovering more about their heritage—through interviews and historical research.
One of the best sources of information was other bands.
That’s because many of them, like the Kwantlen, Kwikwetlem, Katzie and Musqueam, had seasonal villages beside the Qayqayt so they could catch salmon during the once-great Fraser River spawning runs (Today some of these bands also have land claims for parts of New Westminster).
The early days when all the bands were neighbours on the banks of the Fraser are not so different from today.
Now, there are about 1,500 First Nations people living in New Westminster and they come from bands like the Squamish, Burrard, Stó:lō and others.
Some may be Qayqayt, but no one knows—that heritage has mostly disappeared.
That’s why the Qayqayt will welcome other First Nations people if they ever succeed in their future land claim.
After all, they shared that land before the Europeans arrived—back “when the salmon were so plentiful you could walk on their backs across the river.”
“That is the Qayqayt mandate to all other urban Indians living in New Westminster,” said Larrabee. “No matter what band they have come from.”
“They also need a place to belong to. This is for them as well.”