After a difficult year, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Christmas dinner a time for unity, healing

A southwestern Manitoba First Nation is celebrating the holiday season by embracing the spirit of Christmas to help heal a community in mourning following a difficult year, including two homicides in recent weeks.

On Thursday, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation hosted its first annual community Christmas dinner since 2019.

Chief Jennifer Bone said it was a time for the small community, about 240 kilometres west of Winnipeg, to come together and show families they are not alone.

“It’s always been a good time for the community to come out and to visit and share a meal together,” Bone said.

A woman wearing a santa hat holds a microphone.
Chief Jennifer Bone address Sioux Valley members at the Christmas dinner. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She described the dinner as a much-needed moment of healing and unity, saying she was happy to see community members laughing, kids running around and the excitement of meeting Santa.

“That’s something that we always focus on … healing no matter what the situation is,” she said.

Community leaders recognize “the intergenerational trauma that we face, and the things that we go through as a community,” said Bone.

“And that’s always our primary focus, that … we need to take care of one another and that healing is important for the future and for all the little ones.”

Sioux Valley’s chief and council are taking steps to care for the community and help families, Bone said.

Several Christmas activities were organized and gifts shared with community members to help them through difficult times, which include the pressures of inflation this holiday season.

“We can provide extra gifts and things … for every family here in the community,” Bone said. “I think it really helps alleviate some of the stress that the holiday season can bring.”

People wearing Christmas decorations serve a holiday feast.
Bone and council members serve up meals. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Sioux Valley Coun. Tim Whitecloud said the community, chief and council remain united as they navigate several deaths in the community, including the killing of a 30-year-old woman in November and the stabbing death of a 26-year-old woman just three weeks later.

“It’s a trying time for our community and we’re aware … our people are hurting, and maybe not wanting to come out as much,” said Whitecloud.

“[But] we’re open to helping and supporting our community and getting through these tough times.… Families are not alone.”

He said he was also pleased to see families turn out for the Christmas dinner on Thursday, one of the coldest nights of the season so far. 

“It’s a time for people to gather and just enjoy each other’s company, and that’s a form of healing.”

People gather in a big hall for a community supper surrounded by Christmas decorations.
After two years of not being able to observe the long-running tradition because of COVID-19, Thursday’s dinner once again offered an opportunity to bring the community together, says Sioux Valley Coun. Tim Whitecloud. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

While the holidays can be a sad time for families who have recently experienced the death of a loved one, being able to gather helps relieve some of that pain, Whitecloud said.

After two years on not being able to observe the long-running tradition because of COVID-19-related health measures, the Christmas dinner once again offered an opportunity this year to bring generations together to reflect and learn about Dakota traditions and culture, he said.

A woman holds her young daughter as they both smile wearing reindeer antler Christmas decorations.
Lydia Taylor holds four-year-old Wikoske Taylor. The annual events brings generations together to reflect and learn about Dakota traditions and culture, Coun. Whitecloud says. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The most important message is to lean on each other for support in difficult times, and “to be able to get out and visit … [in the] community as much as possible,” Whitecloud said.

“It’s a good way to start the holiday.”

Chantille Sinclair has been attending the Sioux Valley Christmas dinner since she was a child. She still comes every year when she is home.

She said she enjoys getting to connect with other community members at the generation-spanning event.

“It’s nice to see everyone … that I don’t usually see every day,” Sinclair said.

“We’re all just cooped up. So it’s really nice to be out, to get out and enjoy some food and see familiar faces.”

A mom holds her sleeping child as the girl sitting beside her reaches across the table.
Five-year-old Waverley Elk sits beside Lauren Elk, holding two-year-old Forrest Elk after their holiday meal. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)