In August 2020, Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour from Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation staged a four-day fast and vision quest along the riverbank at Sqeq’petsin (Mission Flats area) in his homelands of Secwepemcúl’ecw.
In a live recording from Facebook on Aug. 26, 2020, McNeil-Seymour walked down a trail between tall grasses in Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) toward Secwe̓pemcetkwe (South Thompson River) as the sun set, discussing his intentions to cross the river and set up camp to fast.
Though he was enthusiastic, he fought back tears while expressing gratitude to the moon, kin, supporters and his life, while asking those interested to join him in fasting and to spend time thinking about the places in nature they love.
“What would you do to stand up to protect them?” he asks before ending the video.
One purpose of his fast and vision quest was to oppose the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project, which was drilling under Secwe̓pemcetkwe to expand the infrastructure to the south side of the river near his homelands at the time.
Amid the construction, McNeil-Seymour – who was a Two-Spirit artist, professor and advocate for the water, the land and the salmon – said there should be no further development of “tar sands, bitumen, pipeline and pipeline worker camps, nor should waterways and salmon populations continue to be poisoned by these endeavours.”
McNeil-Seymour chose Sqeq’petsin because it was the site where his great-grandmother had staged her own fast in 1951 in opposition to the original Trans Mountain pipeline travelling through their territory.
The name Kamloops is an anglicized version of the Shuswap word Tk’emlúps, meaning “where the rivers meet,” referring to Simpcetkwe (North Thompson River) and Secwe̓pemcetkwe. For centuries, it has been the home of the Tk’emlupsemc, “people of the confluence.”
In many Indigenous communities, a vision quest is a ceremony where the participant embarks on an isolated fast, where they connect with the Creator and ancestors in the spirit world to gain strength and knowledge specific to their circumstances.
Miranda Dick, a Secwépemc Matriarch, along with family and kin, was asked by McNeil-Seymour to watch over and protect both him and his sacred fire while he fasted.
She said it was important to him to highlight the displacement of communities that happens when extractive industries such as TMX impose their assumed sovereignty.
“How they come in and forcibly remove Indigenous people from the land,” Dick said.
The four-day fast concluded with a gathering, which saw over 100 people in attendance for a salmon feast, stick games and a pipe ceremony.
Dick said that it was McNeil-Seymour who created a safe space to oppose and take a stance against the pipeline’s expansion – it was his fast that kicked off a stronger Secwépemc resistance against the project.
Months after McNeil-Seymour’s fast, Dick and other land and water caretakers continued to practice ceremonies at Sqeq’petsin to oppose the pipeline. Dick, along with others, was later arrested while practicing ceremony near the site of TMX’s development.
“He gave us the opportunity to say no to large extractive industries such as TMX in a safe space when there was no chance to have all of the Secwépemc people to be involved,” she said.
But another reason for why McNeil-Seymour embarked on his fast, Dick said, was for his own health. A year prior, he had been diagnosed with cancer, and this was part of his healing journey.
“He wanted to say that you return back to Mother Earth when you’re sick,” she said.
“So the healing waters, the healing clays, the medicine, the berries and the salmon – all of those things you go back to … you’re going back to Mother Earth.”
He was in very high spirits at the time of his fast, Dick said.
“He seemed very optimistic about his health, getting answers and for the future of the water, and the protection of the water,” she said.
“We led from there – we took that, because it’s led by ceremony.”
Despite his strength and resilience during his long battle with his health, McNeil-Seymour transcended into the spirit world in June 2023.
“His passing has hit a lot of people,” said Dick.
“He reached so many people, and he was the life of the party, just a glow around him.”
McNeil-Seymour dedicated his life to advocating for different groups and causes. He was passionate about raising awareness for Two-Spirit people, especially the Youth, and was committed to land, water and salmon stewardship.
He used his platform as a professor of social work at Toronto Metropolitan University to introduce Indigenous approaches to social work in an effort to decolonize the practice, specializing in Secwépemc land-based and spiritual pedagogies.
“He always very much questioned everything. He was an outward thinker. As a professor, I think you have to reach the pinnacle for your students,” said Dick.
“He’s always reaching for added knowledge and spirituality.”
He was also involved in addiction awareness, the Wild Salmon Caravan, advocating for MMIWG2S+, and more.
“He was everywhere – he still is everywhere,” said Dick.
“He really wanted to be the voice for a lot of people – either their voice was not being heard, or he wanted to bridge the gap and create equality.”
In 2018, he provided expert witness testimony at the MMIWG2S hearings in Nunavut, where he discussed the impacts of colonization on Two-Spirit bodies and shared ideas for decolonizing strategies.
That same year, he helped spearhead the Kamloopa Powwow’s first Two-Spirit round dance, which stemmed from calls to action by Two-Spirit research participants in a study he had conducted. The 2022 edition of the powwow honoured him during its Two-Spirit round dance special.
“That important work that needed to be carried on and picked up,” he told IndigiNews at the time.
Everything that McNeil-Seymour stood for – his dedication to sacrifice and ceremony and advocating for Two-Spirit people, the water, salmon and the land – can be viewed in an art piece he helped create in 2018, which has found its way back to his homelands.
The echoes exhibit, which opened on July 15 at the Kamloops Art Gallery, features Two-Spirit Man/Two-Spirit Woman Call Home the Salmon w/ Help, which McNeil-Seymour created in collaboration with Dayna Danger, a Two-Spirit Métis, Saulteaux and Polish visual artist. It is on display until Sept. 9.
The near-17-minute-long video installation documents a sunrise ceremony performed by McNeil-Seymour, Danger and kin at the confluence banks of the Simpcetkwe and Secwe̓pemcetkwe.
The video opens with drone footage of the ceremony, with McNeil-Seymour stating in a voiceover that he had been gifted the responsibility of carrying out this ceremony by a Nlaka’pamux Elder while at the 2017 Wild Salmon Caravan.
“You will enter the water with the sacred cedar wrapped in salmon bones that come from this river,” McNeil-Seymour recalls the Elder told him.
“It’s how they find their way back.”
In the video, McNeil Seymour has his braid cut off by Danger, which is then grouped with the cedar and salmon bones as an offering to the salmon and the water.
“I invited Dayna to come and be that person,” he explained in an interview with Never Apart.
“I trusted Dayna, and I felt like it had to be a strong, grounded, Two-Spirit person to perform the role.”
He wrote in an accompanying essay that the piece is designed to confront the erasure of Two-Spirit people brought on by colonialism, showcasing the re-emergence of Two-Spirit ceremony and caretaking.
It was through a conversation with the Nlaka’pamux Elder that he learned of his Two-Spirit ancestors carrying out ceremonies when others cannot.
“This video asserts that Two-Spirit people were and are integral if not vital to resistance as land and water defenders, to reconciliation, and within Indigenous communities,” he wrote alongside Bonnie Klohn.
“The offering made by McNeil-Seymour and the gathered kin who came to witness McNeil-Seymour and Danger’s performance at the water’s edge becomes an interruption into LGBTW2S+ discourses which continue to fail to recognize the sovereignty of Two-Spirit identities and communities and highlights queer-settler responsibility to protecting land, water, and air.”
However, while protocol asserts that ceremony should never be recorded, Danger and McNeil-Seymour felt that it was crucial to document it for Two-Spirit Youth in Secwepemcúl’ecw and beyond to see.
“They are among the most at-risk group in Canada. The artists wanted to impart that feelings of attachment and belonging are to be nurtured,” they wrote.
Emily Dundas Oke, a Cree, Métis, Scottish and English interdisciplinary curator and editor who curated the exhibit, said on its opening night that echoes is dedicated to the memory of McNeil-Seymour and his continued calls to action.
“He had a very clear vision of Indigenous resurgence, of Two-Spirit caretaking, and surthrivance,” said Dundas Oke.
“He carried a deep love, which he urged us all to use and to carry and underscore everything we may do.”
She told IndigiNews that she wanted to make the exhibit celebratory for him and allow people to spend time with some of the beauty he left behind.
“He was such a strong presence across so many varying communities, and he left us many talks,” she said. “He put so much work in his life, and this is one project of his that I hope people can find some repose in.”
She added that she’ll remember him as a clear-headed person who was critical of how colonization and other destructive forces impact our societies.
“His clarity and vision, as well as being so loving and generous – his ability to hold both those things, I was really moved by it,” she said.
For Dick, she said that she’ll remember McNeil-Seymour as a worldly being, noting that it’s hard to limit him to just one role.
“I will always have him in my heart. The work we are doing, his words – remembering the way I want to remember him in that positivity,” she said.
She called him a mover of people – something that he is doing to this day.
“That’s how I want to remember him, how he moved so many people and changed a lot of lives, including mine,” she said.
Aaron Hemens, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews