Penelakut filmmaker Steve Sxwithul’txw is living a life he couldn’t imagine when he was younger.
Sxwithul’txw is a man with many projects on the go these days. His documentary film, Leave it on the Water, which follows canoe teams from Penelakut as they train to compete in the Queen Lili’uokalani race in Kaliua-Kona Hawaii, is being screened at the Seattle film festival on May 24. He is also the executive producer of Tribal Police Files, a TV show that follows the tribal police force of Rama First Nation in Ontario. Tribal Police Files airs its second season on APTN May 18. It is also being aired in Ojibwe, the language spoken in Rama.
Sxwithul’txw grew up in Duncan. He is a survivor of the Kuper Island residential school, which he was made to attend in the 1970s. He credits his current success to his late mother and older sisters. Since then, Sxwithul’txw has “every type of job you could think of”.
He moved to Vancouver when he was 21, and at the time he was collecting welfare and hanging around the downtown Eastside. One day when collecting his social assistance cheque he saw a sign advertising a security training course. He went to school for eight months then started a career working as a loss prevention officer at department stores in Vancouver.
“I did that off and on for about 10 – 15 years,” he said. “It was kind of a gradual laddering of my career. In 1989 I became a corrections officer in downtown Vancouver. I did that for three years, it didn’t really appeal to me. I applied in 1993 to the First Nations Tribal Justice Institute, which is now defunct, but I went there for a whole year which gave me my basic police experience.”
After completing his training he was invited to Chemainus to found the Tsewultun First Nations Police Force. The force started out with three members, and later folded in 2005.
“I was policing in my own community… it was a good experience where I got my feet wet and learned the name of the game. After the police service folded I had moved off to Stl’atl’imx in Lillooet and continued my career there for a number of years,” Sxwithul’txw said.
Sxwithul’txw finished his career as a transit enforcement officer in Vancouver, but felt he didn’t connect with the job. After a year on the job he decided to change careers, and enrolled at BCIT for a course in broadcasting in 2005. He worked with CTV, and CBC for a number of years, then moved back to Vancouver Island and started his own production company.
With that company, Sxwithul’txw created and hosted the show Warrior Games, that highlighted Indigenous sports across North America. Warrior Games won four Leo awards, one of which was given to Sxwithul’txw for “Best Host”. The show lasted only one season, then Sxwithul’txw came up with the concept for Tribal Police Files.
“We went to Lillooet, back to where I used to work, and we shot a successful season there,” Sxwithul’txw said. “That show’s been airing for the last two-and-a-half years. Then we got approved for season two last year, and we just finished shooting in Rama last August.”
Sxwithul’txw’s background gives him a unique position to film Tribal Police Files. Traditionally, media has not shown the best of First Nations communities, and access tends to be limited because of that. Tribal Police files shows not only the police force, but also the community of Rama, and the traditional teaching of the community.
“I have a unique approach. I’m First Nations, I’m a producer, I’m a former police officer, and I know what I need to do to pitch this to let the community know we’re not there to show the bottom of the barrel type policing. We want to highlight their police service in a professional way that shows the work, the dedication that these officers put forth every day,” Sxwithul’txw said. “I feel very honoured to have that privilege to showcase these fine officers on a day-to-day basis.”
In between seasons of Tribal Police Files, Sxwithul’txw worked on Leave it on the Water as part of a course with the National Screen Institute. Sxwithul’txw connected with his long time friends Clinton Charlie, who was training youth for the Queen Lili’uokalani race. The film follows the team’s efforts not only to train, but also fundraise so they could travel to Hawaii.
“It was a chance to tell an amazing story of the next generation of kids, and to show what they’re willing to do to make a better life for themselves and to compete, and to do something we’ve traditionally done for thousands of years,” Sxwithul’txw said.
The film screened at the Short Circuit Pacific Rim Film Festival in Victoria where it won an outstanding documentary award. It has been screened at the Hollywood International Film Festival, where it won an independent documentary award. It’s been shown in Toronto at ImagineNative, and as far as New Zealand.
Sxwithul’txw is taking a brief moment to enjoy his success, but is ready to go for season three of Tribal Police Files once the show is approved. He is also working on a new documentary called Berry Run, about Indigenous people on the west coast BC who migrated to Tulalip/Tacoma area to pick berries a generation ago in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Now in his 50s, Sxwithul’txw finds that he is doing more and more to give back to his community. While he’s keeping himself busy, he prioritizes time to speak with youth and pass on his wisdom.
“My advice is — I don’t want to say it’s simple, because each family, each person’s experience is always different — no matter what you’re going to have hardships, and you’re going to have failure. I can only speak for personal experiences. I’ve learned from the times I stumbled and I failed. I failed grade 8, grade 9. I wasn’t going anywhere. I could have died or went to jail, one or the other, and I decided that after I stumbled that I was tired of being a negative influence with my family. I decided I was going to do my best to make a better life for myself, even if it felt like I wasn’t going anywhere, at least I was doing something positive,” he said.
“So, never give up. It’s easy for me to say, but I’ve been in your kid’s shoes and your youth’s shoes about feeling the hopelessness, but there is life out there. Don’t be afraid to wander away from your home territory to find it. If you’re able to go out, get those skills, and then come home years later, and pass that on to your people, and help our people in a way, then you’ve gone full circle.”