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The story of a people who were declared extinct while they still lived as a dynamic culture and their struggle for recognition in their former territory.
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In 1956 the Canadian government declared the Arrow Lakes Indian Band extinct. There was only one problem – they were still alive. But the government was about to begin negotiations with the USA for the Columbia River Treaty that would dam the Columbia and create a reservoir stretching from Castlegar in the south to Revelstoke in the north. This two hundred mile long lake would eventually wipe out all archaeological traces of a culture that had endured for over five thousand years.
To complicate matters, just when the last visible vestiges of their culture were disappearing from the landscape, the people came back to their home to request the return of the remains of their ancestors that were dug up and carted off to museums.
An interesting dilemma for the government. A rediscovery of a peoples’ identity. A clash between two worldviews. The return of the Sinixt Peoples has caused both elation and fear among members of the dominant society. Their return signals the end to the vacuum in our history and on our landscape. It also brings up the insecurities of a society that seems to fear the truth.
Ghost Peoples is the story of the Sinixt: their origins, their culture, their history and their present situation. This story is not one of blame but one that hopes to shine a light on a darkness that pervades our history so that it can be reconciled. Our story is not complete without the truth of our prehistory; our landscape is barren without its original inhabitants.
When I moved to the Slocan Valley in 1988, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed that there was no native presence. I began to inquire into what happened to the original inhabitants. Nobody seemed to know for sure but an ancient village and burial site had been recently discovered at Vallican at the confluence of the Little Slocan and Slocan Rivers. The village consisted of over sixty cultural depressions making it (at the time) the largest untouched native dwelling site found in British Columbia.
The non-native people living in the vicinity of the Vallican village site had formed a society, The Vallican Archaeological Park Society, to protect the grounds. They petitioned the government to purchase the land to protect it from vandals and development. After several archaeological digs, the Heritage Branch bought the property. It was the only ancient native village site the branch ever bought. They were used to buying old Victorian architecture to preserve. This was a new venture for them, one that would go into directions no one could have guessed.
The Heritage Branch announced it was going to build an interpretive center at the site to attract tourists and to try to recoup some of their investment. I talked my friend Celia Gunn into petitioning the government to hire her as the coordinator of this new project as she was not only intimately familiar with the site, she knew some of the descendants of the original inhabitants. The Heritage Branch then hired me as a caretaker of the site to protect it from vandals who were digging up artifacts, to do all the graphic design for promotional materials and to do research on the history of the first people.
Then the Department of Highways announced that they were going to build a road adjacent to the site. So far the archaeological activity had been preliminary and we felt the road was too close to the site and might damage some as yet unfound sites. The pressure was on. After looking at the plans the Heritage Branch had for an interpretive center and what the Department of Highways was planning, we became concerned that it was not in the best interests of the site.
After having lived on the site for a couple of months I had become aware that this place had played a very significant roll in the prehistory of this area. I sensed it was a very special spiritual center for the people who once lived there. Celia knew a descendant of the people who had once lived in the Vallican village, Bob Campbell, in Washington State on the Colville Reservation. She had visited the reservation before and was developing a relationship with some of the elders. We decided to pay them a visit to apprise them of the situation.
I was walking around the site one day when a car pulled into the rough dirt road leading in. Three elder native women emerged from that car and I went over to greet them. They announced that they were from Colville and that this was the village of their grandparents. They asked if I could show them around the site. I was more than happy and privileged to welcome them home.
After touring them, one woman came to me and said her grandmother had told her of this place over eighty years ago and that she had always wanted to come here. Now her wish had been fulfilled. She could die in peace now having seen her people’s home. I was overwhelmed by the honour that had been bestowed on me that day.
Shortly after their visit, dozens of people started to arrive from the Colville Reservation to help set up a road block to try to get the Department of Highways to divert the proposed road away from the site. The site became an overnight campground and makeshift headquarters for the resistance. Tipis and tents were erected, campers were installed and a makeshift kitchen set up. The Sinixt sure knew how to make a dramatic entrance.
The following weeks were a blur and an emotional roller coaster ride. The return of the Sinixt caused a rift among the Slocan Valley residents. Some were fearful that the return meant land claims and the possibility of some of them losing their land. This was far from the truth, though, as private land is not part of any land claims negotiation. Still, emotions ran high and no amount of reason could quell the hysteria.
I spent several weeks on the blockade to support the efforts of my new friends. Tensions ran high and on several occasions verbal abuse was hurled and four by four trucks attempted to knock down the barricade. Many other local residents came with their children to stand on the blockade in support of the Sinixt.
Through it all, my respect and admiration for these people grew. In spite of the tension and turmoil, the elders brought a calm and graceful poise to the unfolding of events. Their wisdom and compassion helped keep things from getting out of hand. Nonetheless, I was becoming an emotional wreck. My affinity and respect for these people and their culture made it extremely gut wrenching to watch as the heavy machinery eventually ripped the land apart.
The gears of government and its Department of Highways grind on no matter what. Every effort failed to get them to change or modify their plans. Road construction went ahead. The bridge was built. Hearts were broken. A dream came to an end.
Although, in the end, we failed to divert or prevent the road, we were happy to see the Sinixt returning home. They continue to occupy the site, a place where archaeologists have shown they have lived for thousands of years. They have accomplished the longest nonviolent occupation of “Crown Land” in the history of Canada.
Of course this is not how the Sinixt see it. There have never been treaties signed with them and this has been their home since time immemorial. They claim they are a sovereign nation that has never relinquished their title to this land even if the Canadian government declared them extinct. Most of the Sinixt who were involved in the roadblock at Vallican are no longer allowed to come up into their territory because the Canadian government won’t let them cross the border.
Not only are they officially extinct in Canada, most are now in exile from their home. And although the word genocide makes many squeamish, nonetheless, the Canadian and British Columbian governments are continuing that tradition even today by refusing to acknowledge the Sinixt or their hereditary claim to their ancestral land.
In this book I hope to present the facts as they are available today, knowing full well that tomorrow, those facts could prove to be inaccurate or insufficient. In doing so, I would hope to clear up any misconceptions that the inhabitants of these valleys have about the original peoples who were an integral part of this landscape for thousands of years. I hope that these peoples, known today as the Sinixt Nation will take their proper place in the history of the Columbia Basin, the province of British Columbia and the nation of Canada.
Nakusp author’s book on history of Sinixt confirms ancient presence
by Art Joyce
Nakusp author Cliff Woffenden launches his newly published book, Ghost People – The Sinixt: Recovering from Extinction, with a book signing at What’s Brewing on Broadway on January 24, 1-3 pm. In the book, Woffenden writes that when he first arrived in the Slocan Valley in 1988, he was dismayed to find no native presence here. No one seemed to know the story of the first peoples who had lived here for thousands of years prior to European settlement. It was as if even their ghosts had fallen silent.
That began to change, Woffenden writes, when an ancient village and burial site was located in Vallican. Sensing its unique archaeological value, the BC Heritage Branch bought the site and hired Woffenden as caretaker. The story of the subsequent blockade when the highways department built a new road and bridge near the site is well known. Woffenden was privileged to be there the day Sinixt elders arrived from Colville, Washington, where they had been forced to settle on a mixed-nation reservation.
It was a homecoming, the start of bringing the Sinixt out of exile from their traditional territory. The Sinixt, with the death of AnnieJoseph in 1956 at the Oatscott reserve on Lower Arrow Lake, were declared officially ‘extinct’ by the Canadian government. Yet, as Eileen Delahanty-Pearkes writes in her history of the Sinixt, The Geography of Memory, there were still 257 ‘Lakes Indians’ enrolled with the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State. Not to mention those who may have been living off-reserve in the Okanagan and other areas.
The declaration of extinction conveniently preceded the negotiations for the Columbia River Treaty that led to the construction of today’s hydroelectric dam system. As Celia Gunn has written, “ever since BC entered Confederation, the province has refused to acknowledge aboriginal rights.” Far more than merely the “theft of land and resources,” she explains, it is “the attempted destruction of… their whole right to exist as a people.”
The Sinixt are attempting to reverse this attempted genocide by a writ filed with the BC Supreme Court for a land claim to their traditional territory north of the US-Canada border. Many locals fear this could deprive them of property but as Woffenden explains, native land claims do not include private property.
Not surprisingly, some descendants of settler families hold the mistaken belief that the Sinixt never lived permanently in the Slocan Valley or Arrow Lakes but merely hunted and fished here. This myth stems from the fact that smallpox epidemics had already wiped out the majority of the population by the time explorer David Thompson arrived in the West Kootenay in 1811. The virus had been spread by inter-tribal trade from first contact with whites in the late 1700s. But as Woffenden explains, “The earliest archaeological findings in the Arrow Lakes date back about 9,000 years with the discovery of bigstemmed (arrowhead) points at Deer Park, just north of Castlegar.” This indicates that the Sinixt followed close on the heels of the last ice age, making their way to the valley bottoms as melting advanced.
Traditional Sinixt pithouses have been excavated here dating to between 3,500-5,000 years ago, with permanent villages at Lemon Creek, Nakusp, Bonnington Falls, Vallican and South Slocan. Nakusp actually had two sites, one at the mouth of Kuskanax Creek and one in the village itself. Many more were discovered along the Columbia River from Kettle Falls to Revelstoke.
Woffenden’s book adds to a growing body of published work about the Sinixt. The first book, Paula Pryce’s Keeping the Lakes Way, is primarily a scholarly ethnographic study, while Eileen Delahanty- Pearkes The Geography of Memorydoes a thorough job of evoking Sinixt traditional culture and sense of place on the landscape. Woffenden fills in a gap by confirming beyond a shadow of doubt the traditional boundaries and extent of Sinixt territory in the West Kootenay. In his appendices, Woffenden takes apart one by one the rival land claims on Sinixt territory by Ktunaxa (Kutenai), Shuswap and Okanagan First Nations. In his view, these nations have been manipulated into a ‘divide and conquer’ tactic by the provincial government, since governments are reluctant to grant settlements where territories are disputed. Not coincidentally, the Columbia River Treaty comes up forrenegotiation in 2014.
Ghost People is available directly from the author at Howling Moon Productions, Box 214, Nakusp, BCV0G 1R0, or from local bookstores.
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