April 1, 2008
April 1, 2008
On Oct. 9, 2006, a baby born in Vallican, British Columbia, an ancient village and burial ground of the Sinixt Nation, made tribal history. Agnice Sophia Campbell was the first Sinixt (pronounced sin-eyekst) descendant born in traditional tribal territory in nearly 100 years. Although the Campbell family was able to submit proof of Agnice’s Sinixt lineage, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in Ottawa denied their application to register the baby as a Status Native Indian. For the Sinixt, who have struggled for 150 years for recognition, respect and legal rights associated with their ancestral cultural and lands, that decision was painfully familiar. Not only have the Sinixt lost ancestral lands, sacred sites and burial grounds, but the tribe has also been officially categorized as “extinct” by the Canadian government. Most Sinixt burial sites have been demolished to make way for hydroelectric, mining and other developments, and many Sinixt remains have been handed over to museums or universities, without consulting any living Sinixt tribe members. Marilyn James, spokesperson for the Sinixt Nation, described her people’s response to these challenges, saying, “Through the years of having land taken, your rights denied, even being declared extinct in Canada but not in the U.S., we have adapted to this oppression. But when human remains are taken, we have an obligation to act on that, and this in turn wakes us up to all of the other responsibilities we have to the land.”
The Land and Its People
The people of the Sinixt Nation have traditionally lived in an area that encompasses the West Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia and extends from the headwaters of the Columbia River into present-day Washington State. About 80 percent of their traditional territory lies in Canada and 20 percent in Washington. Like many neighboring First Nations tribes, their existence precedes recorded history, and carbon-dated remains indicate people have lived in the area for as much as 5,000 years. The aboriginal people who inhabited the Upper Columbia Basin for centuries, known as the Arrow Lakes People, include the Sinixt Nation and other local tribes such as the Okanagan, the Shushwap and Spokane peoples. Considered the mother tribe of the region, the Sinixt played a role in settling disputes between other tribes. The name “Sinixt” translates as “Place of the Bull Trout,” a fish that has also inhabited the Upper Columbia Basin for thousands of years.
When Europeans began exploring the region, they found a thriving culture that had developed extensive land and water trade routes. Fishing salmon, hunting caribou and gathering wild plants and medicines, the Sinixt moved through the land seasonally and their territory was centered on the lakes and rivers of the region. The landscape was an important part of their oral history and sacred stories. For example, Frog Mountain, which overlooks Vallican, embodies the story of a frog who saved a Sinixt village from starvation and death during a time of terrible drought.
By 1825, British and American traders were building fur posts along the Columbia River, including Fort Colville, which was built near an important aboriginal trading ground and sacred fishery that settlers called Kettle Falls. In the 1850s, the Sinixt’s traditional migration for fishing at Kettle Falls was further disrupted by the influx of thousands of gold miners, and by the 1930s the fishery was entirely destroyed by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. This also brought an end to the traditional position of Salmon Chief, which had played a key role in regulating the salmon runs—keeping track of the salmon caught so as to preserve enough for tribes upstream and to allow the salmon to spawn properly and keep their populations healthy.
In 1871, British Columbia entered the Confederation of Canada without any formal treaties. Simultaneously, the Indian Act was established, which placed many rules and conditions upon native groups across Canada. The Sinixt people by then had been devastated, many killed by European diseases, and most of the survivors—some 300 people—fled south to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington. According to the Sinixt, these ancestors were unwillingly assimilated by the U.S. government into the Colville Confederated Tribe. The few that remained in Canada were not provided adequate land or support as aboriginals.Celia Gunn, a British woman who spent six years living with Sinixt descendents on the reservation in Washington, recounted the history of the modern tribe in her 2006 book, “A Twist in the Coyote’s Tale.” According to Gunn, “Centuries of systematic programs of cultural genocide carried out by Christian Churches and the government, who forbade the Native people their rituals and forcefully took away their children to residential schools where they were punished for speaking their own language, broke the continuity of tribal life. For over a century the Arrow Lakes people were increasingly marginalized until in 1956 the Band was deemed extinct by an Order-In-Council of the Canadian federal government and their small Reserve on the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia reverted to the province.”
One year after the Sinixt were declared extinct, Canada signed the Columbia River Treaty, which opened up new engineering projects for dams and provided the United States with vast water and energy resources. According to David Aaron, legal counsel of the Sinixt Nation, the damming of the Columbia “was the nail on the coffin for the Sinixt way of life, and it ended the salmon run.” In the past 100 years, at least 15 major dams and generation stations have been built in the West Kootenay area, making up part of the largest hydroelectric system in the world. With the construction of Hugh Keenleyside Dam in 1968, only 12 of a total of 152 archaeological sites recorded on the Arrow Lakes remained above high-water level. Almost all burial sites in the area, many older than 1,000 years, were obliterated.
Today, the approximately 6,800 Sinixt tribe members are scattered, with a handful living in Canada while others remain on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington, where they are known as the Lake tribe. According to the Canadian government, the Sinixt are a U.S. Native American tribe, with no living ancestors in Canada. Although Vallican, located about 60 miles north of the U.S. border, is a tiny establishment in the countryside with no gas station or post office, Sinixt presence there is considered the longest peaceful occupation of Crown land in Canadian history.
Challenges and Preservation Efforts
One of the major challenges for Sinixt people has been the repatriation of ancestral remains and reburial on their traditional homeland. Cultural law of the Sinixt mandates that when tribe members die, they must return to the earth, and custom requires that the dead be buried in the sitting position, facing east, often near waterways and lakes. In 1989, Sinixt tribe members—including the late Sinixt elder Eva Orr, one of the last Sinixt born “free” on tribal territory in 1910—successfully retrieved six of their ancestors from the Royal British Museum. As of May 2005, Orr and her fellow Sinixt activists had repatriated and reburied a total of 61 remains, most of which are now in Vallican, heart of the Sinixt’s traditional lands.
The Sinixt today are also focused on preserving their culture and protecting their lands and the wildlife within it. Sinixt elders have appointed Headman Bob Campbell, Vallican caretaker Robert Watt, spokesperson Marilyn James and others to carry out those preservation efforts—through education, activism, research, and legal means. “One of the unique things about the Sinixt,” David Aaron says, “is that they truly maintain their fidelity to the law of the land and their obligation to future generations.” He points that this dedication to future generations is what drives their efforts, rather than a focus on their stake in the economic aspects of their resources.
Aaron says the activism of Sinixt leaders that started with the reburial efforts of the last 20 years has created momentum for change and aroused the legacy of the Sinixt as protectors of the land. “Cultural tides may reach heights as the Sinixt step up to the plate as environmental custodians and make assertions against old-growth deforestation, caribou extinction and water contamination through mining,” he says. And although the Sinixt don’t have title to their land under Canadian law, Aaron says they have nevertheless been able to use their reputation as custodians of the land to exert influence within their community. “Nobody wants uranium or clear cutting in this community, but few are empowered to assert legal rights against it, usually because of corporate power. The Sinixt claim their aboriginal rights to the land and their values are not only aligned with the values of the local community, but have influenced locals as well.”
Currently, the Sinixt are pursuing efforts to protect species and wild places as more of their territory in the West Kootenays is targeted for development. One such development, known as “Jumbo,” is a proposed 5,500-bed resort located on a peak in the Purcell Mountains. According to Marilyn James, such a development would ruin critical habitat for grizzly and caribou, which are considered tribal members of the Sinixt. “We are fighting for keystone species,” she says. “There are over 1,000 proposed mini-hydropower units [in traditional Sinixt territory]. The resident fish have been taking hits to their spawning beds from bad mining and logging practices, and bad hydroelectric projects are devastating fish populations.”
In keeping with their self-described obligation to future generations, Marilyn James emphasizes that youth education is a priority for Sinixt leaders. “We want to educate and give kids an opportunity to be culturally sensitive, as opposed to the ‘us and them’ scenarios,” she says. Toward that end, the Cowichan Valley School District developed the Aboriginal Curriculum Integration Project, which offers lesson plans that incorporate First Nations content, including Sinixt stories and information. Efforts are also being made to continue to pass on oral history and sacred stories, such as the story of Frog Mountain, which remains alive today thanks to Sinixt elder Eva Orr.
The Sinixt continue to pursue legal recognition by the Canadian government and removal of their extinct status, which precludes them from the government benefits provided to other “Status Indians” under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. That status, along with Canada’s Immigration Act, also deny them the right to move freely on their land, which crosses international borders, as aboriginals. In regard to protecting ancestral burial sites, the Sinixt continue to address any threat to their ancestors’ remains. Although laws exist that require archeological assessments prior to any new development, their enforcement is unreliable, and Sinixt members are trying to get further involved in those assessments.
What You Can Do
The number-one priority for those interested in the Sinixt, says Marilyn James, is “to get educated.” She stresses that it is important to learn about the history, the land and the oppression. In addition to the books and websites listed above, check out Sinixt Nation Radio and the audio documentary “Keeping the Lakes Way: The Past and Future of the Sinixt,” produced by Earth Matters and Kootenay Co-op Radio.
You can also join the Sinixt Nation Society, which offers both tribal memberships and associate memberships, by contacting the Sinixt Nation. In addition, James stresses that people interested in these issues should get involved in protecting the land near to their own home. “Everywhere, no matter where, there is work to be done in standing up for [natural] resources and the quality of our children’s lives.”
Cowichan Valley School District. Aboriginal Curriculum Integration Project.
Gunn, Celia. A Twist in Coyote’s Tale. Chichester, England: Archive Publishing, 2006.
James, Marilyn and Cindy Fry. “The Frog Mountain Story.” Kids for Caribou.
Sinixt Nation of British Columbia. Sinixt Nation: The People of the Arrow Lakes.
Wonders, Karen. First Nations: Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia.
Personal interviews with Marilyn James, Sinixt spokesperson, and David Aaron, Sinixt legal counsel.