Seven generations on this land

Revelstoke writer Laura Stovel explores Indigenous culture and life in the Revelstoke region at the time of the arrival of explorers, traders, settlers and colonial forces. Her story shows how the actions of all our ancestors generations ago still resonate in our lives today, calling attention to the realization that our actions today will also resonate through the lives of the generations that will follow us.

A historical map of the Revelstoke region. Photo: Historical image contributed by Laura Stovel

The Seven Generations Principle, recognized by many Indigenous cultures and beyond, has its roots in the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The principle states that a decision made now should consider its impact on the next seven generations.

If a generation is about 20 years, then seven generations would bring us to 1881, an important moment in the story of this valley.

Look out at the Columbia River when the reservoir is low. Way out on the silty, grey riverbed, large stumps mark where giant cedars once grew in forests that bordered a much narrower, windier and wilder river. Old maps show that water-loving cottonwood forests also grew on islands and riverbanks. Large caribou herds migrated through this valley and several species of anadromous salmon spawned in the river from June until October, nourishing all living things, directly or indirectly.

Before the 1880s, the Sinixt – also known as the Lakes or Arrow Lakes people – lived and thrived in this region since as far back as they can remember. Skxikn (pronounced Sku-hee-kin), now known as the Big Eddy, was the site of a Sinixt village or camp and a place of trade and socialization with eastern Secwépemc people who often joined them as part of their seasonal rounds. We know there were places of importance to the Sinixt all along the river south of Revelstoke, throughout the Arrow Lakes and beyond. We also know there were places of importance to the Secwépemc, especially north of Revelstoke.

Today, seven generations later, Revelstoke is a vibrant, growing community that attracts people from all over the world for the beauty of its natural environment and opportunities for recreation. The settlers who moved here have benefited greatly from the Columbia River and the forest ecosystems around us. Electricity from the BC Hydro dam, and jobs from logging and tourism provide convenience and incomes. Many residents also connect deeply with the rivers, forests and mountains around us where we play, harvest and reflect.

A stump in the Frog Creek area southwest of Revelstoke. The marks in the stump are left from springboards used by loggers as standing platforms. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Today, none of the descendants of the original Sinixt and Secwépemc people who long stewarded this land remain in Revelstoke. The Sinixt in particular were pushed out of this valley, taking with them their worldview of humans as part of nature. A settler worldview took over, one that sees nature as a set of resources needing to be managed, sold and consumed, even as recreation. And while residents benefit from all that Revelstoke offers, many grieve the loss of the ancient forests, wild Columbia River, fertile riverbanks and Pacific salmon. Many also see worrying trends that might cause us to think about the next seven generations and our relations with the descendants of the original peoples who still carry knowledge of this land.

Fires have always been part of a healthy forest ecosystem, expertly managed by Indigenous fire keepers in the past. But now fires are more intense and worrying. Forest fire smoke smothers the Upper Columbia Valley more summers than not, and grab-and-go kits are on people’s minds, if not at their doors. The Columbia River is now a managed reservoir and Pacific salmon no longer nourish the people and ecosystems of the upper Columbia Valley.

After 70 years of industrial-scale cutting, logging threatens every bit of old growth forest in our rare inland temperate rainforest that is not protected or inaccessible. Local activists have established a blockade on Bigmouth Forest Service Road north of Revelstoke, trying to protect the old growth that provides food and a last refuge for endangered mountain caribou. If these caribou go extinct, so too goes most of the protected areas that are now included in caribou reserves.

How did we get here? What decisions were made seven generations back? What attitude of respect or disrespect set the tone for this moment?

Indigenous presence before 1881

A paddler in a traditional Sturgeon-nosed canoe, the type used by Sinixt in the Revelstoke region. Photo: Contributed by Tina Wynecoop

Indigenous people in this area did not settle year-round in one place. Their home was a land and river base that they used regularly in their seasonal rounds. They had certain village and camp sites and hunting, fishing and gathering areas that they were attached to and stewarded. Many Sinixt travelled regularly in June to Kettle Falls (in present-day Washington) for the Salmon Ceremony where the Salmon Chief welcomed the first salmon fighting their way up the Columbia to spawn. That was a time to fish, trade and socialize with their close cousins, the Colville (Skoyelpi), and thousands of Indigenous people from all over who gathered at Kettle Falls at this time every year. In late summer, Sinixt families would return to their fall and winter camps and villages up the Arrow Lakes, the Slocan valley and beyond, including the Revelstoke area. They were sometimes joined here by their Secwépemc neighbours.

When European fur traders first arrived in the upper Columbia Valley in 1811, they introduced a trade that, for the most part, benefited Indigenous people, providing a new market for furs, and introducing new trade items. Indigenous peoples always had thriving trade networks and this new trade simply provided new opportunities. They could not have understood that their new trading partners intended to completely take over their lands and disrupt their lives.

In 1846, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Oregon Treaty, establishing a border at the 49th Parallel between the territories they claimed in the Pacific Northwest. The border dissected the territory of every Indigenous nation in its wake with devastating consequences, especially for the Sinixt.

The 1850s saw the decline of the fur trade. In 1861, after miners discovered gold in the Big Bend area at the northern tip of the Columbia River, thousands of men headed north in search of opportunities, leading to the Big Bend gold rush of 1865-66. After the gold rush, the Columbia River was quiet for a while and the Sinixt would have been more at ease on their lands.

In 1872, the U.S. government created the Colville Reservation in Washington and the Sinixt (Lakes) were one of the eight nations included on it. Paradoxically, the relative security provided to the Sinixt by the U.S. reservation provided settlers in Canada with an excuse to deny them recognition and security north of the border.

Seven generations ago: 1881-1885

In 1881, an American railway surveyor, Major Albert Rogers and his nephew, also named Albert Rogers, were recruited by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to survey a railway route joining western and eastern Canada. The elder Rogers’ main desire was that the pass he identified should bear his name.

The two Rogers set out from Kamloops with ten Secwépemc men to carry the load. Albert Rogers Jr. later wrote, “With the kind assistance of the priest in charge of the mission” in Kamloops, the Rogers persuaded Chief Louis to “enlist ten strapping young Indians on rather an ironclad contract: – their services would be ours without grumbling until discharged, and if any came back without a letter of good report, his wages were to go to the church, and the chief was to lay one hundred lashes on the bare back of the offender.”

Underfed and denied the opportunity to hunt, the Secwépemc men carried packs of 100 pounds (45 kg.) each “over mudfalls, scaling perpendicular rock-points, wading through beaver swamps dense with underbrush and villainous devil’s club.” When they reached the Columbia River the men had to swim “with one hand pushing the raft,” with the two Rogers on it. The younger Rogers wrote, “I am convinced, but for the fear of the penalty of returning without their letters of good report, our Indians would have deserted us.”

Near the pass summit Major Rogers wanted to climb a mountain but did not trust the men to remain at the camp with the food. He forced them to come along. Rogers Jr. later wrote, “Several hundred feet above the timber-line”… “we crawled along ledges, getting a toe-hole here and a finger-hole there.” Four of the Secwépemc men had tied their packs together for security but one slipped and fell,” pulling the others with him. Rogers Jr.’s response was telling. “Our hearts were in our mouths, fearing the worst might have happened to them. Dead Indians were easily buried, but men with broken legs, to be carried out through such a country… made a problem which strong men dreaded to face.”

Major Rogers got his wish. The pass is now known as Rogers Pass and the CPR chose this route through the Selkirk mountains to the west. Their terrible journey set the tone for Indigenous relations in this area.

In 1883, CPR surveyor Sanford Fleming and his party crossed the Selkirks from the east, hiking down the Illecillewaet River (a misspelling of the Sinixt name Sl̓xʷʔitkʷ, meaning ‘big water’) to Skxikn. There they met three Sinixt families who Fleming considered to be American or “Colville Indians.” From his writing, Fleming appears to have been a kind and thoughtful man, but the creation of the Colville Reservation in the U.S. changed the way the Sinixt were viewed by settlers and colonial institutions. Even though 80% of their territory was in Canada, and they had previously been called Lakes or Arrow Lake Indians, their inclusion in the Colville Reservation in 1872 provided an excuse to see them as foreigners on their own land.

Fleming and his party were guided expertly to Three Valley Lake by an older Sinixt man named Baptiste. Just west of where Baptiste left them, they met Gustavus Blin Wright who was building a wagon road through the Eagle Valley to the Big Eddy. By 1884, that road would be complete. By November 1885, when the Last Spike of the CPR railway was driven, Wright had constructed a toll bridge over the Columbia River and the town of Farwell (later Revelstoke) would have been build, burned down and rebuilt. For the Sinixt, nothing would be the same again.

The Sinixt continued to come to the Revelstoke area, often camping on islands in the river to avoid settlers. Settler newspapers were hostile, accusing the Sinixt of being foreigners who overhunted in the area. Still Sinixt continued to come to Revelstoke in the fall for their usual hunting and fishing, and at least in 1886-1887 they overwintered just west of the Big Eddy.

One Sinixt man, ‘Jim’ (likely not his real name), worked for a rancher named Thomas Reid for eight months at Hall’s Landing around 1886. Jim must have watched the continued encroachment of settlers and their claims of holding ‘private property’ with alarm. Once, he challenged a settler named Evan Johnson who had established a farm near Beaton, but Johnson drove him off.

On May 11, 1894, Jim and his wife, Adeline, canoed to Galena Bay and met a settler named Sam Hill. According to Hill, Jim asked him what he was doing and Hill explained he was planting potatoes. Jim replied that if Hill “planted potatoes back there he would take them; that this was his land; that Evan Johnson had stolen his land at the head of the Arm and I was trying to steal this. But he said I wouldn’t. He would kill me first. Hill said, “Go to the Tyee (Chinook jargon for chief) at Revelstoke. He said he did not care for my Tyee but wanted me to go to his.”

When Jim and Adeline returned that afternoon, Jim reportedly said, “I told you to get away from here.” Hill said he wouldn’t. Both men grabbed their guns. As Adeline later testified in Hill’s trial, Jim was holding the gun with the muzzle pointing up and to the left, when Hill fired his gun. Jim ran away toward some trees and Hill fired again, wounding him. When Jim staggered and fell to the ground, Hill shot him dead. Hill turned himself in to the justice of the peace.

The newspapers strongly backed Hill. An article in The Kootenay Mail, entitled “Killed an Indian: Sam Hill sends a bullet through the heart of ‘Cultus Jim,’ began:

The Columbia River and its tributaries have for generations past been the hunting grounds of a certain tribe of Indians now known as the “Colville Indians.” Colville is in the domain of Uncle Sam, and these Indians have no right, or little, to cross the boundary and hunt in British Columbia. But in view of the fact that their forefathers hunted here and looked upon both shores of the Columbia as their own especial preserves, great laxity has always been allowed them, and they hunted for two hundred miles up the river from their own reservations at Colville. The camp of this tribe was right here in Revelstoke last summer, and they killed cariboo and smaller game all through close season, which white men are not permitted to do.

Hill was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

After the trial, Adeline went south. Remarkably, she lived to be 106 years old, passing away in 1978. She always kept her language and inspired her great-granddaughter, LaRae Wiley, a prominent nsyilxcen language teacher, to learn it. She is also the great-grandmother of Patti Bailey, who taught cedar harvesting and basket weaving in Revelstoke.

After Jim’s death, the newspapers printed sensational stories with allusions to murderous Sinixt. In April 1895, the Kootenay Mail carried a long, editorializing article entitled “Dangerous Colvilles: They should be Interdicted in British Columbia.” The article described efforts by J.F. Hume, MLA for West Kootenay South, to prevent Sinixt people from hunting in B.C. The article, if read from today’s perspective, described attempts by Sinixt to assert their rights to land by the current Revelstoke airport, at Beaton, near Shelter Bay and even on an island in the river near Revelstoke.

In 1896, the B.C. government passed An Act to Amend the Game Protection Act, making it “unlawful for Indians not resident of this Province to kill game at any time of the year.” As Sinixt were increasingly moving to the United States for their own protection, this law meant that if they hunted in Canada they could be arrested and possibly prevented from crossing the border.

Largely because they were considered foreign, the Sinixt were not given a reserve when reserves were allocated in the late 1800s. In 1902, the B.C. government established a tiny reserve of less than one square kilometre on marginal land south of Burton on Lower Arrow Lake. The Arrow Lakes Reserve had no road, no school, no governing structure and was socially incohesive. The government agent tried but failed to persuade Sinixt to move there from land that was more meaningful to them so membership remained low.

Unsurprisingly, the reserve was unsuccessful. Band members moved or passed away. In 1953, Annie Joseph, the last remaining band member, who was then living at Head of the Lake Reserve north of Vernon, died. In 1956 the federal Indian Commissioner declared the Arrow Lakes Band – and, by implication, the Arrow Lakes people – to be extinct in Canada. At that point, 257 members of the Colville Confederated Tribes (CCT) were registered as Lakes (Sinixt) and hundreds were living elsewhere, including the Okanagan Valley.

The return

The Sinixt were never extinct and continued to recognize their lands in Canada as their homeland. Over the years, efforts were made to protect ancestral sites, beginning at Vallican in the Slocan Valley, in 1989, when an ancient village and burial site was threatened by road construction. Most Sinixt returned to Washington after the blockade but some stayed around Vallican and are known as the Autonomous Sinixt, separate from the Colville Confederated Tribes.

In 2006, the CCT created the position of Arrow Lakes Facilitator, a diplomatic role designed to build relations and act as a liaison in traditional Sinixt territory in Canada. Jim Boyd, then Virgil Seymour, and now Shelly Boyd filled that role, making friends and working with organizations up and down the valley, including Revelstoke.

In 2010, the tribal government sent a traditional hunter, Rick Desautel, into Canada to harvest an elk, with the hope of being arrested. The goal was to test Sinixt rights to hunt in Sinixt traditional territory in Canada and, by implication, to begin to challenge the extinction. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada which decided, this past April, in favour of the Sinixt. The text message from the CCT lawyer, Mark Underhill, read “Welcome home.”

The next seven generations

Looking forward to the next seven generations, where will Revelstoke be? This town is heavily reliant on old growth logging, at least for a few more decades when trees planted in the 1960s are ready for harvest. If the pace of old growth logging doesn’t slow, we are at real risk of losing our ancient natural heritage, especially the low-land ecosystems that take hundreds of years to develop. We won’t be able to even imagine, or show our children, what ancient, biodiverse forests look like.

Revelstoke is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels. With no good options for public inter-city transportation, every tourist arrives in a car or tour bus. Heli-skiing/boarding/biking/hiking, snowmobiling and dirt biking are growing activities. If we are serious about reducing our fossil fuel footprint and reducing climate change, we may need to think creatively and set limits on these activities.

In recent years, Secwepemc, Syilx and Ktunaxa bands have shared their considerable expertise to inform logging practices, help save mountain caribou, and protect archaeologically and culturally-sensitive sites. The Sinixt, who had a long and strong attachment to this area, have much to share and need to be part of this discussion. All these nations have worked together on cross-border efforts to ensure that the updated Columbia River Treaty considers ecosystem function as a value, along with flood control and electricity generation. They are also working together to bring anadromous salmon back up the river.

By listening to and working with the First Nations who successfully stewarded this land and rivers for centuries, by showing restraint, we might restore healthy ecosystem function on this beautiful land. Future generations will thank us for it.

Laura Stovel is a writer and the author of three books who has a strong interest in environmental and social justice issues. She grew up in Revelstoke but has also lived, worked and travelled in many countries around the world.