Ties that bind: The Supreme Court recognizes Sinixt rights in Canada

'As the people gathered here well know, this Supreme Court victory marks one small step on the road to justice and reconciliation.'

A small group gathered at the confluence of Tum Tum Creek and the Columbia River. Among them were (from left to right) Verena Blasy, Pat Sieber (behind Blasy), Claire Sieber with her son, Omid, Erin England, Peter Oosterhoff and Michelle Cole. Photo: Laura Stovel

It was 6:45 on the morning of April 23, 2021. A trio of wood ducks and a merganser couple pecked for food around the sandspit where Tum Tum Creek greets the Columbia River. Mount Cartier and the Albert Peaks, still brilliant with snow, shone in the distance.

These are the constants: the migrations, mountains, snow-fed streams and rivers that have existed for millennia. Long before the first white men canoed up the Columbia River in 1811, just over 200 years ago, indigenous people, in particular Sinixt, knew mornings much like these in this place called Skxikn̓tn (pronounced sku-hee-kin-tin), now known as the Big Eddy.

Traditional canoe scholar Shawn Brigman paddles in a traditional sturgeon-nosed canoe that he built as he awaits the Supreme Court decision at Kettle Falls. In the background is Kelly Hill where many Sinixt first settled when they were pushed out of B.C.

Nearby, on this chilly morning, a small group gathered, waiting. Soon a text would arrive with the outcome of a decision from the Supreme Court in Ottawa that would or would not recognize the right of Sinixt people to practice their culture, including hunting, on their traditional territory in B.C. Canada’s highest court would effectively decide whether the federal government’s 1956 declaration that the Sinixt (Arrow Lakes People) are extinct in Canada still stands.

Those waiting at the mouth of the Tum Tum reflected on this moment, knowing that 360 kilometres south, at Kettle Falls, Washington – once among the biggest fisheries of North America – another gathering was taking place. There, at the old sharpening stone, near the ancient Kettle Falls fishery (now submerged by the Lake Roosevelt reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam), Sinixt also gathered and waited. According to Rodney Cawston, Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Sinixt (sn̓ʕaýckstx) Confederacy, they had been there since 6 a.m., praying and singing, preparing to hear the news.

Rick Desautel, the traditional Sinixt hunter who shot and killed an elk in B.C. in 2010 with the goal of being cited under the B.C. Wildlife Act, listens to the words of lawyer Mark Underhill during the gathering at Kettle Falls. Desautel’s actions, and the four court cases that followed, including the Supreme Court decision announced on Friday, established Sinixt rights to be recognized in B.C. and Canada. Behind Desautel is Shelly Boyd, Arrow Lakes facilitator, who travelled to Ottawa with Desautel for the Supreme Court hearing.

Right on time, the anticipated text arrived from Mark Underhill, the Vancouver-based lawyer who led the defence’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. “Welcome home,” it read simply.

By the Tum Tum, the sounds of whooping and rejoicing could be heard, followed by silence as the significance of the decision began to sink in. Michelle Cole pulled out her drum, carefully wrapped in a kerchief given to her by the late Sinixt elder, Eva Orr. Her hair was covered by another of Orr’s head scarfs and the drum was a gift from Orr’s family after her death.

Cole drummed a steady beat as the weight of the past and relief of the moment intermingled. So many wrongs to right. So many relationships to build and cherish. This is a blessing and an opportunity. Tears fell and an eagle soared in a perfect, cloudless sky.

Those present offered tobacco to the land. Cole drummed again: The Gratitude Song, written by her sister, Jackie Cole, in the language of their Haudenosaunee ancestors. “Nya he nyaho nyaho nyaweh,” she sang.

Rick Desautel, a traditional hunter of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington (right), and Mark Underhill, the lead lawyer for the Colville Confederated Tribes, and attorney Kate Phipps at the Supreme Court of Canada. Photo: Shelly Boyd

Peter Oosterhoff then pulled out his wooden flute. His haunting melody voiced his own deep, spiritual connection with the land and his indigenous inspirations.

The flute reminded me of those who had passed on but who had contributed so much to this moment: Sinixt singer-songwriter Jim Boyd who became the first Arrow Lakes (Sinixt) facilitator sent north by the Colville Confederated Tribal Council to build relationships in Sinixt traditional territory in B.C.; Virgil Seymour, the second Arrow Lakes facilitator, who loved Revelstoke and never turned down an invitation to visit local schools. Both Boyd and Seymour passed away in June 2016.

Then there was Eva Orr herself, whose careful watch of the territory in the late 1980s led to the return of Sinixt to the Vallican area in the Slocan, initially to protest the construction of a road through an ancient village site. (A group of Sinixt, including Orr and led by Marilyn James, remained in the area and were the first to raise awareness of Sinixt history in this region). Boyd, Seymour and Orr were among the many ancestors, now passed, who cared for this land, and their presence was strongly felt in our circle.

The Supreme Court of Canada. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

As the music came to a close, we began to share our feelings. Claire Sieber, who was joined by her four-year-old son, Omid, said that as she listened to the music, she, “had the feeling that the land also felt a sense of relief, with the return of the people” who once stewarded it. “I really felt that in the movement of the trees and the eagle coming by. I felt the reparation of that relationship.”

For background on the Supreme Court of Canada case, see this story from revelstokemountaineer.com.

The meaning of belonging: Sinixt at the Supreme Court of Canada

Sieber’s mother, Pat Sieber, was with them. She had been a grade four teacher at the former Big Eddy School in the 1990s and taught about First Nations at the time. “I just wish I had known more about the occupation by First Nations in this area. It would have been so important for those students in the Big Eddy to know that. I knew the Sinixt were in the area and were not here any more but I didn’t know there had been an important settlement here.”

Holding a small, COVID-safe gathering was Cole’s idea. When she learned that the decision was coming, she said she “felt called to be here, to bring the drum, and to hold space for the people in Kettle Falls and the Slocan and the whole of the Sinixt peoples, to be an echo for their prayer so that it reached throughout their territory.”

“This is history in the making and it’s important history,” Cole said. “Messy history but really, really important. Something I’m grateful to see in my lifetime.”

For Verena Blasy, the decision also came as a relief. When she moved to Revelstoke 16 years ago, she asked about First Nations history. She was disappointed to be to told that “no one was here and the land was too snowy and too hard to live in. There was a real emptiness at the thought of there having been no people living here” before European settlement. “As I slowly learned more and more, I was heartened to learn that there were people living here and really frustrated to hear that we were denying their existence. I still have a lot of emotion and I don’t even know what this will look like going forward but it feels so momentous,” she said.

Lisa Moore said she was glad to be gathered in the place where the salmon ceremony is held every June and surrounded by people who know the significance of this time and place.

As the people gathered here well know, this Supreme Court victory marks one small step on the road to justice and reconciliation. But there are many more steps to come that require acknowledgement, genuine interest and grace by our public institutions, including the City of Revelstoke. They also need open minds to build mutually enriching relationships. Sinixt facilitators, backed by the Colville Confederated Tribal government, have already shown extraordinary generosity, especially to our schools, to me personally, and to the Revelstoke Museum and Archives. They have won many hearts in this town. Now it is time for our leaders to step forward, make the time to learn about this history, and reach out in friendship. Our lives and our institutions will be better for it.

Also by Laura Stovel: When place names honoured the land, an exploration of First Nations place names in the Revelstoke region.

When place names honoured the land

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.