On April 23, 2021, in a strong 7-2 majority opinion, the Supreme Court of Canada restored Sinixt Aboriginal Rights in Canada. This highly visible decision was the tip of an iceberg for efforts made by Sinixt people over more than a century. The Sinixt never forgot who they were, or the land from which they emerged, even when their ability to their upper Columbia River homeland was declared illegal – by a colonial government, Canada.
Reflections on Sinixt Advocacy
My own work to raise consciousness about the Sinixt and their cultural landscape spans a quarter-century. It began in a humble, personal way, and grew more and more public with the 2002 publication of The Geography of Memory. The cultural and bureaucratic “extinction” of this tribe by the Canadian Government in 1956 has led to many mis-steps and misunderstandings in the broader culture. Over the years, I’ve written scores of short articles on Sinixt culture. Here is one about Sinixt governance, highlighting the important work of anthropologist Verne Ray in the 1930s. And another one, pointing out how the Sinixt were recently mis-identified in a biography of James Teit. My literary advocacy has come with the benefit of learning and being more aware of Sinixt cultural values, and the humour, liveliness and resilience of contemporary Sinixt people.
On April 23, early morning on the day the Supreme Court of Canada would bring down its decision to effectively reverse the extinction, I walked out into my home’s small garden. Though it is tucked into an oak woodland at the edge of a state park, I was nonetheless astonished to encounter a fox face-to-face on the path. Our eyes locked for several long moments before the reddish-brown animal darted gently away.
Why was I astonished? In Sinixt cosmology, Fox is Coyote’s brother. The Sinixt believe that only Fox has the power to restore Coyote, even if all that remains of the famous trickster is one small hair.
The symbolism was not lost on me. Fox appeared just at the time when Sinixt rights in Canada were fully restored.
After the call came and my jubilation (and relief) had sunk in, I reflected in conversation with a tribal leader, about about the effort so many Sinixt people have worked with Fox across many years, hoping to restore their cultural connection to their homeland and preserve their traditions. From the time of colonial contact, to the Canadian government’s declaration of extinction in 1956, to the Supreme Court victory, the Sinixt have wanted nothing more than the right to live in the place they love, to care for their ancestors, and to follow the cultural laws of care for natural systems that have long taken care of them.
My own interest in the Sinixt dates to 1997. During a camping trip to the north end of Kootenay Lake with my young family, I met a retired journalist living at Johnston’s Landing – Craig Weir. His own interest in Indigenous culture dated to many years before that, when he was digging a water line across the beach on the shores of Kootenay Lake. Weir upturned a trove of lithic material: arrow points, spear points, scrapers. The collection he showed me in summer, 1997, had mushroomed since his first discovery. He lined up dozens of finely crafted pieces, most of them a pale grey-green. “It’s argillite,” he said to me as I fingered a piece. “A type of chert. Ancient sea mud from a deposit high in the mountains above Kaslo. Near Milford Lake.”
For the rest of that summer, and the summer after that, I thought about those beautiful, green tools. I thought about how ocean floors can become mountaintops, and about this lasting, stone imprint of a First People’s culture on the land. We camped more often beside the lake and its West Arm. It was there that I first felt a powerful sense of the Sinixt and their story.
The book that resulted, The Geography of Memory demonstrates what happens when a feeling turns into a book. My writing has followed this tribe from extinction to recognition, from absence to presence. I may not live long enough to witness what happens next, but in my heart, I know what is coming: the full healing and reconciliation of the land not only with the Sinixt, but with all Indigenous people living around the globe. The healing will be cross-cultural, and it will change us all.
In the spirit of Fox, I speak now of the long arc of Sinixt self-advocacy, work of tribal members that is far more significant than my own. Their persistence, faith and integrity inspire continue to guide my path. The Sinixt have led an arduous resistance to being declared “extinct,” and they have done so against the odds. The following are a few highlights of their journey. May these stories carry all of us toward a justice that extends beyond the courtroom, away from all the paper and textual laws, to the natural laws that govern the fish, the plants, the four-leggeds, and all the other relations in our living world. Thank you, Fox, for showing us the way.
The long arc of Sinixt self-advocacy
1. The confluence of Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, around 1900:
The Christian Family, settled at the confluence for millennia, fought hard to be able to stay and protect the burials at a home they called kp’itl’els (‘people peel roots’). Antoinette Christian and her three children Baptiste, Alex and Marianne did what they could as the border closed more tightly. Baptiste Christian wrote letters to the Canadian Indian Agent.
….the government sold that land….[and] never [told] me….I was crying every day…I [planted] so [many] gardens that summer.Antoinette Christian, letter to James Teit 1912
“My place is and always has been an Indian settlement. We have never abandoned it and have continuously occupied it up to the present time….yet I am forced out of my inheritance …evidently quite unlawfully.”Alex Christian 1914
2. The Arrow Lakes Valley and Oatscott, 1902-53
The Canadian government sold the land at kp’itl’els to the Doukhobor people, and established a reserve at Oatscott on the Arrow Lakes in 1902. The reserve lands had no school, no road or ferry access, no medical services and no store. Annie (Klome) Joseph was one of the 26 people listed on the government band roles. She had been born to parents who lived on the Arrow Lakes for many years. Annie married Louie Joseph, and raised three sons on the reserve.
Annie’s husband and sons all died. In the 1930s, she went to the Okanagan Indian Band to live with relations. But she did not forget who she was, or where she was from. When she learned that the government had allowed logging on the Oatscott Indian Reserve in 1943 without telling her, she fought for justice. In two letters to Indian Agent Andrew Irwin in 1944, she wrote:
“I want you to give me the [amount] of the timber and an estimate [of the value]. I think I am the only [remaining] member from that Reserve…. I should [know] if the timber is sold on that reserve.”
From my notebooks – an imagined understanding of the terrain near but not at Oatscott that would have been used traditionally by the Sinixt. Click to enlarge.
In the mid-1930s, an anthropologist and linguist named William Elmendorf travelled to the Spokane Indian Reservation in northeastern Washington. He was there to do research with Spokane tribe. When he asked for an interpreter, he was led to a highly intelligent woman who spoke English, Spokane, and her own language, Sinixt. As she translated for him, she talked also of her people’s culture along the upper Columbia River and its tributaries. Over two summers, Elmendorf filled notebooks. Her advocacy for her people’s distinct culture included a memoir, titled In the Stream.
4. Land surveys and the 1956 Extinction
Annie Klome Joseph died in 1953. As the last person listed in Canadian government records as being an original member of the 1902 “Arrow Lake Band,” her death paved the way for the bureaucratic ‘extinction’ of the band in Canada.
At that time, the government was surveying and planning for Columbia River Treaty (CRT) dams to be constructed in Sinixt territory. After construction, these dams flooded 90% over of the tribe’s archaeological record north of the boundary. As an historian and human being, I believe that the timing of the extinction was not a coincidence.
5. A journey to Victoria, 1972
Charlie Quintasket, a Sinixt man living on the Colville Reservation in Washington State, travelled to the British Columbia capital of Victoria, in an effort to make “the crown,” or the government, aware of the continued existence of the Sinixt. While he was there, he met researchers who gathered from him and the historical record important and valuable information about the Sinixt, their culture and their nearly-forgotten history. This information also came from the Marchands, the Louie family and others. It formed the spine of printed research on these people, and helped me form The Geography of Memory.
1. First Nations; Ethnography and Ethnohistory in British Columbia’s Lower Kootenay Columbia Hydropower Region, compiled by Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy.
2. Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of B.C. and Washington by Nancy J. Turner, Randy Bouchard and Dorothy Kennedy.
6. Protecting burials, 1989
The Sinixt living in the United States, as the Arrow Lakes tribe of the Colville Reservation, learned of burial remains being disturbed during road building at Vallican, in the Slocan Valley, B.C. Sinixt people crossed the boundary that summer, to set up a protest camp that was successful in protecting further burials. The government refused to give the disturbed remains back to them, because they were extinct. They enlisted the help of Marilyn James, an Indigenous woman living in the U.S. who had status in Canada through the Okanagan Indian Band. The summer of controversy and the reburial of the remains began to raise the profile of Sinixt rights in Canada.
7. In-between-times, 1990s
Robert Watt, appointed by the tribe to continue caretaking the Vallican burial site, contested a Canadian Immigration order of deportation. He succeeded, but a definitive decision on cross-border rights for the Sinixt was not made at that time. The immigration officer handling the case explained that restoring Sinixt rights to cross the border undeterred was far outside his jurisdiction.
8. Planning the test case, 1995 – 2008
The 3500 Sinixt living in the U.S. continued to discuss how they might be able to force the government to reinstate their rights. In 2008-9, Stuart Rush, a Vancouver lawyer, attended strategy workshops hosted by the Colville Confederated Tribe. A deliberate and careful strategy emerged and was put into action:
- Develop a test case in which a member would be charged under Canadian law for exercising his aboriginal right to hunt. Joe Peone, Rick Desautel and other members of the CCT Department of Fish and Wildlife studied B.C. game populations so that the animal chosen to hunt had healthy populations.
- Create a leadership position for the work in Canada and call it the Arrow Lakes Facilitator (Jim Boyd 2009 – 12; Virgil Seymour 2013-16; Shelly Boyd 2016 – present)
- Create a non-profit society for the Arrow Lakes people (Jim Boyd – 2009)
9. The Charge, 2010
Richard Desautel hunted an elk in Canada without a license. The provincial government charged him. He pleaded “not guilty” – based on his aboriginal rights, under Section 35 of the Canadian constitution. I was in the Castlegar courtroom that day, watching him stand firmly and quietly against the government. It would be 10 long years before the case completed.
Madeline Desautel, Richard (Rick) Desautel’s grandmother, who, he testified at trial, taught him how to listen for his guardian spirit.
- Read more about what I witnessed at the trial
- Read the judgements:
- Kootenay Time #4 Rumours of Extinction – Bob Keating was the voice of the CBC radio in Nelson BC and surrounding communities for many years. After he retired, he created this podcast, with an episode the focusses on the many years he followed the Sinixt story. It’s worth a listen.
- Bob Keating Interview with Rick Desautel on CBC, 2010
10. The Court Battle 2016-21
Between 2010 and 2016, both sides prepared their legal arguments and assembled expert testimony. For the Sinixt, the work was time-consuming, but not difficult. The court requires historical record and maps as well as oral history as proof – from 1811 (first contact) to 1846 (the start of the International Boundary). The written record provides a lot of that, and makes very clear that the Sinixt are telling the truth when they claim a singular, long and firm connection with the Canadian portion of their traditional territory: from Kettle Falls, Washington north to Revelstoke; Rock Creek east to Kootenay Lake. Four separate courts ultimately confirmed that these are the First People of the upper Columbia River region in Canada.
Figure 9 Ross, 1821, Detail. British Library, Add. MS 31,358 B. Detail shows Sinixt [Sin Natch Eggs] territory and village (“Sin-natch-eggs Nation”), apparently the headquarters of the Tribe. Also indicated are mountain sheep in the Selkirk Mountains and both Arrow Lakes. This detail is taken from the actual, original Ross map in the British Library.
This map shows the present-day Colville Confederated Tribes reservation in northeastern Washington, as well as the traditional territories of all the 12 tribes resident there, including the Lakes, or Sinixt. Image courtesy of the Colville Confederated Tribes