By Eileen Delehanty Pearkes
First published in The North Columbia Monthly, spring 2017
In early spring, the snow melts back, exposing a landscape hidden for several months. A favourite walk in the woods, through a garden or along the river reveals forgotten treasures: a moss-covered rock, the tracing of a pathway, bits of astonishing green lichen, the first spears of a flowering bulb. It’s a surprising time.
Seventy years after its completion, “Aboriginal Economy and Polity of the Lakes (Senijextee) Indians,” by Dr. Verne Ray, has finally been published. A fascinating endnote to the article by Madilane Perry explains the long period of winter dormancy between completion and publication.
Born in 1905, Ray lived to his 98th year. Across the span of the 20th century, he authored or edited 52 books about the indigenous people of the northwest. A professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, he produced material that served as a model of research for the Indian Land Claims Commission, formed by a 1946 act of Congress. The commission heard or was involved in 53 cases involving 44 tribes across the country, as the post-WWII American society came to terms with the broken promises or absence of acknowledgment of land title rights of indigenous peoples.
Beginning in the 1930s, and until 1953, Ray interviewed several Sinixt (Lakes) men and women, including Joe Adolph, Jerome Nichols, and, in particular, the last chief to serve in the traditional way of the tribal government, James Bernard. This recording of cultural information by non-native people was part of a ‘salvage’ process engaged in during the first half of the 20th century, when non-native scholars and anthropologists realized that a great deal of history and culture was about to disappear.
The Sinixt people Ray interviewed had living memory of the traditional shape of their tribal culture. They knew and understood the mountain valleys to the north of the international boundary not as Canada, but as Lakes homeland. They attended the salmon ceremonies and fisheries at Kettle Falls. Ray drew on this font of memory to name and map Sinixt villages. He sketched a researcher’s picture of the tribe that he says lived each summer in the center of the great Kettle Falls salmon fishery, on an island just upstream of today’s bridge across the Columbia.
Spring is always a time for a fresh look. As familiar as I am with the cultural material of Lakes people, I still have so much to learn. When Ray’s long-shelved essay was finally published, found myself pulled in to the array of details. There is always something to learn about the place where we live, about the Indigenous cultural practices that grow out of the land itself.
During summers spent on the island beside Kettle Falls, the Lakes people lived in a world where salmon taken from the falls were distributed equally to all those present. This distribution was not due to abundance, but because of a cultural and economic law requiring it. As commercial fishing downstream, and then the construction of a coffer dam in preparation for Grand Coulee, greatly reduced the number of returning fish, the fewer and fewer fish that returned continued to be shared equally.
Those interviewed told Ray about caribou hunts “in the plains around the lakes,” a reference to the extensive Columbia River floodplain between the two Arrow Lakes, a fertile landscape permanently flooded and destroyed, now Columbia River Treaty storage reservoirs. Hunters travelling north or into the mountains came with women who could scrape and tan hides on the spot. When they returned, the meat was always equally divided among the family or village. Waterfowl hunters used “blinds” made of tule fronds and preferred ducks and geese over swans. The preferred way to trap groundhogs involved flooding their holes. Snares were common for capturing grouse and rabbits.
Many of these details are matters of curiosity for today’s reader. Yet, they offer hints of the upper Columbia’s former beauty and abundance, and speak of a culture that understands how working together in harmony supports prosperity. Ray’s intricate descriptions of Sinxt/Lakes governance structures are fascinating. At a time when the world today seems caught up in polarizing debates that often deepen differences between people, we can learn from the tribal model Ray describes.
The chief of the tribe was once appointed through a loosely hereditary line. When a chief died and a new one was needed, his sons were generally considered first, but if no likely male fit the bill, daughters and sisters in the chief’s family would be weighed for their ability. A chief’s actual authority was, according to Ray, “meager.” These men or women led the tribe through their strength of personality or moral character, rather than through force. Ray heard about one woman, whom they say was born in the early 1800s and had been an effective chief. She may have been in charge around the time of First Contact with Europeans. Her son Gregory, or “Gregoire” assumed the position after her death. He appears frequently in the written record of the Fur Trade world of the 1830s-1850s, and was widely admired for his leadership skills.
A small council, chosen for their good judgment, helped the chief lead. They advised him and helped him test the alignment of public opinion. At the heart of Sinixt political structure was the broad tribal assembly. This gave all members of the group an equal voice in important affairs. Group discussions among tribal members carried on at great length. Decisions would be made by acclimation, and only after a full airing of opinion. As long as people talked they did not fight, one elder told Ray. This valuing of all opinion contributed to a general feeling of the people. It was this feeling that emerged and determined the outcome of any affair.
At a public event in Vancouver, B.C. to promote my book, A River Captured, I facilitated a discussion among audience members about how changes to the Columbia River Treaty might result in different ways of managing the water in the international river system. Audience members held a variety of opinions and enjoyed the process of speaking up. I left with a renewed sense that everyone should have a chance to voice the value of the place where they live, no matter how long the meeting might last.