The Sinixt: A people without recognition in their own home

In 1956 the Canadian government declared the Sinixt people, extinct. There was only one problem – they were still alive.

In 1956 the Canadian government declared the Arrow Lakes Indian Band, the Sinixt people, extinct. There was only one problem – they were still alive. Although none lived at the Oatscott Reserve just south of Burton, some Sinixt still lived in Burton and Edgewood. But the government was about to begin negotiations with the U.S.A. for the Columbia River Treaty that would dam the Columbia and create a reservoir stretching from Castlegar in the south to Revelstoke in the north. It would seem that the Sinixt extinction was politically expedient. This 200 kilometre long lake would eventually wipe out nearly all archaeological traces of a culture that had endured for over five thousand years (Sinixt means “people of the Bull Trout”).

About 3,500 years ago the Sinixt began building semi-permanent winter villages using pit houses, the original geothermally heated homes. This was made possible when they began drying fish in large numbers for their winter food supply. During spring, summer and fall, the Sinixt were mostly nomadic, moving to different parts of their territory to pick berries, dig roots or hunt game. At these times, they lived in tipi-like structures covered in tulle mats, tightly woven mats made from tulle or cattail leaves.

Because of their relative geological isolation and permanent villages, the Sinixt developed complex social and political structures based on matrilineal lines. Women owned the houses and other material goods and all major decisions concerning tribal life were under the jurisdiction of a council of elder women. Men could be hunting, fishing and war chiefs, but only during the period of such activities.

The main fishery for the Interior Salish peoples was at Kettle Falls on the Columbia in present day Washington State. Seven different nations used this fishery to gather their winter supply of salmon. The Sinixt controlled this fishery by designating who fished where and how many fish could be taken on any given day. It was the job of the fish chief to assure that the salmon returned every year in numbers sufficient to feed all these people. At the end of the fishing season, the Sinixt would return to their northern territory with enough dried salmon to get them through the winter.

When the first miners and settlers arrived in the Arrow Lakes, many Sinixt left their traditional territory to escape persecution and murder. Remember that many of the miners coming into this territory came from the California gold rush, and there was a general consensus at the time that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” In Washington State, the Colville Reservation was established in the late 1800s but none was established in Canada until 1911. It was safer for the Sinixt in the U.S. as they were afforded at least some protection.

Many Sinixt settled on the Colville Reservation but many also moved to the Okanagan, the Shuswap and the East Kootenays. But the Indian Act of Canada says that if you move to another territory, you lose your status and become a member of the host nation. Many Sinixt who moved were then designated Okanagan, Shuswap or Kootenai. Some even moved as far away as Queen Charlotte Island but most stayed among the Interior Salish speaking nations, which accounts for some of the claims laid to this territory by other tribes – many of their ancestors were Sinixt and some have living memory of living in this territory.

In the early 1980s an ancient native village site was discovered at Vallican, in the Slocan Valley. Initial archaeological findings dated the site to about 3,500 years, with continuous occupation until about 100 years ago. The site was the largest untouched native village site in B.C. at the time with over 60 cultural depressions (the remains of pit houses, food stashes, etc). Since then, a site near Lemon Creek was discovered with over 90 cultural depressions.Both sites were designated Interior Salish in origin.

Local citizens formed The Vallican Archaeological Society and petitioned the government to purchase the land, which was part of a subdivision scheduled for sale. The land was purchased by the BC Heritage Branch to protect it. When, in 1989, the Ministry of Highways decided to build a road beside the site, with a new bridge to cross the Little Slocan River, many locals thought this was inappropriate to the site preservation.

A delegation drove down to the Colville Reservation in Washington State to meet with Sinixt elders to explain the situation. It was decided at that meeting that it was time for the Sinixt to return to their village site and the northern part of their traditional territory to look after their sacred burial site.

Many of their ancestors’ remains had been carted off to Museum vaults and had been dug up by some locals as souvenirs. Sinixt have a duty to their ancestors to take care of their remains. Thus the Sinixt returned to the Slocan Valley to try to stop a road from possibly disturbing more of their village and to petition the government for the return of the bones of their ancestors. After several years the government decided to return the bones for reburial but the Sinixt were considered extinct so they had to be returned to a recognized band, the Okanagan, who the Sinixt consider a cousin tribe.

The Sinixt returned to their traditional territory in 1989 after almost 50 years in exile. Their territory includes mainly the Slocan and Arrow Lakes valleys, with 80 per cent of their territory north of the 49th parallel. The U.S.A. recognizes them as Sinixt but the Canadian government does not. It has been a long struggle to establish their place in the social structure in Canada in spite of their extinct status. For the past 25 years they have petitioned the courts to try to regain their native status but, with the Columbia River Treaty coming up for renegotiation, it seems unlikely that the government of Canada will be willing to admit to their error in declaring the Sinixt extinct in the first place.

-Cliff Wolfendon